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In Wisconsin, a legislative spotlight on high school civics education

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MIDDLETON, Wis. — The 10th grade classroom at Middleton High School hums as students take five minutes to caucus, look up statistics and trends in realtime, and convince their classmates as the room weighs whether or not to vote for a bill legalizing the death penalty.

It sounds like a day at the state capitol; in reality, it’s one of the state’s most celebrated high school civics courses, according to a leading education expert.

“This class helped me not only understand what I believed, but also all the topics and all the issues that politics covers,” student Aiden Whitson said, who presided over the mock legislature’s bill debate Monday.

Social studies teacher Megan Sipiorski has been teaching the class for most of the ten years that the course has taken place at MHS, first taken from curriculum developed by Chicago teachers.

“On the first day of class we really introduce it as, ‘You’re a member of the legislature, your job starts now,'” she explained.

Rather than memorizing facts in textbooks and taking quizzes, the semester-long 10th grade course forms a mock legislature and students run for office, vote on bills, develop legislation, and ultimately pass bills that the full legislature (comprised of 300 students from eleven classes taught by six teachers) will vote on in January.

Student legislators develop voting records and identify with a political party. Since the course’s inception, students themselves have suggested improvements that teachers have incorporated, Sipiorski said, like including special interest groups (senior tutors) and money in elections.

“It’s so rewarding because the students are so engaged,” Sipiorski said. “It’s really not driven by even the scores they’re getting or the grades they’re getting. It’s driven by them wanting to get their bill passed and run for office and be successful in the process.”

Monday, students had twenty minutes set on their legislative hearing agenda to debate the death penalty bill, taking breaks to caucus and attempt to win votes in between debating the merits and downfalls of the bill. They have to use credible sources when presenting evidence, and the resulting discussion is full of thoughtful insights from both sides. Ultimately, the bill fails to win approval and falls with only one vote in support.

“We’re at the point in the class where they choose their own topic and start writing their own piece of legislation,” Sipiorski said. “A lot of times that comes from personal experience and things they’ve become really passionate about in their own life, and that’s sparked so many great conversations between the students because they can share, ‘I chose prescription drug costs because I’ve seen my family struggle with the cost of medications,’ and other students really open up their eyes to issues they maybe weren’t aware of.”

Civics education in the legislature

A GOP-written bill has passed the Assembly and is awaiting a vote in the Senate that would create a statewide civics curriculum that all public and private school sin the state would have to follow, while requiring all public school students to take at least a half credit of civics education to graduate.

State educator experts support a civics requirement, but oppose the core of the bill that would give politicians control over curriculum rather than civics education experts.

“About 70% of students in Wisconsin are already in school districts that require such a course,” said Diana Hess, the Dean of Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison–and a former high school civics teacher herself.

“The concern about the bill is that it also talks about rules being promulgated about having a model curriculum. I think that’s a problem, because the way it works is those rules could end up being overseen by the legislature, and I think the worst case scenario is to have legislators write curriculum.”

There’s a lot of evidence about what comprises a high quality civics course, with one of the best models followed by a few schools around Wisconsin including MHS, she said.

“In a good civics class, students are learning about contemporary and often very controversial, real, authentic political issues and they’re learning how to talk about them with people who agree and disagree. And ideally, they’re forming an opinion on them,” she explained. Good teachers, she said, do it in a way that prioritizes students developing their own opinions–not following a teacher’s viewpoint.

“Civics generally gets a bad rap as being really boring. Students are memorizing a whole bunch of information that they’re kind of spitting back on tests. And there doesn’t seem to be a real relationship between what they’re learning and what they actually see happening in the political world in which they live,” Hess explained.

In Middleton, the class is all about the students: Sipiorski sat in the background of debate Monday, helping as needed while students ran the class.

“Any time I talk to other teachers at other schools, they’re a little nervous to let go of the textbook, and the teacher being up in front leading the lecture and the quiz on the textbook,” she explained.

“I feel like students take so much more away, especially longterm, from being able to live out the process themselves then they would from memorizing the amendments for a quiz–then maybe forgetting them the next day. So I think even though it can feel a little risky to put the students in charge and really empower them to take over, that it’s so much more rewarding in the end.”

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