Spring 2007 Newsletter
From the Director...
Dear Fellow Citizens:
Many people do not understand the important role that Congress plays in their lives. And they know little about how to communicate their needs and concerns to Congress, to help the national legislature be the responsive "people's branch" that the framers intended.
At the Center on Congress, we are waging an aggressive campaign to make the public more familiar with Congress' strengths and weaknesses, its role in our system of government, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day. This edition of our newsletter provides highlights of how we are working to teach Americans about Congress' vital role in our democracy, and to spur young people and adults to understand their obligations as citizens and take an active part in the governing of our nation.
I invite you to examine our resources and join in our effort to reinvigorate representative democracy in America.
With warm regards,
Lee H. Hamilton, Director
To give students an insider's view of representative democracy and help them understand their role as citizens, the Center on Congress is creating a new online learning environment, Virtual Congress.
Virtual Congress, an educational multiplayer online role-play game, will function much like the real Congress, with committees, floor action, amendments, back-and-forth discussions, input from constituents, and random events that can influence the legislative agenda.
Students from across the country will assume the roles of Members of the House and Senate, lobbyists, journalists, and constituents. As legislators in this virtual government, they will introduce bills and work to try to move their proposals through the various stages of the legislative process. They will receive opinions and requests from every direction: constituents, colleagues, and members of the press. This will all take place in a three-dimensional world, with re-creations of the House and Senate floors, committee rooms, legislative offices, and public meeting spaces.
Students in Virtual Congress will learn the mechanics of the legislative process, and they also will learn that successful legislating requires listening to different opinions and working out acceptable compromises among multiple viewpoints.
Further, they will learn that the essence of a successful representative democracy is communication. Because electronic communication has become a primary means for students to obtain and exchange information, it is a logical environment for them to practice the tools and rules of American democracy.
To ensure that Virtual Congress meets learning objectives, the Center is assembling a team of collaborators that includes experts in educational game design and social studies educators with expertise in areas such as curriculum integration, outreach to underserved populations, standards-based assessment methods, and formative evaluation.
Design and prototype work on Virtual Congress is under way and is expected to take one year, followed by two years of development work.
The project is made possible in part by a $300,000 grant from the MacArthur Foundation; a $100,000 grant from the AT&T Foundation; and a $50,000 grant from the Ogle Foundation. Additional support is being sought from other funding sources.
Teachers from California, Illinois and Tennessee are recipients of the 2007 American Civic Education Teacher Awards, recognizing their exemplary work preparing young people to become informed and engaged citizens.
Selected in a nationwide search, the ACETA winners are: Kevin Fox of Arcadia High School in Arcadia, California; Mary Ellen Daneels of Community High School in West Chicago, Illinois; and Barbara Simpson Ector of Cleveland Middle School in Cleveland, Tennessee.
The awards are given annually to elementary and secondary teachers of civics, government and related subjects who have demonstrated special expertise in motivating students to learn about the Constitution, Congress and public policy.
ACETA is sponsored by the Center on Congress, the Center for Civic Education, and the National Education Association.
Center on Congress Director Lee Hamilton praised Fox, Daneels and Ector for their commitment to "explaining the work of government in an engaging way, helping young people see that what goes on in Washington is relevant to their lives."
In presenting the awards, Hamilton said, "we also call public attention to the fact that many teachers across the nation are doing an excellent job molding the civic character of young people and training them to assume the obligations of citizenship."
The ACETA winners receive an all-expenses-paid trip to Washington in July to participate in an educational program that includes observing committee hearings in Congress, meeting members of Congress and other key officials, and visiting sites such as the National Archives and the U.S. Supreme Court.
"It is an honor to recognize three teachers who are so dedicated to giving their students a firm grasp of the fundamental values and principles of our constitutional system of government," said Charles N. Quigley, Executive Director of the Center for Civic Education.
Each year the ACETA program selects and showcases three teachers whose students represent the diversity of the American public and private school systems.
"For our democracy to succeed, each new generation must understand the principles on which America was built," said NEA President Reg Weaver. "These three teachers show extraordinary skill at making civics and history come alive for their students, giving them the knowledge they need to take an active role in shaping our nation's future."
Applicants for the awards must be full-time classroom teachers of grades K–12. There is no fee to apply. Applications and materials for the 2008 awards will be available online in January.
Center Teams with National Council for the Social Studies To Distribute Free Classroom Resources to Teachers
Representative democracy does not perpetuate itself. Every new generation of citizens must be taught to nurture it. But today's technology-savvy students won't stand for the plain-vanilla civics instruction of old. The Center on Congress is always looking for new ways to present information about Congress and civics to students who expect learning to be interesting and relevant.
The Center consults closely with education professionals to determine how to teach civics effectively. We know that busy social studies teachers have a particular need for high-quality, standards-based supplementary resources that are easy to access and integrate into the curriculum. To address that need, the Center, with assistance from the National Council for the Social Studies, is doing a nationwide free distribution of a DVD containing one of the Center's most innovative teaching tools: animated, shortFacts of Congress videos that are designed to explain to middle school students some key concepts about Congress and representative government in an entertaining way.
On the free DVD for teachers are 30 one-minute videos, covering five main areas: History of Congress, Definitions, How Things Work, Impact of Congress, and Civic Participation. Topics covered range from "Compromise," and "Checks and Balances," to "Citizen Participation," and "How Congress Affects You."
Also in the mailing to teachers is information on another resource to help make learning about civics an adventure: the Democracy Kids website (www.democracykids.org). This highly interactive site includes crossword puzzles, quizzes, games, surveys, selectedFact of Congress videos, and examples of young people who got involved and made a difference. Activity themes include a "day in the life" of a member of Congress, the impact of government on our daily lives, seeing legislators as "real people," and many more.
Although the Democracy Kids activities are fun for kids, they are also instructionally sound and standards based — developed by social studies content experts and classroom teachers, along with an NCSS advisor. Democracy Kids is a project of the Center on Congress, the Center for Civic Education, and the National Conference of State Legislatures.
The Facts of Congress videos and Democracy Kids are both accessible from the Center's main web site, www.centeroncongress.org. There teachers, students and citizens can find a wealth of resources for learning about the operations and significance of Congress, including classroom materials and lesson plans that are aligned to state civics and government standards and available free of charge.
To encourage the media to pay more attention to the federal budget's impact on every American, the Center on Congress brought together prominent experts to explain the complicated budget process to journalists, and to give reporters tips on producing stories that will help citizens see how spending and taxing decisions in Washington, D.C., affect local communities.
"The media have a special responsibility to expose and explain the budget process and other workings of government to a general audience," said Center Director Lee Hamilton. "Good journalism is at the heart of making democracy work. It can educate the people, help them make better-informed and more discerning judgments."
The Center partnered with the National Press Foundation and the Regional Reporters Association to host a half-day seminar, "Covering the Federal Budget in a Democratic Congress," in Washington on Jan. 22.
This seminar is part of the Center's continuing effort to reach out to journalists. A year ago in Washington, the Center hosted its inaugural "how to" seminar on covering the budget. In 2005 in Indianapolis, the Center brought together Indiana reporters and editors for a seminar on how to improve the quality of local media coverage of Congress. The National Press Foundation has collaborated with the Center in all three programs.
This year, spending and taxing decisions for the nation are being worked out by a divided government — a Republican president and a Democratic-controlled Congress. Hamilton challenged the journalists at the seminar "to convey to your audience that the needs of a democratic society are best served when there is tension and strong interaction between the two policy-making branches of government. The legislative branch should play a more active role in shaping the budget. For too long, Congress has ceded too much influence in budgeting to the executive branch."
The seminar featured presentations by veteran insiders of the budget process on Capitol Hill, including:
— Joseph Minarik, Senior VP and Director of Research at the Committee for Economic Development, and a former top staffer with the House Budget Committee and the Office of Management and Budget.
— Tom Kahn, Staff Director of the House Budget Committee.
— David Pomerantz, Deputy Staff Director of the House Appropriations Committee.
— Donald Wolfensberger, Director of the Congress Project at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, and former Chief of Staff of the House Rules Committee.
Also, a pair of journalists with years of experience covering the budget — David Espo of the Associated Press and Janet Hook of the Los Angeles Times — offered advice and tips and took audience questions moderated by Suzanne Struglinski, a reporter for theDeseret Morning News and president of the Regional Reporters Association.
Center Director Lee Hamilton has announced the formation of a new Board of Advisors whose members will volunteer their expertise to help the Center expand its efforts to improve the public's knowledge of Congress and promote citizen engagement.
"These are successful, experienced individuals who recognize how important it is that Americans understand our basic institutions of government and their obligations as citizens," said Hamilton. "The Board of Advisors' broad experience will help us develop new ways to reach and inspire our citizens – especially our young people – to take an active part in revitalizing representative government in America."
The members of the Board of Advisors are: Vice Chairman Mark D. Cowan, Anita R. Estell, Penelope S. Farthing, Clifford S. Gibbons, The Honorable William F. Goodling, The Honorable William H. Gray III, Dr. David A. Hamburg, Dal LaMagna, Reta J. Lewis, Robert H. McKinney, The Honorable Edward A. Pease, Robert Raben, Steve Ricchetti, Terrence D. Straub, and Jeffrey C. Viohl. Hamilton chairs the group.
The new Board of Advisors joins the existing 22-member Academic Advisory Council in helping guide and support the work of the Center. Biographical information on all the advisors is available at www.centeroncongress.org.
The Board of Advisors was formally introduced at a May 1 reception on Capitol Hill at which the Center gave its Congressional Education Award to Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), Chairman of the House Committee on Ways and Means.
Hamilton said of Rangel, "He has a deep and abiding belief that we must invest in giving every American a good education, because he knows that an educated American has a better chance of securing productive work, and of making a positive contribution to family, community and nation."
Hamilton added, "We also honor Charlie for the time and energy he devotes to educating the American people about the work of Congress. To the average person, what goes on in Washington often seems distant and puzzling. In his many interviews with newspaper reporters and appearances on television programs, Charlie explains the work of Congress in an engaging way, helping citizens see that its work is relevant to their everyday life. Charlie knows well that politics is a contact sport. But he also talks a lot about the importance of seeking consensus, and working in a civil manner."
About the Center
The Center on Congress is a non-partisan, educational institution established in 1999 to help improve the public's understanding of Congress and to encourage civic engagement. The Center offers an extensive array of programs, projects and resources that foster an informed electorate which understands our system of government and participates in civic life. These include: print publications; Web-based, interactive modules and other online learning tools in English and Spanish; commentaries for newspapers, radio stations, podcasts and a Weblog; video and television in the classroom resources; survey research; teacher awards; and seminars, conferences, and a lecture series.
The Center on Congress
1315 E. 10th St.,Suite 320
Bloomington, IN 47405
Phone: (812) 856-4706 Fax: (812) 856-4703