by Prof. Robert Fyrst
By the end of each semester, my government students have learned one of my philosophical beliefs: Government works best when we all participate. Throughout the semester, I utilize a number of techniques to engage my students in being critical thinkers, to share their thoughts, and to look for ways to be an active part of our community. Their education should enhance their ability to better our world with their own thoughts and ideas.
During my course, there are two mandatory assignments and one optional, related extra-credit assignment. First, students must write a mid-term paper about an area of government they would like to see changed. Our students have diverse interests and using those individual interests can often be a great place to find a teachable moment. In addition, students must present to the class on their proposed change and engage in public debate about their change. Finally, the extra-credit option is for students to contact an elected or appointed official to share their change publicly and perhaps to get some feedback.
At the end of a semester, students present their change idea to their peers. Students have ten minutes to present the pro argument for making the change. Their peers are the general public and may support their proposed change, point out flaws in it, or flat out reject it. Students learn that issues are not two-dimensional; people of good conscious can respectfully disagree.
Most students prepare PowerPoint slides. These presentations may be simple text presentations. The level of presentation varies with the ability of the student. But presentation style is not a factor in grading. Being able to critically analyze a problem and to communicate that problem effectively to others is a factor of grading. Preparing PowerPoint slides is not the only method of meeting this challenge.
One student used the people in the room (instructor included) to demonstrate the disproportionate rate of incarceration for a particular offense. This student passed out cards instructing participants as to “their” personal stories. The participants were instructed to find others with similar stories. By the end of the student’s presentation, many students were convinced, there needed to be a change in the law.
Another student developed a YouTube video calling for an increase in the legislative salary rate for the Texas Legislature. (Follow the link: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkD7ptuH7rw) Although he makes a voice over error near the beginning, he communicates critical information to a wide audience in an engaging manner. His video provided humor, a problem to be solved, an explanation of why it is a problem, and a proposed solution. His peers were interested and had many pro and con statements to help improve the proposal.
The real test of these student presentations is to engage in public debate. Government works best when we all participate. So getting students to consider what they have learned in class about government principles and functionality and then to apply that knowledge to their contribution in improving government is a personal, social, and academic win for everyone.