Lesson Study: Presidential Power in a Time of Crisis

King Andrew The First, 1832:  Artist unknown

King Andrew The First, 1832: Artist unknown

I had the good fortune to work with teacher groups at Columbia River High School and La Center High School on related lesson studies this month.  Both groups were inspired to address the topic after attending our Constitutional Connections produced program with David Adler, Restoring the Constitutional Presidency (and influenced by several sessions with Will Harris of the Center for the Constitution, both at Montpelier and in Vancouver.)  Both groups used a similar set of documents, culled from two hundred years of US history, and implemented some similar teaching strategies, but applied them to different contexts.  In this entry, I’ll try to convey some of their learning process as well as a lesson plan you can adapt to your classroom context.

The Columbia River team was made  up of three teachers:  a history teacher (the demonstration lesson was done in two of his IB classes) and two language arts teachers, one of whom formerly taught a history/language arts block.  Their idea was to link the study to the Gulf of Tonkin episode.  Their student questions were:

How does the Constitution create a set of expectations for establishing foreign policy?  How should or might a crisis change these expectations?

Their teacher questions were:

How do students apply historical learning from throughout the year to a novel situation?  How does critical reading of literature add to the historical thinking?

The La Center team was made up of a history teacher (the demonstration lesson was delivered in two of her general ed classes) and another social studies teacher.  Their student target:

Consider and defend why presidential powers should – or should not – be expanded in a time of crisis.

Their teacher question was:

How can we support students’ application of difficult historical texts to a modern context?

The classroom strategy and flow of the lesson in both classes was markedly similar:

  1. Introduce the student question
  2. Review the framework for shared powers outlined in the Constitution.
  3. Provide individual students with primary documents and ask them to interpret those documents in light of the question
  4. Pair students with each other to deepen the reading of those documents.
  5. Introduce a crisis, with the teacher acting as President.  In Vancouver, this was done in the context of the Gulf of Tonkin (using a clip from The Fog of War – Scene 18 of the dvd, from 1:08 – 1:09:05); in La Center, it was done with a simulated crisis.  Students were asked to assume the role of their document’s author, acting as “guardian angels” to the president in the throes of crisis.  First, students sent a txt or Tweet to the President; next, they told the President what s/he should do in a whole group conversation.
  6. Finally, students wrote historical arguments regarding presidential powers, synthesizing multiple documents.

Both groups were committed to asking students to use texts they wouldn’t typically introduce.  For the La Center group, that meant a rare lesson build around primary documents.  While the River group was accustomed to using primary documents, they stretched by bringing fiction into the History classroom – asking students to access their readings of Bao Ninh’s The Sorrow of War and short stories by Tim O’Brien.  Both groups went to texts they thought would stretch beyond students’ capacity – Washington’s Farewell Address being a noted example.   Both groups struggled over whether or not to provide students with unabridged texts.  In addition, the role play/dramatic approach sat outside the norm for both teachers.

All teachers were enthusiastic about the approach.  Their students were excited about the flow of the lesson and the content.  The teachers were surprised by students’ ability to apply what they had previously considered to be overly complicated texts to a novel situation.  They found the txt/Tweet approach useful in asking students to identify and paraphrase big ideas in difficult texts.

In reconsidering the lesson for future implementations, the teachers realized the need for students to have a role when not “under the spotlight” when giving the President advice  – a key suggestion made by a principal observing the lesson.  Next time around, they decided, they would have students play the role of a cabinet member also able to hear the “White House ghosts.”  Not only would this have the effect of actively engaging students, it would result in a pre-writing exercise for their final paper.

Another surprise was the extent to which outside research derailed addressing the text in the document.  An example of that was Hamilton’s Federalist 75.  The teachers provided this excerpt:

The history of human conduct does not warrant that exalted opinion of human virtue which would make it wise in a nation to commit interests of so delicate and momentous a kind, as those which concern its intercourse with the rest of the world, to the sole disposal of a magistrate created and circumstanced as would be a President of the United States.

The students, however, portrayed the author as an advocate for unbridled executive power.  While Hamilton has been intepreted in this fashion, this exerpt does not lead to that interpretation.  Accordingly, the teachers revised their document analysis sheet to more carefully guide contextual research to further explore – rather then supplant – the document.

Considerable time went into the development of the lessons and debriefing thereafter.  The groups met independently to plan the lessons, then spent the day of the demonstration lessons observing and discussing the results.  After the last day of the school year, representatives of both groups – Tony Liberatore, Kathy Bounds, and Shawn Link – discussed their experiences to synthesize the lessons.

These teachers intend to continue to build this unit and the inherent strategies into their curriculum.  They hope to hear from other teachers about their experiences playing with these ideas in their classrooms.  Please use the comments section to keep the learning going!

Resources for teachers interested in implementing this or similar units:

Documents to consider:


2 responses to “Lesson Study: Presidential Power in a Time of Crisis

  1. Tony Liberatore

    This looks great. Thanks for putting it all together.

  2. Looks good. I echo Tony on your fine job! Thanks for everything Matt. You did a great job in leading our Lesson Study!

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