Sunday, June 19, 2011

Their final exam? Tutor an award-winning teacher

by Sharon Hessney
Mathematics teacher at the John D. O'Bryant School of Mathematics and Science

I have been a math teacher for fifteen years who has been awarded one of four 2011 – 2012 Capitol Hill Albert Einstein Distinguished Fellowships.  Our 2010 – 2011 school year ends at 1:45 pm on June 28th.  At 4:00 pm, I will be on a plane to Washington to commence three days of interviews with the offices of senators and congressman.  Based on these interviews, I will offered positions for the coming year.
I know much about mathematics (I probably won the position because I am a seasoned statistician), but what do I know about the operations of Congress?  Not much more than what I learned in high school and what I can glean from reading the newspaper.
I needed to get prepared.  But how?  Read a book?  Go on the internet?  Wikipedia? 
Fortuitously, I bumped into one of the graduating seniors just after she had completed her Advanced Placement United States Government exam.  I asked her for suggestions.  Together, we discussed how her class, taught by Dr. Jim Diskant, could brief me.  When, I discussed this with Dr. Diskant, he recommended that the class’ answering my questions about the workings of Congress could be the class’ final exam.  He prepared a list of preliminary questions.  As teams, they prepared their answers. 
On Tuesday, May 31 and Wednesday, June 1, I came to their class and fired away questions. 
• What is the basis in the Constitution for Congress to act on educational issues? 
• How does legislation move through Congress? 
• How do the committees operate? 
• How does the House of Representatives relate to the Senate? 
• What percentage of the votes are needed to pass legislation?  Does it matter what the content is of the legislation? 
Dr. Diskant called on groups in order to respond and rebut.  I could ask for clarification and offer follow up questions.
At the end of the first day, I left the students with two questions that I would ask the following day.
• What is the status of education legislation in Congress?
• Where would you recommend that I work – the Senate, the House, or an Education Committee, and why?
After two days, the students had clearly seen that what they had learned could be used in the “real world” – Ms. Hessney working on Capitol Hill.  I was not asking the questions to give them a grade, but, rather, because I needed this information for my upcoming interviews and for working on Capitol Hill next year.  The requirement for completeness and accuracy was so apparent. 
Also, the students got to see the tables turned.  Their teacher needed their knowledge. 
And, possibly, some day, they, too, would need this knowledge to do their jobs well.

Two juniors last week provided their reflections on the final:

One student explained:  "For our Advanced Placement United States Government and Politics class final, we had the honor of tutoring our very own Ms, Hessney, a winner of the Einstein Fellowship award. She will be working very closely with Congress next year, and the class of 15 students were able to do a sort of "question and answer" session to prepare Ms. Hessney for her job in Congress. It took two class periods, but I think we were all able to really help her prepare for the work she would experience once in Washington DC. It was a very interesting two days, as Ms. Hessney asked us question after question about the nitty gritty details of congress, a refresher to the rather difficult unit we took a few months back. Each of her questions took some of us by surprise, and it was interesting to see that she was very prepared, and that Ms. Hessney really studied up on her reading about Congress. The session was also really tiring in a positive way, having us look back and forth from our notes and textbook to answer her questions. Still it was a very fun way to remind ourselves about Congress and the U.S. government, and I am glad to have been able to partake in such an event."

Another student added:  “I am a junior in the AP Government and Politics class at the O'Bryant with Dr. Diskant. I believe the way that the final was given was a great way to express the class' knowledge on what we were taught.  When certain questions were asked I felt very confident in the information that I was given and the information that my peers were discussing. I think that having the final in this way helped me realize how politics work and it gave me a chance to be placed in a situation in which government advisers could be placed."
Hessney, a 2011-2012 Einstein Fellow, won the 2009 Presidential Award for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching.

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