Spring 2011 Newsletter

Message from the Director

 Lee H. Hamilton

During the dozen years that I’ve had the privilege to lead the Center on Congress, we have developed an array of resources and programs that reach out to a broad spectrum of Americans, helping them understand Congress, and teaching them how to communicate their concerns to Congress, so it may truly be the responsive “people’s branch” that the framers intended.

Working in partnership with other civic education organizations, with scholars at Indiana University and elsewhere in higher education, and with classroom teachers, we strive to teach people how to engage, how to get off the sidelines and into the action of their community, state, and nation. We aim to strengthen the civic knowledge and skills of Americans. 

This newsletter gives you a glimpse into several aspects of our work. The first item is about a particularly high priority for the Center — developing creative, interactive online tools for getting young people interested in Congress and citizenship. Our efforts on Oceana: A Virtual Democracy, and on Virtual Congress, reflect my belief that it is vital we explore new methods to promote civic learning. The importance of our task, the urgency of it, demands innovative thinking. 

Let me close by expressing my gratitude to Indiana University, to the Center’s Board of Advisors, and to the foundations, corporations and individuals who counsel us in our work, and who help provide the resources to pursue our goals. We must always be mindful that the survival of our democracy is never guaranteed; its success demands wisdom and action from American citizens.

Update on Oceana: A Virtual Democracy, and Virtual Congress

For six days in early June, 80 middle school students in Bloomington, Ind., tested Phase I of Oceana: A Virtual Democracy, the Center on Congress’s multiplayer video game that teaches young people the core skills necessary to be effective citizens in our representative democracy.

Oceana is a fictional island nation where students will engage with their peers to identify problems in their homeland, and then work together to find solutions. Whereas the goal of most multiplayer online games is to defeat your opponent, in Oceana the players do not succeed at the expense of others. Rather, they succeed by listening to others’ opinions, looking for points of agreement, and reaching compromise.

The Bloomington students began by completing a demographic survey and taking a pre-test of their knowledge of concepts to be introduced in Oceana. Students played the game for one class session per day for four days. They also participated in focus groups to share their game experiences and offer suggestions on the features they liked or disliked. Finally, students took a post-test of Oceana concepts. Observational and focus group data were extremely positive. The quantitative and qualitative information from the testing is now being analyzed, and will be used to refine Oceana as it proceeds toward broad classroom deployment, expected in 2012.

This spring brought an enhancement to Virtual Congress, which leverages the latest virtual world technology to immerse and engage students as members of a fully functional online replica of Congress. Now at http://centeroncongress.org/virtual-congress-2 there are videos giving viewers a virtual tour of the Capitol Building, the Rotunda, the House chamber, the Senate chamber, a member of Congress’s office in DC, and a member’s office back home. The videos provide a glimpse into the Virtual Congress experience as well as an overview of each location.

Designed primarily for use by high school classes, Virtual Congress allows students to introduce ideas for legislation, discuss them in-world with other student-members, and work to try to find common ground in order to move their proposals along. It connects with core social studies learning standards, such as understanding multiple perspectives, the government’s role in resolving differences, and our responsibilities as citizens, as well as core civic skills such as being able to articulate reasons for a point of view, critically analyze arguments, and work to develop consensus.

Virtual Congress is a venture of CCIU and the Agency for Instructional Technology in Bloomington, Ind., and is part of the Library of Congress’s Teaching with Primary Sources project.

Center Honors Senators Inouye and Cochran

At a May 24 reception on Capitol Hill, the Center on Congress honored the highly distinguished careers of Sens. Daniel K. Inouye (D-Hawaii) and Thad Cochran (R-Miss.), recipients of the Center's 2011 Congressional Education Award.

CCIU Director Lee Hamilton praised Inouye and Cochran as exemplary public servants who see it as their duty in Congress to work in a civil manner to bridge partisan differences, so that policies emerging from the legislative process reflect as much as possible the wide range of opinions in our large and diverse nation. Full Story  

Center Booklets Included in 5,000 Civics and Citizenship Toolkits

Expanding its efforts to assist immigrants aspiring to become U.S. citizens, the Center on Congress has joined with the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services to provide two of the Center’s most popular booklets in the new edition of the USCIS Civics and Citizenship Toolkit, released by the government May 16.

CCIU’s booklets — Understanding Congress: A Citizen’s Guide, and Making Your Voice Heard: How To Work With Congress — are included in 5,000 of the new toolkits, which the government offers to organizations that assist people who are studying to become naturalized citizens, including civic and service clubs, community and faith-based groups, libraries and schools. Full story

Bentley, Jarrett, Oglesby Receive American Civic Education Teacher Awards

Teachers from California, Michigan and North Carolina are recipients of the 2011 American Civic Education Teacher Awards, recognizing their exemplary work preparing young people to become informed and engaged citizens. The ACETA winners are: Jim Bentley of Foulks Ranch Elementary School in Elk Grove, Calif.; Cindy Jarrett of Durant Road Elementary School in Raleigh, N.C.; and Mark Oglesby of Howell High School in Howell, Mich.
The awards are given annually to elementary and secondary teachers of civics, government and related subjects who have demonstrated exceptional expertise, dynamism and creativity 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. Full Story

Center Supports Coalition Planning an Indiana Civic Health Index, To Assess and Improve Civic Engagement

A project to assess civic knowledge and engagement in Indiana is under way with support from the Center on Congress, the Indiana Supreme Court, the Indiana Bar Foundation, Indiana University Northwest, the Hoosier State Press Association, and the National Conference on Citizenship.

The Indiana Civic Health Index will assess who participates in community activities such as voting and volunteerism, what resources promote civic engagement, and what obstacles prevent citizens from getting involved in community activities and decision making. The aim of presenting the Civic Health Index is to call attention to the importance of an informed and engaged citizenry. Full Story

The Public’s Opinions on Congress: Q & A with Center Research Director Ted Carmines

Examining the relationship between citizens and Congress — how people learn about, interact with, and evaluate the institution and its members — has been an important focus for the Center on Congress since its founding in 1999. CCIU regularly conducts public opinion polls to gauge if Americans feel Congress is relevant to their lives and is living up to the framers’ expectations that it should be the responsive “people’s branch” of the federal government.
Overseeing this survey work is CCIU’s Director of Research, Edward G. Carmines, the Warner O. Chapman Professor and Rudy Professor of political science at Indiana University Bloomington. Read this Q & A with Carmines to learn about the findings of the Center’s most recent public opinion survey on Congress. Full Story

Experts Surveyed Give Congress a “C-plus” for 2010

Congress earned a grade of C-plus for its work in 2010, according to political scientists asked by the Center on Congress to rate the performance of the national legislature. This is a slight improvement over 2009’s C grade. The experts saw the second session of the 111th Congress as “functional, but not in any way superb,” said CCIU Director of Research Ted Carmines. Full Story

Center Uses Social Media to Inform and Engage

For regular updates on CCIU’s educational resources, programs and other activities, follow us on Facebook at “Center on Congress at Indiana University.” We invite you to “Like” our Facebook page and share your thoughts about Congress, civic education, and the citizen’s role in representative democracy. Here are two examples of the information you’ll find on our Facebook page:

"True citizenship asks us to be willing to hear what a broad range of thinkers and arguers have to say, so we can learn from them, come to our own conclusions, and work to build solutions. Only by spending time with people who think differently, practicing how to listen to them and to seek common ground, do we truly learn what it takes to make a diverse republic work.” — CCIU Director Lee Hamilton. Read more at http://bit.ly/mbv7zG

Interesting & informative program in DC this morning for reporters — “What to Expect from the Next Congress” — sponsored by CCIU, National Press Foundation & Politico. Experts from the liberal side (CAF) and the business lobby (US Chamber), with questions from Politico’s chief political guy Mike Allen and Hill bureau chief Marty Kady, and other journalists in the audience. Hear all 75 minutes at http://bit.ly/if36gR 

And Coming this Fall…

Look for a fall debut of four new educational resources that are part of the Center’s work with the Library of Congress’s Teaching with Primary Sources project. They are:

• an online module on the “Impact of Congress,” looking at the many accomplishments of the First Congress, 1789-91.

• an app for iPads on notable quotations on representative democracy and citizen participation.

• a 10-minute animated video for middle school students on the basics of good citizenship.

• a reworking of our Congressional Moment radio series on major legislative accomplishments, turning them into videos by adding historical photographs and images from the Library of Congress. 

About the Center

The Center on Congress is a non-partisan, educational institution established in 1999 to help improve the public's knowledge of Congress and to encourage civic engagement. The Center developed out of Lee Hamilton's recognition during his 34 years in the U.S. House that Americans should be more familiar with Congress’s strengths and weaknesses, its role in our system of government, and its impact on the lives of ordinary people every day.

The Center offers an extensive array of civic education programs, projects and resources to foster an informed electorate that 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 and radio stations; video and television in the classroom resources; survey research; teacher awards; and seminars, conferences, and a lecture series. 

The Center on Congress is supported in part by the Office of the Vice Provost for Research at IU Bloomington.

Newsletter editor: Phil Duncan