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California Teacher and Students Trace Use of Commerce Clause

“In large part, the federal government has grown through an expanded reading of the commerce clause,” says Cathy Alderman, a teacher of American history and government at a public charter school in Anderson, California. Alderman’s final project for her Master of Arts in American History and Government (MAHG) degree examines Supreme Court rulings on the commerce clause.

In class IIAlderman wrote lesson plans on the commerce clause that help students trace the growth of the US government between the Founding and modern day. Students in her Political Studies course at Anderson New Tech High School read primary source documents from Ashbrook’s teacher resource website www.teachingamericanhistory.org, such as letters written by those at the Constitutional Convention, and carefully examine the Constitution itself.

After students read the list of Congressional powers in Article 1, Section 8, Alderman asks them, “What sorts of laws may Congress enact?” They suggest laws governing taxation, borrowing, military defense, immigration, the postal service, and the District of Columbia. “Then we send them to the computers to find out all the things Congress actually does.”

Students in her course enjoy debating the questions decided in the court cases. “Some will say, ‘It’s okay that the Court allowed Congress that power; it was for a good reason.’ Then I’ll ask, ‘Would there have been a better way to do it?’— for example, by first amending the Constitution?”

“When students understand our federal system,” Alderman says, “they realize that the Founders thought most problems in civic life would be taken care of at the local or state level.” To teach students how this happens, Alderman coaches student teams investigating local issues. Students interview business people, city officers and agency specialists with knowledge on local problems. Eventually, they present a policy recommendation to a panel of the community members who have guided their research. A team working on the lack of adolescent mental health services discovered legal options that the Shasta County Mental Health Department was unaware of. The department contacted the school and requested a copy of the students’ final presentation, so that they could post it on their website.

Alderman says her work in Ashbrook’s MAHG program “completely changed my teaching approach. It showed me how to teach history using original documents. When you do this, you are trusting students to reach their own conclusions. When you show this level of confidence in your students, and they see you are there to cheer them on rather than to dictate what they should think, you can even get them to read a Supreme Court opinion!”

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