Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

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Teaching Past and Present: City Council President and Government Teacher Sean Brennan

Sean Brennan, a government teacher at Brecksville-Broadview Heights High School, in a suburb of Cleveland, Ohio, brings more than ordinary expertise to his job. Brennan is City Council President in nearby Parma, a city of 80,000. He understands that teachers fill a public servant role similar to that of elected officials—and that to do either task well he must continually extend his own education. Ashbrook’s Teaching American History seminars are a key resource for him.

At Ashbrook seminars, secondary school teachers discuss primary documents of American history. These documents—speeches, letters, essays, etc.—reveal what earlier Americans thought and said about the challenges they faced in the course of self-government. Each seminar treats a particular time period or theme of American history and is led by a professor specialist. Instead of lecturing, the professor poses questions, prompting teachers to uncover what the documents mean through conversation. In this way, the seminars mirror the deliberative process that occurs when elected representatives meet to discuss civic problems and their solutions.

In July Brennan attended a seminar on religious liberty co-sponsored by Ashbrook and The Loeb Institute for Religious Freedom at George Washington University in Washington, DC. Brennan has also traveled to Saturday seminars in the Ashbrook Center, listened to Ashbrook podcasts through earbuds as he exercises, and attended a summer seminar in the Ashbrook residential Masters program. “I love meeting with top scholars, and I love meeting with other teachers like me who are driven to continually improve their knowledge base, knowing that doing so will improve their students’ achievement.”

He prefers reading the actual words of earlier Americans even to reading “a good history,” saying, “I love to geek out on this stuff.” He finds that students, if wary at first, come to prefer primary documents also.

While setting up his classroom before the school year began, Brennan walked to the storeroom to retrieve a discarded set of government textbooks. He didn’t plan to teach from them; as he said, “Government textbooks get outdated in no time. It’s sad when you pick up the textbook and Nancy Pelosi is still the Speaker of the House.”

But he would be ready when a student asked, “Aren’t we going to get a book?” When the question arose last year, he pointed to the ignored texts and invited the student to hand them out. Then he pulled forward a trashcan, telling the students to toss the textbooks into it. “They looked at me like, what’s up with this guy? I said, ‘Historians don’t sit around and read textbooks all day. That’s not how you do history.’ I like to bring in letters, speeches, and other documents providing variety. It’s more fun for them and it’s closer to real life.”

The single text his students will use consistently is the Ashbrook Pocket Constitution booklet. “They like having their own copy to highlight and make notes in the margins. To be quite frank, the kids hate online textbooks” as much as the old-fashioned paper texts. They want to interact with an earlier American’s real words—so Brennan hands out paper copies and says, “Mark this thing up.” He’s read brain research showing that handwriting reinforces learning.

Another way Brennan makes government class “real”: he assigns a research report on city government, covering the duties of the mayor and council members. Each student must also visit a council meeting and report what occurred. “They hem and haw, but then they go and can’t stop talking about it.” The project helps students understand legislative debate and decision-making and the council members’ need to build coalitions.

These arts have concerned Brennan since 2003, when he first ran for a seat on council. “I saw my city going in the wrong direction and thought, ‘I could do as well, maybe better’” than city leaders at the time. Running as an independent, he did not face a primary election. “That gave me the summer to campaign,” Brennan said. He visited every household four times­—and won the ward seat by a wide margin.

Sean Brennan, his students, and Senator Olympia Snowe at the City Club of Cleveland

Brennan found allies on council and in the newly elected mayor. They worked to restore integrity to city government while investing in infrastructure improvements. “I think you’d be hard-pressed to find another suburban town that weathered the 2008 economic downturn as well as we did,” Brennan said. In 2011, Brennan won the at-large position of Council President. Now he presides over meetings of the nine ward representatives, voting only to break a tie.

His current role on council parallels his role in the classroom, where, instead of telling students what to think, he guides their discussions and discoveries. To understand primary documents, students must apply critical thinking skills. Brennan pushes them to apply the same skills to current political debate—and to join the debate, despite their youth. Brennan has taken students to school board meetings and to presentations by political leaders at the Cleveland City Club.

Students appreciate the invitation to engage with politics. In August, a recent graduate emailed Brennan: “Tomorrow I move into my new dorm at the U of Cincinnati. Before I leave, I wanted to thank you for making government class interesting . . . . The news about politics makes more sense to me now. . . . I also want to thank you for all the great opportunities you offered us. Going to a city council meeting didn’t sound interesting at the beginning, yet it was. I honestly never thought that I would work at the polls on election day or go downtown to hear John Boehner speak at the City Club,” the student said, wondering at the change in herself.

“I would never have that thought that this kid was so inspired by government class,” Brennan said. The email showed that the inspiration he himself draws from reading earlier Americans’ words can be passed forward. “When students see you are excited about something, they get excited, even though they don’t always let on.”

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