Trust Ashbrook Teachers to Teach Responsible Citizenship

December 24, 2020

Trust Ashbrook Teachers to Teach Responsible Citizenship

Jennifer Jolley, a graduate of Ashbrook’s Master of American History and Government (MAHG) degree program and a government teacher in central Florida, spent the month of July gaining direct experience of the American political process. As a Congressional Fellow with the James Madison Memorial Foundation, she interned in the office of Senator Bill Nelson of Florida.

Jolley funded her studies in Ashbrook’s MAHG program through a prior fellowship from the Madison Foundation, an agency Congress established in 1986 to improve teaching about the Constitution at the high school level. The foundation awards one or two fellowships per state per year to teachers seeking a Masters in a program emphasizing constitutional studies. Having audited a course in Ashbrook’s summer residence program through a Teaching American History grant, Jolley knew when awarded the Madison Fellowship that she would enroll for the MAHG degree. The program emphasizes classroom discussion in an atmosphere that respects students’ thinking. “Of course, it also made me work really hard! I am proud of the degree I earned.”

Ashbrook’s MAHG program enrolls more Madison Fellows than any other program in the country. It can also boast having educated three teachers in an elite group of Madison Fellows who have completed their degrees. These are Congressional Fellows, who are given a month’s living stipend while working as a summer intern in the office of a Congressman. Jolley applied for this as soon as she became eligible and was elated to be selected this year.

Prior to her selection, she had to get tentative approval from the Congressman she hoped to intern with. Jolley thought she had worked out an arrangement to work for the Republican congressman in her own district. After letting his office know she had been selected, she was told he could not employ her. “He is a member of the Freedom Caucus,” Jolley said. “I am a registered Democrat. His staffers were being good gatekeepers.” It had not occurred to Jolley that this could be an issue. “As I saw it, I’m a public school teacher—a public servant; and I would be in the office of another public servant, lending my support.”

She then arranged to work in the office of Senator Nelson. “When I began doing the assigned work—researching bill proposals so that the Senator could decide whether to co-sponsor or endorse them—I realized it made sense to intern for someone of my own party.” Nelson is a moderate Democrat. Although Jolley’s memos aimed at an objective account of the facts, it was easier for her to intuit the questions questions a Senator of her own party would want her to address.

You might think this incident shows Jolley’s political naïveté. It actually reflects her work ethic as a teacher of American government. She is typical of MAHG teachers in seeing her primary purpose as giving her students a sense of informed patriotism.

In a climate of public cynicism about government, Jolley’s account of her internship may give her students a more positive view. She will tell students about the long hours Senatorial staff spend researching legislation, and about the hectic schedules of Senators as they deliberate. Shadowing Nelson one morning as he attended committee meetings, she was surprised to learn that the meetings overlapped: although they were scheduled at 45 minute intervals, a single committee meeting might last two hours. Nelson had to leave a meeting of the Commerce, Science and Technology Committee to rush to a meeting of Armed Services Committee, even though he is the ranking minority party member on both. He left behind staffers who specialized in the affairs of the first committee to take notes and, if necessary, vote for him by proxy.

Jolley also recalls asking one staffer about the five-inch stacks of briefing materials he was assembling. She learned it was information on amendments to the Affordable Care Act proposed by the majority party this summer. Jolley thinks that the attempt to amend the ACA failed not, as some have suggested, because Republicans had never worked on alternatives, but because in the end they could not accept certain provisions that the President had promised to his supporters.

But this outcome, Jolley thinks, would not have surprised James Madison and his fellow Founders. The Constitution was not designed to permit hasty policy reversals. “My observation of the Congress this summer,” Jolley said, “assures me that it is working just as the Founders expected. Its proceedings are slow and deliberate.”

Researching education bills for the Senator, including several proposals to reduce the burden of college-loan debt, Jolley worked carefully; yet she came to see her main role in Nelson’s office as that of cheerleader. Although older, she conveyed to the twenty- and thirty-something staffers her wide-eyed excitement at their consequential work. If, while watching Senator Nelson’s Senate floor speeches on C-SPAN, she recognized the ghost writing of particular staff, she complimented them. At the end of her internship, staffers thanked her for “breathing positive energy” into the office.

Jennifer Jolley with Florida Senator Bill Nelson. A former astronaut, Nelson was elected to the Senate in 2000.

In Jolley’s teaching, dispensing positive reinforcement is essential. Two thirds of her students receive free or reduced-price lunch. Few of their parents have college degrees, and many work two jobs. Jolley works daily to help underprepared learners manage the challenging STEAM (science, technology, engineering, arts and math) curriculum of Palm Bay Magnet High School. Studying in Ashbrook’s MAHG program made Jolley “much more comfortable” teaching from a wide range of primary documents. Yet she often focuses on very familiar texts.

Last year, as Jolley watched her seniors during the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance that follows loudspeaker announcements, she noticed they weren’t saying the words. So she handed out copies of the pledge. She pointed to two phrases, asking students what they meant.

The first phrase makes clear we salute the flag as a symbol of “the republic for which it stands.” So what is a republic? “People say we live in a democracy. We don’t,” Jolley explained; “we don’t have rule by the immediate decision of 51%. We have a representative democracy, electing legislators to deliberate and decide on measures”—and we guarantee the protection of minority rights.

The second phrase was “with liberty and justice for all.” First, “we talked about how liberty does not imply freedom to do whatever one wants—that our political freedoms imply certain responsibilities.” Jolley emphasized the responsibility to stay informed on public issues and to vote. The final key word, “justice,” aroused more questions. Students pointed out that “entertainers who can afford highly skilled attorneys avoid serving time for criminal offenses, while those who depend on public defenders go to prison.” While acknowledging practical obstacles to justice, Jolley said it is a goal toward which we constantly strive, through the balanced powers of our constitutional system.

“Every year I also read aloud all four verses of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner,’” Jolley added. “We talk about the words they don’t understand, and about the War of 1812. Then I remind students that when they watch international sports, they hear fans from other nations enthusiastically singing their national anthems. I ask them, ‘Why don’t you learn how to sing your own?”

Above all, Jolley wants her students “to understand that this is the best nation on earth—and that, as citizens, they can help shape our future by becoming informed and politically active.”