Constitutional Comparison: Germany and the US

As I was going through my RSS feed this morning, I came across this article from Deutsche Welle on Germany’s Basic Law.  As I read through it, the first thing that struck me was the fact that the very first article in Germany’s constitution discusses human dignity.  This led me to take a closer look at the Grundgesetz, and after further reading, I decided to make a lesson out of it for my class on U.S. government and politics.  We had already studied the purposes of constitutions in general and the US Constitution earlier this semester, so I wanted to compare the two constitutions.

Students noticed a number of differences, among them: 1) Germany put basic rights first, whereas the US put them as amendments; 2) Germany’s constitution is much more in depth than than the US’ (Germany has 141 articles, the US has 7); 3) Germany has an article about the flag, the US does not; 4) Germany has “compulsory military and alternative civilian service,” whereas the US military is volunteer.  We also discussed Germany’s electoral system, even though it’s not explicitly described in the Basic Law.  Out of all these ideas, however, we spent the most time discussing Article 1.1 of the Basic Law- “Human dignity shall be inviolable.  To respect and protect it shall be the duty of all state authority.”  The US constitution has something similar in the Preamble with, “promote the general Welfare.”

We started first by talking about dignity and what that meant.  After that, we looked into the extent to which the governments of both countries fulfilled the idea of human dignity and general welfare.  Since my student charity, VAHSAid, just held an event this weekend to raise awareness of child poverty and food insecurity, we looked for child poverty rates in both countries.  According to the OECD, the latest rate for Germany is 9.8%, and for the US it’s 20.5%.

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Other indicators we looked at (also from the same OECD page):

Key characteristics of parental leave systems (total paid leave available to mothers)- Germany: 58 weeks; US: 0 weeks

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Public spending on family benefits (in per cent of GDP)- Germany: 3.03; US: 1.13

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Public spending on early childhood education and care (in per cent of GDP)- Germany: 0.6; US: 0.3

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Infant mortality (Deaths per 1,000 live births)- Germany: 3.2; US: 6.0

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After all was said and done, a couple of student observations stood out to me: 1) “Germany takes democracy to a whole new level,” 2) “Germany seems much more about community,” and 3) Students felt Germany’s Basic Law was less ambiguous than the US Constitution and wondered if that would lead to less legal battles or political controversy.

While the original purpose of the lesson was to compare the two constitutions, I am pleased that it led to discussions about issues other than the structure of the governments.  This isn’t to say Germany is some sort of utopia*; however, it does illustrate the need for American politicians to begin emphasizing human dignity in our policies.

Thanks for reading.

*Full disclosure: I was stationed in Germany for 2 1/2 years and have a deep appreciation for the German language, food, beer, and soccer (#NurSGE).

Teaching the SDGs

I’ve recently become more involved with an amazing community on Twitter using #TeachSDGs.  We’re a group of teachers around the world committed to bringing the SDGs to our classrooms and communities.  In just the past two weeks or so, I’ve gained a lot of cool ideas from teachers that I want to use in my own classes, notably making children’s books and creating poems.  This is now my opportunity to give back to this community and share what I do in the classroom.

Letter to the Editor
One of the first actions we can take is to first alert local communities that the SDGs exist and that teachers play a crucial role in achieving them.  To that end, I wrote a general 200-world letter that can be used for most newspapers.

SDGs Poster and Icon Cards
I downloaded the logo and icons from the SDGs website (Note: Make sure you follow their guidelines) and sent the files to a local printer to make the poster and icon cards to use in my classroom and for our VAHSAid events.  As a result, I’ve already had interesting discussions with my colleagues and students who aren’t even in my classes.  I’ve also encouraged my students and colleagues to get their pictures taken with an icon card to share on social media.

Global Summits
Basically, this is like a Model UN conference, only much smaller in scale.

The first is the packet introducing the activity.  We are on a block schedule, so where it says three days, that’s about 280 minutes of class time.  We prepare for the summit the entire quarter (9 weeks), but I usually give them only 3-4 days in class to work on it; the rest of the time is research on their own.

The second document is just a sheet that I cut out to put on the backs of their placards to help with parliamentary procedure (I’ll send a pic of a placard to you via DM).  I also show them the two videos from a model UN conference so they can see what it looks like (  The third document are the rules of procedure (I broke it down from one of the Model UN conferences we attend).

The fourth attachment is the resolution prep guide.  Every summit focuses on two of the SDGs.  So, at the beginning I give them the most current UNGA resolution pertaining to each topic.  Then, they fill out the prep guide, and we go over it next class.

The next two attachments are the country roster and organization cheat sheet.  The last one is the rubric for the whole assignment.

From there, the students mostly work outside of class to prepare for the summit.

As an extension activity, I have the students write a letter to the head of the relevant UN body for one of the two topics, explaining their own personal opinion about what should be done to address the issues.  I’ve included the template I give them.  In the past we’ve written to the UNDP, FAO, UNEP, and UN Women.  The students get quite excited when we receive a letter back.

I am the “chair” for the summit, so I call on countries, keep track of the speaker’s list, and keep notes on what students say in their speeches.

  1. Global Summits
  2. Points and Motions for Placards
  3. Rules of Procedure
  4. UN Resolution Preparation Guide
  5. Country Assignments
  6. Countries and Regional Organizations
  7. Business Letter Format FAO and UNDP

Month-Long Units
Of the four different courses I teach, I’ve put together a month-long unit for three of them.  For World Studies (sophomores) and AP US History (juniors and seniors), I had them pick an EU Member State because I also do a lot of work on transatlantic relations and the EU (in fact, I’m taking eight students to Brussels this summer for a week to learn about the EU).  For AP classes, this unit is a nice way to end the year and have something that is academic, but not overly strenuous.  For the children’s books, I’m using The Children’s Picture Book Project lesson plan.

  1. World Studies- SDGs Unit
  2. AP US History- SDGs Post-AP Test Assignment
  3. AP Comparative Government and Politics- SDGs Post-AP Test Assignment

Children’s Activities
For our VAHSAid events, like our 1st Annual Campout to Stamp Out Child Poverty and Food Insecurity, we have a table for children’s activities.  So far, I’ve developed an SDGs Word Search with key words from each of the SDGs.  I deliberately chose not to give the definitions because I want parents to talk with their children about the terms.  Once I create more activities, I’ll share them.

Finally, I recommend following TeachSDGs and World’s Largest Lesson on Twitter.  I’ve also created a Twitter list of all the amazing teachers who I’ve had the pleasure of talking with about teaching the SDGs.

I hope that you’ll find something useful in all of this.  If you have any questions, please feel free to leave a comment.

Thanks for reading.

I’m Back

It’s been a while since my last post; almost six months.  One would think given my progressive/social democratic views that a Trump presidency would give me plenty of material on which I could write and that I should have a lot more posts.  The bottom line is that I’ve been busy.  I felt that while writing was a good way for me to express my ideas, actually doing some work on issues that meant a lot to me might be a better use of my time.  That’s not to say writing isn’t useful or worthwhile- I just wanted to take a break and actually do something about the problems we face in this country.

So what have I been up to?

Last year my students and I started VAHSAid, a charity thinking globally, but acting locally, by helping those affected by poverty in Dane County and Wisconsin.  We did a lot of great work helping Porchlight and the United Way of Dane County, as well as the UNHCR.  Building off that success, we wanted to do even more this year.  The past few months we’ve been working tirelessly setting up two events and looking into starting a food pantry at the school at which I teach.

Our first event is the 1st Annual Camp Out to Stamp Out Child Poverty and Food Insecurity.  On May 20-21, we’ll be camping out in the parking lot of Miller’s in Verona, to raise awareness of child poverty and food insecurity in Dane County and Wisconsin. We’ll be taking food donations to give to Badger Prairie Needs Network and monetary donations to help the Wisconsin Council on Children and Families.   We’ll have tables set up to talk to people about those issues, as well as a table to learn about the Sustainable Development Goals and a table for children’s activities.  

Our second event is the 1st Annual VAHSAid Read-A-Thon at the Verona Public Library on August 12.  In addition to reading books and children’s activities, we’ll be collecting school supplies for students in our district who need help.

As for the food pantry, you’ll have to stay tuned for that.

Finally, I’ve also been busy planning a trip to Brussels for students to learn about the EU and transatlantic relations.  Based on the amount of work and coordination that has taken, I think it’s safe to say I will never go into event planning as a career.  I am however, very excited about the trip because I’ve put together, what I think, will be a truly memorable experience for the students.

So, now you know why I’ve been silent for the past six months.  Hopefully, now that the events and my trip are pretty much settled, I’ll have more time to write in support of progressive/social democratic ideas.

Thanks for reading.

Views from the Classroom in the Wake of the Election

The past two days have been challenging. Yesterday (November 9) was the most intellectually and emotionally draining day I have had in my fifteen-year career as a high school teacher.  I’ve talked about the presidential and mid-term elections with my students since 2004, but what I saw yesterday was unlike anything I had seen the day after any of the previous elections.

Let me first say that I am a proud liberal.  A social democrat.  A progressive humanitarian.  You get the picture.  So yes, I am disappointed with the election results.  I understand that people have different views on the best ways to govern, and I can respect conservatives like Rep. Paul Ryan who truly believe in small government and the policies that go along with that approach.  I cannot respect, however, a candidate who promotes hate, bigotry, xenophobia, Islamophobia, intolerance, racism, and rape culture.

Given the makeup of the student body at my school, I figured that students (and even staff) would need to process the results of the election on Wednesday.  As such, I offered my room as a safe place for anybody to come and talk about whatever they felt like.  I talked with confused students, concerned students, crying students, and colleagues who felt the same.  I asked students basic questions like “How are you?” “Are you okay?” and “What’s on your mind?” while trying to comfort them and assuage their fears.  Most of all, I wanted them to feel safe.  Here are a just few of their concerns:

  • Worry that their family or friends will be deported
  • Worry that their family or friends will have to wear badges identifying them as Muslims
  • Worry that they will be attacked because they are part of the LGBQT community
  • Worry that their reproductive health rights will be taken away
  • Worry that they will be more susceptible to rape

I cried.

I shook.

I almost threw up.

Of course, I also had to teach the rest of the day.  Thankfully, I had my two classes on government and politics, so discussing the results was built into my schedule.  It was still difficult.  My student teacher and I did our best to keep the conversation fair and balanced, while making sure voices were not stifled and students felt safe.  (I should mention that my student teacher did an amazing job.  He’s going to be a tremendous asset to whichever school he lands a job in.)

When the school day ended we had a faculty meeting to discuss the school climate.  Some of my colleagues cried and shared stories of the hate speech used by our students towards other students.  In our school.  In.  My.  School.

I felt disheartened.

I felt broken.

By the time I got home, I was drained.  I managed to put an abbreviated version of this on Facebook, but it didn’t help.  Even before I went to bed last night I still felt on the verge of tears.

I followed up today with students, checking to see how they were doing and letting them know I was still here for them.  For the most part, however, it was back to business as usual.  Nonetheless, my heart still aches for my students.

I am here for you.

Thanks for reading.


Inauguration Contest

Hi everybody, I need your help.  I’ve entered a contest to take 5 students on an all-expense paid trip to attend Envision’s Presidential Inauguration Leadership Summit in Washington, DC.  Schools win when people vote for them by going to following link–  You can vote for our school every day.
Our school’s zip code is 53593, and our school is Verona Area High School. You have to fill out your name and address, your role (teacher, parent, or student) and select how you heard about it.  Please put “social media.”  If you could spread the word to other parents, students and teachers, I would appreciate it.  The school with the most votes wins.