February 24, 2024

MCSD Whiteboard: Social studies includes learning about civic engagement

For students learning social studies at Moffat County High School, looking to the past and
understanding the present can often be one in the same.

The study of United States government and history, including classes taught by longtime social
studies teacher Karen Chaney, is as much about how we got here as where we’re going, and so
a fascinating Congressional election is about as good as it gets for learning opportunities.

“I wouldn’t be a social studies teacher if I didn’t think this stuff was important,” Chaney said. “It’s
something I feel everyone should know. Having knowledge and understanding of how
government works equalizes the playing field and provides opportunities for people to
participate and not just sit back and be an observer.”

Chaney teaches AP U.S. History, AP U.S. Government, intro to criminal justice and intro to law
at MCHS. Each one is different, of course, but consistent throughout is elevating students’ ability
to interact with the structures that govern us.

The more Chaney can get her students involved in what’s actually happening in these spheres
right now, she says, the better.

“In past presidential election years, I’ve sent students to be election judges at the county
courthouse,” she said. “The state of Colorado has a program that allows students to apply to be
election judges, and the clerk’s office normally tries to fit some students in. That’s a great

Another regular activity Chaney works through with her classes is educated voting — for both
national and local issues.

“I do a sample ballot for Moffat County, and all my government classes vote based on the
sample ballot in class,” Chaney said. “We go through the blue book, talk about ballot initiatives,
how the ballot is set up, how it works, what the rules are for voting, and so on. Then I tally up
how they voted in the classroom.”

A next step, something that’s been done in the past but has been harder to arrange in recent
years, is getting kids more into local government meetings like Craig City Council to learn how
those governments that are close to home work more intimately.

“Between COVID and now kids working and doing as many sports and other extracurriculars as
they do, that’s been harder to make happen,” Chaney said. “But it’s something we want to do
more, like we used to.”

Of course, there’s copious study of the U.S. Constitution and its history. Chaney buys her
government students a pocket Constitution each year, and they’re referred to in class with

But the American system has evolved into a complex structure, and it’s important that students
can make the connection from the ratification to the present day.

“Some things do surprise them — Gerrymandering is one,” Chaney said, referring to the way
states have drawn various political voting districts. “They have a sense that Gerrymandering
exists, and has traditionally happened. And we’re interested in seeing how the independent
redistricting commissions (instituted in Colorado in 2018) will impact things. But they do look at
the way it’s been done and is done in many states still, controlled by political parties, and some
of them think that seems, maybe, not fair.”

Campaign finance is a future discussion, and Chaney said that’s another subject that tends to
surprise students. The Electoral College and its many nuances are also on the curriculum.
Social studies education is a fraught subject in this country and has been for years. But Chaney
tries to simplify things.

“We have local control in Colorado, with state standards, and I think those are pretty neutral,”
she said. “It lets us explore subjects. My goal is always to be respectful toward students and try
to encourage them to have opinions. I don’t want to control those opinions at all. I try to ask
questions, offer alternative arguments that exist. The kids seem not to feel threatened by me
and that they can have their own thoughts and opinions, and that’s certainly my goal.”

The recent midterm elections were a subject of plenty of discussion in Chaney’s classes, she

“We talked (last week) about the results, some surprises relative to what people expected,” she
said. “That led to talking about polling, how polling can or cannot be predictive of results of this
election, and how they weren’t for this one in some cases. It’s too early to know exactly why,
though there’s plenty of speculation going on. Some of the students are noticing that these
results aren’t exactly what people expected though, and I hope we’ll have a good conversation
about what they actually end up as, and what’s important to people who voted — and the
implications of that.”

Whatever happens with this or any other election, though, Chaney said she and her fellow
educators are committed to helping her students know how to be informed, active members of
the community both local and beyond that.