Editor’s Note: This is the first of a three-part series of blog posts on the National History Center’s Mock Policy Briefing Program, which Jessica Roney implemented in her course on the history of Philadelphia at Temple University. Part Two will offer reflections on the program from students in Roney’s class, and part three will suggest practical tips for implementing the program and offer teaching resources. The Mock Policy Briefing Program Educator’s Workshop on “Understanding History’s Relevance to Today” will be held in Philadelphia on April 6.
By Jessica Choppin Roney
In the summer of 2015 I was worrying about a new course I was scheduled to teach in the fall. It would be my second year at my new job at Temple University in Philadelphia, and I was preparing to teach The History of Philadelphia for the first time. Ordinarily, this would seem right up my alley as I had just finished a book on Philadelphia political culture from the city’s founding in 1682 until the American Revolution. But, as sometimes happens with subject matters near and dear to our hearts, I found myself fretting over how to run the course. I imagined my students would come to the class vested in the subject matter in more personal ways than is often the case: most of Temple’s students come from the Philadelphia area—for them, it is home. How would I then engage them as fully as possible, and encourage them to draw on their own knowledge? How would I engage their questions and share authority for driving the course while still challenging them (and myself)?
As I was anguishing over what to do with the class, I had the good fortune of running into a longtime friend and colleague at an annual conference: Amanda Moniz, now assistant director at the National History Center (NHC). In casual conversation, Amanda told me about the Mock Policy Briefing Program that the NHC had recently developed. Modeled on the center’s Congressional Briefings program, the Mock Policy Briefings Program helps students understand the relevance of history to public issues today. The program provides a guide for educators to craft briefings on the historical background of policy questions facing local or state leaders. Amanda informed me that the NHC was interested in implementing the program in college classrooms, preferably in state capitals where students could present to state-level politicians. I was instantly intrigued. Though not a state capital, Philadelphia has its own municipal representative government, an extensive bureaucracy, and countless local policy organizations—it seemed to me the perfect place to attempt a policy briefing format.
Selecting and researching a policy matter on which eventually the entire class would prepare a single presentation seemed to me an ideal way to marry my own course content, lectures, and preselected readings with student-generated content and their own explorations into both primary and secondary materials. It would move the authority for asking and answering historical questions away from myself and put it on the shoulders of my students. They could explore some of their own concerns as residents of Philadelphia and ask how things came to be this way. They could also bring to bear in the classroom their own rich personal or family memories, share a range of perspectives and experiences with one another, as well as teach and learn from one another.
Finally, I was excited about the Mock Policy Briefing Program because it would put history into practice and encourage students to ask why it matters. How can history help guide or inform us today? What is the most effective way to present it so that policy makers can make use of the information? It would give students tools to ask big questions, search for answers, and translate their findings for a public audience. It would give them a sense of purpose because what they researched and wrote would not be for my eyes only but would have life in a larger context; one that they hoped would have real policy implications.
Jessica Choppin Roney is assistant professor of history at Temple University in Philadelphia. She is the author of Governed by a Spirit of Opposition: The Origins of American Political Practice in Colonial Philadelphia (John Hopkins Univ. Press, 2014).