Assessment, Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Political Participation, Professional Development, Projects, Required Documents, Teachable Moments, Teaching Tips

Teaching Controversial Topics… like abortion laws


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As I scroll through social media, it’s hard to miss that Georgia and Alabama have recently passed the nation’s strictest abortion laws. So, naturally, when students walk in they want to know what I think.

I think that certain factions are trying to overturn Roe v. Wade (my standard response, which my students understand.

I’m not about to discuss my views because in my classroom, it’s not relevant.) I will not discuss this right at the beginning of my class because I need time to get to know my students. This is why I do my Civil Liberties and Civil Rights unit at the end of my class. When discussing the 2nd amendment or abortion case law as civil liberties, I need my students to know the procedures and be comfortable in the classroom. In my classroom, opinion is not relevant. You can have your opinion, but we aren’t about to debate gun rights or abortion. My job is to give you information about the Constitution, how to find relevant and trustworthy sources, and teach you how to develop an educated argument.

I’m going to assume that this issue will continue and have already started to consider how I will address it with my students next year. Here are some I have collected to help with #1 and #2 on the 5 ways to improve your practice. If you are curious about #4, I discuss it in The New York Times Op-Ed in AP Government.

  • This USA Today article gives information on the states’ abortion laws. The quantitative analysis could be a great warm up to discuss federalism (Unit 1)
    • How do states have the ability to pass laws that differ from others based on Supreme Court cases?
  • Discussing the sides of abortion in relation to factions and Federalist 10. Abortion will likely be a constant source of division because there are so many factions within the argument.
  • A great source for teachers to learn is Body Politic from Oyez. It features Roe v. Wade, Casey v. Planned Parenthood (and Justice O’Connor’s famous undue burden standard), Gonzales v. Carhart, and Whole Women’s Health v. Hellerstedt.
    • In my classroom, I skip over Gonzales because of the content. Roe v Wade is a required case, Casey sets a different standard, and Whole Women’s Health is the case I was at the Supreme Court for so I know a lot about it. 
  • The Future of Abortion Laws: “Two leading voices from organizations on different sides of today’s biggest debates over reproductive rights and abortion laws—Catherine Glenn Foster of Americans United for Life and Dr. Kelli Garcia of National Women’s Law Center—join host Jeffrey Rosen to explore the key cases making their way up to the Supreme Court. Garcia and Foster also share their views on landmark abortion precedent like Roe v. Wade, Planned Parenthood v. Casey, and the more recent case Whole Woman’s Health v. Hellerstedt, and predict how precedent might affect the outcomes of challenges to pending abortion laws at the federal level and in states like Louisiana, Tennessee, and Mississippi.” The Constitution Center.
    • I love the Constitution Center so much. The podcasts show both sides and have a very educated discussion based on law.
  • FiveThirtyEight Politics
    • This podcast goes through political ideology, polling, how cases go through the Court system, and the 2020 election. I would assign this to listen to at home or listen to it in class so that I am available to answer questions since I am the content expert.
  • The Words We Live By by Linda Monk
    • First of all, I love this book. Secondly, pages 222-224 has a great explanation of abortion under the 14th amendment.


With all controversial topic, knowing your kids and having your kids know procedures in your class is super important.

I plan for the comments that get us off track or may be inflammatory. My standard response is, “I appreciate your opinion, but we need to stick to the facts and get back on track.” I may not appreciate their opinion, but I want to keep my classroom a place where students can make mistakes and learn.

How do you navigate controversial topics in your AP Government class?


Foundations of American Democracy

Federalism In A Week?

At my APSI this year, we talked about the importance of federalism. Even though I only have a semester, I wanted to make sure that my students had a hold on it.

This was my week.

Day One:

{after we reviewed Brutus II and Federalist 51}

We started off with the Crash Course on Federalism. Students were visibly upset that it wasn’t John Green, but quickly got over it. I like to use this video to introduce the topic because it gives them a frame of reference. Then, I set the goal.

Our goal this week: knowing and understanding the issues that divided the Federalist and Anti-Federalists, understand how the relationship and powers between the state and federal government has developed. 

We had some housekeeping stuff to do, so afterwards I assigned a reading on Federalism for them to peruse and take notes. {We still don’t have our textbooks in…} The nice thing about federalism is that I can continually touch on it throughout the course as it relates to Interactions Among Branches.

Day Two: Notes

I belong to a Facebook Group for AP Government Teachers and I love that I can grab ideas from other teachers. I found notes that worked well for me and lectured. The notes I used are NOT of my own creation, so I won’t post them. I lectured quite effectively today {thanks to a generous dose of caffeine). I expect students to already have the notes written since they are available online because the best use of our time is not waiting for students to write every.single.word down. If they do not have their notes done? It becomes evident on their assessments. I pay special attention to McCulloch v. Maryland because it’s a required case and because it’s instrumental in understanding implied powers, and the supremacy clause.

Day Three/Four (Block Day) 

We finished up notes (had a few slides left)

Then, we dug into how the Supreme Court has interpreted the Commerce Clause.

I like this reading because it hit the following cases/laws in just a few pages:

  • Gibbons v. Ogden
  • Hammer v. Dagenhart
  • The New Deal
  • US v. Lopez (required Supreme Court Case)
  • US v. Morrison
  • Gonzales v. Raich
  • NFIB v Sebelius

Now, you may be looking at these and wondering what some of them are. I am here to tell you, IT’s ok! I had to look up some information. It’s part of teaching… learning! This is a quick read and discussion.

I did a quick check for understanding. I had students stand up if the case expanded federal power and squat (or sit if you have room) if it rejected the expansion. Mostly, I just needed them to get up a move. Block days can be long!


Once we finished, we had time to view   Constitution USA- Episode 1 (I paid for it on YouTube) I skip to 4:30 for the sake of time. You can always forgo this, but I think it wraps federalism up nicely! There is a guide available on the website, but I like to allow my students to watch while making connections to their notes.

Day Five Writing prompt:

(A) Explain how federalism reflects the dynamic distribution of power between the national and state governments.

(B) Contrast the evolution and devolution of federalism as defined by the Supreme Court in the following cases:

  • Gibbons v. Ogden
  • Hammer v. Dagenhart


  • US v. Lopez
  • Gonzales v. Raich

NOW… I’m not actually going to have them write this. They are going to make a rubric for it in groups. In doing this, I hit two skills. One, the ability to read the question and know what it’s asking and two, to know what SHOULD be written about. I want them to get into this mind frame. I want them to see the value of being able to “see” the rubric before they write.

The reason for this is I participated in the AP Read this past year. I wrote myself notes to remember, and the one that stuck out was to have the students create rubrics based off the questions. My students need to REALLY understand WHAT they are being asked to do. I noticed a trend of students during the read who answered what they thought the questions was, and didn’t get points because they didn’t answer the question. Their answers were not wrong, they just didn’t answer the question asked.

Notes from the AP Read

In reflecting on this week, I really like how everything went. I feel like I really tied in Unit One (I spent 3 weeks on it). There were a few things I didn’t touch on, but I will tied them into Unit 2, which for me will be Interactions Among Branches. So, I will spend time on Federalism in Action (1.9) as I go through the branches as well as 1.6 Principles of American Government. I also need to cut myself a break and stop trying to be a perfectionist. One can wish…

I also think that I will do more practice on for Unit One. We spent so much time reading documents (which I have no regrets) and I needed to do more practice on content.

What is your favorite federalism lesson?

Further Resources:

Constitution Center Blog list on Supremacy Clause

Constitution Center, Interactive Constitution

Civics 101- Federalism

Learning to Love the F Word