Discover how simulations can enhance learning in AP® U.S. Government and Politics. Engage students with hands-on activities like discretionary budgeting to deepen comprehension and foster multidisciplinary understanding.

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As an educator, one of my primary objectives is to foster joyful learning. Joyful learning occurs when students are given the flexibility to collaborate, examine multiple perspectives, and make sense of material that is relevant to their own lives. Throughout my career teaching Advanced Placement Government and Politics, I have found that simulations offer an important opportunity for students to make real-world connections, engage in complex problems, and reach­­ their own solutions based on their values. Whether it is a moot Court, designing campaign commercials, mock Senate hearings for Supreme Court nominees, or crafting Presidential campaigns, the work is real and relevant. For this, I will discuss how I used discretionary budgeting to engage my students.

Simulations in social studies offer a dynamic learning experience, promoting active participation, critical thinking, and empathy. Students take on different roles, make decisions, and grasp the complexities of past events. Collaborative group work enhances communication skills and highlights the collective nature of policy-making. By integrating various subjects and personalizing learning, simulations foster a multidisciplinary understanding of government, making it relevant and enjoyable for students. Simulations deepen comprehension, providing a comprehensive approach to studying the act of governance.

For this lesson, students should understand the difference between discretionary and mandatory spending. While $700 billion may sound like a lot of money, it is only a sliver of the federal budget. From there each teacher must decide how to frame the lesson. Do you want to divide students into political parties with different goals? Do you want students to design a budget based on their values? Should students be assigned to current members of Congress? The choices are limitless.

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One strategy I used to encourage engagement was the use of boards and poker chips. The boards were each of the 14 discretionary categories and poker chips that represented $10 billion each. Using poker chips was helpful for kinesthetic learners and allowed students to see just how much goes into each category of the federal budget. Many students remarked on the size and scope of our discretionary military spending.

The most powerful understandings for my students were not only the size and scope of the discretionary budget, but how the current Biden budget does not represent their values and attitudes. This allowed us to pivot toward why this is the case and how difficult budget reform is given the impact of interest groups and the goals of the two major political parties. In summation, it was a powerful activity that not only brought joy, but greater understanding.

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Pat Sprinkle is a 15th year history teacher at the NYC Lab School for Collaborative Studies, teaching AP® U.S. History and AP® U.S. Politics and Government. Pat is a graduate of The Ohio State University and Columbia University. Pat has served as a member of the Teacher Advisory Council for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, National Humanities Center, and the National Constitution Center. In addition, Pat was a 2013 James Madison Fellow along with a 2021 C-SPAN Fellow. Pat lives in Jersey City, NJ with his wife, son (Franklin), and dog (Lyndon).