Thomas Baldino has been teaching political science and American government for four decades, including 28 years at Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre. But he's never before seen students dive into the topic of gerrymandering the way three of his students this year did as they tackled the Draw the Lines challenge.
The three students - William Billingsley, Gregory Chang and Geraldine Ojukwu (as seen left to right in the photo) - took second place statewide in the Draw the Lines PA fall 2018 mapping competition. Baldino, who is also a member of DTL's east region steering committee, joined his charged for awards ceremony Feb. 6 at the State Capitol.
Earlier, he wrote these reflections on what he and his students learned throught the exprerience.
What do you love best about teaching young people about your area of expertise?
I enjoy stimulating their interest in America’s democratic system, and I encourage them to be knowledgeable of and engaged in the system, at minimum by voting, but also by reading about issues, attending public events, volunteering in campaigns or civic organizations and even running for office.
What frustrates you most about teaching your subject?
How apathetic many students are about politics and government. They don’t understand how democracies operate beyond the most rudimentary elements and they don’t realize how what governments do affect them on a daily basis.
Have you tried to teach redistricting/gerrymandering before? How did you teach it and how did it go?
I teach this in my basic, intro to American government course as well as in my courses on the US Congress and political parties and elections. Most of the time, students are shocked to learn how politicized redistricting has become and the dramatic consequences that result from gerrymandered districts.
How’d you hear about Draw the Lines PA and what made you want to introduce it to your students?
I was approached by Justin Villere, the project’s chief of staff, early on as DTL was just getting off the ground. And as someone who has been complaining about the evils of gerrymandering for decades, this seemed like a perfect opportunity to work with other like-minded people to spread the news about gerrymandering and possibly bring about reform of the redistricting process.
Did you use DTL and the DistrictBuilder tool as part of the regular curriculum, as extra credit or as an outside activity for some students?
It was used as an outside activity. I hoped that more students would be involved. I started with six, but ended up with three.
Were you confident or concerned about your students’ ability to grasp DistrictBuilder and do a map?
I was fairly confident that the students would understand District Builder. In fact, they were more facile with it than I was and in quicker time.
How did you prepare them for the challenge?
We began by spending several meetings discussing the values that a district drawer brings to the process and the implications for ranking one value higher or lower than others. This was a revealing exercise for the students. Then we started playing with DistrictBuilder in elementary ways just to test it out, and before long, we were deep into the complexities of drawing boundaries to maximize our high ranking values.
How did the mapping go?
I thought it went great, and so did the students. The challenge was really that of time and working around the students’ schedules and my own commitments. The time constraint was the reason given by the three students who dropped out. In total, I think members of the team spent about ten hours either jointly or alone working on the project.
What do you feel your students learned from trying to finish a map on DistrictBuilder, or from the other Draw the Lines materials you used?
Where to begin? First, they learned it’s difficult to draw boundaries to maximize even one value let alone two or three. Second, that there are values that conflict so that they are nearly impossible to maximize some simultaneously. Third, regardless of the difficulty, gerrymandering needs to end.
What suggestions do you have for making the Draw the Lines program more useful to teachers and students?
I honestly can’t think of anything. Your team, particularly Justin and East regional coordinator Linda Breitstein, were ready with answers to all the questions that we had and responded quickly. The material was first-rate, and the DB worked as advertised.