A National 'Civics Lesson'
Schools Prepare for Constitution's 200th Year
As the nation prepares to celebrate the 200th anniversary of the signing of the U.S. Constitution next September, educators and civic leaders are taking steps to make schools a major focus of the year's events. From the preparation of special curricular materials, to the sponsorship of student essay contests, national organizations have planned an educational agenda that should fulfill Chief Justice Warren E. Burger's pledge that the bicentennial would be a "civics lesson for all of us."
Mr. Burger made the remark this summer, when he announced that he would relinquish his role as the nation's chief judicial officer to devote full time to the chairmanship of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the U.S. Constitution.
Following his lead, educators have seized the occasion as an unparalleled opportunity to teach their students about the origins and continuing relevance of the nation's founding legal document.
"The Constitution is basic to everything we do in this country," said Lewis E. Huffman, director of social-studies education for the Delaware department of public instruction. "It is important for students to understand this. "
"We want this to be an educational celebration," said Harold Kessler, director of social- studies education for the School District of Philadelphia. "In addition to the celebration, there has to be a cerebration."
And Robert Mack, chairman of the Constitution Committee of the Washington State Centennial Commission, predicted that, "after next year, public and private schools will teach better how important the Constitution is in everybody's life."
Materials and Programs
To help accomplish these goals, organizations ranging from the American Bar Association to the National Conference of Christians and Jews Inc. have joined education groups in producing a variety of programs and materials for the schools.
Project '87, a joint venture of the American Political Science Association and the American Historical Association, has sponsored the development of "Lessons on the Constitution," a series that includes 60 activities to enhance textbook coverage of constitutional issues and themes.
The lessons were developed after a 1980 conference sponsored by the project found an "inadequate treatment of the Constitution itself and constitutional themes in textbooks," said Cynthia Harrison, deputy director of Project '87.
The group has sold all of its first printing of 5,000 copies of the lessons, and plans a second printing, she said. The National Conference of Christians and Jews has also developed "curriculum enrichment" materials for students aimed at fostering an understanding of how constitutional principles, such as due process of law and the separation of powers, affect students' daily lives, according to Leah Sayles, director of the conference's Living Constitution Project.
The materials also demonstrate how the Constitution "enables us to have a pluralistic society," Ms. Sayles added.
"It was a natural for us to be involved."
To help prepare teachers for the year's events, the National Council for the Social Studies is sponsoring workshops in all 50 states and the District of Columbia on Nov. 15. At least 6,500 teachers are expected to participate in the more than 110 workshops, according to Mary Kennedy, staff director of the council's bicentennial project.
Ms. Kennedy said the workshops would provide teachers with an opportunity to study, discuss, and think about the Constitution, so that they can help their students "understand it and care about it more."
"Everybody can always use new information and a fresh approach," she said.
To encourage students to think about constitutional issues, several organizations are sponsoring bicentennial contests and competitions. The American Bar Association, the Bicentennial Commission, and USA Today, for example, are jointly sponsoring an essay contest, open to highschool students, carrying the theme, "The Constitution: How Does the Separation of Powers Make It Work?"
Study and 'Celebration'
a mock-trial competition for high-school students, is encouraging students to celebrate the Constitution as well as to study it, according to Minna S. Novick, bicentennial coordinator of the A.B.A.'S special committee on youth education for citizenship.
"The Constitution is always taught," she said. "There is not enough celebration, not enough commemoration."
On the other hand, the Center for Civic Education, which has created a "national bicentennial competition," is using the contest to improve the teaching of the document, according to Charles N. Quigley, executive director of the center.
Students entering the competition, which will be conducted each year through 1991, will prepare by taking a six-week unit developed by the center on the philosophical basis of the Constitution, Mr. Quigley said.
"We are really trying to help kids understand the basic concepts underlying the system," he added.
State groups are also developing programs for the schools. In several states, such as Virginia, the state bicentennial commission will provide speakers; in Washington State, the speakers will be actors posing as the Constitution's framers.
In other states, local activity is aimed at highlighting the state's particular role in the framing or ratification of the Constitution.
In Delaware, which prides itself on being the first state to ratify the Constitution, the Delaware Heritage Commission has commissioned a 4th grade textbook on Delaware history. Although the state has been planning to produce a textbook for years, the bicentennial provided the impetus, according to Mr. Huffman.
States that were not among the original 13 colonies are also tailoring their bicentennial activities to local history. The Alabama Humanities Foundation is planning to develop classroom materials on Hugo Black, the former Supreme Court justice from Alabama, and on key Supreme Court cases-such as New York Times v. Sullivan, the landmark libel case-that involved the state.
Walter Cox, director of the foundation, said the state's current budget crisis may curtail the commission's ability to distribute nationally developed materials. But he said there is so much local interest in producing bicentennial materials that the lack of state coordination may lead to a duplication of effort, rather than a curb on activities.
"There is so much fine work being done at the national level," he said. "People shouldn't reinvent the wheel in every school district."
Vol. 06, Issue 02, Pages 1, 20