On September 17, 1787, 39 men signed the U.S. Constitution at Independence Hall in Philadelphia, and 231 years later, these 4,400 words remain the law of the land.
Today, schools across the country will dig into this all-important document. Constitution Day (formerly known as Citizenship Day) was established by law in 2004 after Senator Robert C. Byrd attached a rider to an appropriations bill requiring any educational institution receiving federal funds to teach the document every September 17.
Yet Americans still don’t know much about the document that imparts their rights and limits their government. Last year, a nationally representative poll of 1,013 adults by the Annenberg Public Policy Center showed that less than half of them could name a specific right spelled out in the First Amendment. You can brush up on your knowledge of the Constitution here.
There are organizations that can help with free teaching resources. The National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia, is piloting a program for high school classrooms called Constitutional Conversations. On Monday, the Center will hold 15 conversations on free speech, each between two classrooms located in different parts of the country. Experts from the Pennsylvania Bar Association will moderate, and judges from the third district court will also listen in.
Using resources provided by the center, each classroom is preparing for the talk around the question “When does the Constitution allow the government to limit speech?”
“That’s a big discussion right now,” said Kerry Sautner, chief learning officer at the National Constitution Center. “Why would you limit speech? Why would you not limit speech? When is the government allowed to do that? You might hear people say, ‘We have to limit hate speech.’ But you know what? Back in the day, abolition speech was considered hate speech. You could be arrested for sending out anti-slavery pamphlets to Southern states. The framers said you have to have the ability to speak out against the government, we need free press, and then comes the Alien Sedition Act and you weren’t allowed to speak out. You got jailed if you spoke out against war. You have to put all these pieces from history together. You might think of free speech the same way or you might think of it differently, but you will have different perspectives as your foundation.”
The long-term goal is to offer Constitutional Conversations year round. “This is a model that we feel we have to embrace more and more,” said Sautner. “We need to bring people with diverse opinions together. We need to be able to talk to each other and listen to each other on these big constitutional questions. If you feel passion, I want see your passion, I want to hear it. But I also need you to listen passionately.”
Tim Rodman’s AP government 9th and 10th graders will participate in the Constitutional Conversations on Monday. Rodman teaches at Walter Johnson High School, in Bethesda, Md. His class will be talking about free speech with students in Palm Beach, Fla.
“I love the idea of kids talking to kids who aren’t from here,” he said. “They want to make their voices heard on issues they like and ones they don’t. But in the classroom, they’re just talking in an echo chamber. This way, they’ll get some different perspectives.”
But Sautner said in order for kids to have these complex conversations in high school, they need to have gotten a basic understanding of the Constitution in elementary school.
So how do you start that lesson for a 2nd grader?
Sautner suggests starting with “What is the Constitution?” and teaching the document as a set of “rules of a game board.” “This is how the game works. This is whose job is what, their roles and responsibilities, and how they have to work together to get it done.”
Teachers might compare the Constitution to rules students follow every day at home, at school, and in the community. Take riding the bus, for instance. There are not only rules you have to follow; you also have a role to play, a responsibility to behave in a certain way.
“We put too much onus on following rules and not enough on the fact that we all have a job to do,” said Sautner. “As a citizen, you have a job. The people have sovereignty over the government. So it’s not just about the rules you have to follow. It’s the role you have in this government.”
Amanda Smithfield, a school librarian at Hume-Fogg High School in downtown Nashville, Tenn., started ProjectCiv, a once-a-month lunchtime discussion focusing on issues from gun control to free speech. She has a number of ways to engage students this Constitution Day. They can tell her the five freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment for a treat, like goldfish crackers or a granola bar. During lunch, they’ll play games like Which Founder Are You? In preparation for the November midterms, the school is organizing a mock election for governor and senator.
Rachel Harrington, 17, is a senior at Hume-Fogg High School and the president of the High School Republicans club. She is researching how each of the candidates stands on various policy issues and will display her findings without noting the candidates’ party affiliation. “That way students who might not know much about the candidates can make a decision based on policy, not party.”
Rock the Vote has partnered with Teaching Tolerance to bring a revamped Democracy Class curriculum to high school teachers free of charge. You can sign up to have the curriculum emailed to you here. Students will learn the history of voting, how the voting process works, and they will have a chance to register as part of the program.
“When young people report why they didn’t vote, it’s most typically that they didn’t have the information they needed to understand the process,” said Melissa Wyatt, a policy associate for Rock the Vote.
Eighteen to 29 year-olds make up more than one-fifth of the electorate. In 2016, only about half of those eligible voted. But a recent analysis shows an increase in voter registration among young people, especially in swing states.
Another big part of the curriculum is to fight common myths about voting, such as the impression that only presidential elections matter. An activity that drives home the importance of how every vote in an election counts is to visualize statistics. Say 80 percent of Americans have registered and then have 20 percent of the students in the class step to the side. If 40 percent of Americans vote in mid-term elections, have 60 percent of students step to the side.
“The activity shows that only a small portion of the population gets a say in issues that are important to everyone,” said Wyatt. “So if they want to have a say, they’re going to have to get out there and vote.”
A version of this news article first appeared in the Curriculum Matters blog.