Teaching The United States Constitution
The Conventions of a number of the States, having at the time of their adopting the Constitution, expressed a desire, in order to prevent misconstruction or abuse of its powers, that further declaratory and restrictive clauses should be added: And as extending the ground of public confidence in the Government, will best ensure the beneficent ends of its institution.
-Preamble to the Bill of Rights
On December 15, 2018 we look back at the first ten amendments of the United States Constitution in reflection and forward thinking about our civil liberties and enumerated rights.
Our nation’s founding document has two calendar days that are set aside for the teaching of this important cornerstone. Constitution Day, which falls in September, and Bill of Rights Day. Teachers love thematic days that mark our school year. Students are drawn to these events as well. Often the classroom teacher will attempt to celebrate these days with crosswords or presenting a short video in class. While often well-meaning these approaches to teaching can leave a lot depth of understanding that students are sorely needing when it comes to learning government and civics.
The following is two approaches I have used in the past when teaching the ideas listed in the Constitution of the United States. These suggestions on can work in the elementary or middle school classroom and can easily contribute to a discussion at the high school level.
Teaching about rights listed in the document
There is nothing more engrained in the mind of a student than the idea of what is fair and what is unfair. Using this idea as a hook you can begin to have a discussion with students about rights and what is allowed under the constitution. Students should understand that rights are not just limited to things they can do, they should also see rights as something that also keeps you from harming others. At the elementary level you can have a discussion on rights as what is fair and what might be unfair to do to someone else. At the middle school level you can introduce the ideas of safeguards, which are protections, and limitations which are the guarantee that the government or even individuals cannot interfere with your rights. In discussion with students I might pose the following thought, then have them explain what this means “I might feel a certain way about an idea but I cannot force that idea on others or stop others from pursuing their own interests.” Our freedoms as citizens of a democracy are only worth what we feel safe and happy to do without anyone stopping us.
Teaching about the responsibility of the document
There is much about the constitution that is simple memorization of fact. Such as age and citizenship requirements of elected leaders in addition to limits on terms for the president. In keeping with the idea about teaching rights students can read about rights listed in the First Amendment. In learning about these facts teachers should take time to discuss why these facts might have been listed in the first place. Posing follow up questions after reading about rights that are listed in the Bill of Rights or the Articles of the Constitution can spark meaningful discussion. To ensure access of content to all students discussion can be written as well as spoken. In debriefing with students I would take time to point out how a listing of rights and a listing of requirements of our elected leaders is part of the responsibility of the document. To connect this to your students discuss how they can be responsible with the information they learn about the document. For example, I try and inform students about their rights but also to know when their rights have been violated.