Saturday, September 13, 2014

Constitution Day: A Plea about How NOT to Teach the Constitution

UDATE: Here are the posts I have done since this one on the constitution:
post on how to organize a Constitution unit
post on teaching concept of federalism
post on using current events & Constitution to teach federalism
post on teaching concept of representative government
find more here by scrolling to presentation on the Constitution

Next Wednesday, the 17th, is Constitution Day.  In Illinois, where I live, there is a law requiring students to pass "an examination" about the principles of representative government as enunciated in the Constitution. (You can see the law itself here. Curious about other states, but not curious enough to google all 50, sorry). Many schools have chosen to administer multiple choice tests to students in 7th or 8th grade, and then again in high school. The Illinois law does NOT stipulate that the examination must be multiple choice, or even that there must be a specific test at all, so there actually is quite a lot of leeway.

It means that, in Illinois, anyway, We, the Teachers, get to write the assessment. It does NOT have to be a memorizingabunchoffactsthatstudentswillpromptlyforgetafterthetest kind of test.

The test we give, and the way we teach the Constitution can be better. Much better. And I think the Common Core can help with that. For example, take this standard:

CCSS.ELA-LITERACY.RH.9-10.4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including vocabulary describing political, social, or economic aspects of history/social science. 

This is for grade 9-10. The middle school equivalent is almost identical; the 11-12th grade standard adds something about how the meaning changes over time, so a good example using the example below might be to discuss how “search & seizure”has changed due to cell phones.


In my highly unscientific survey, in most schools that I have visited through my work, the students are given a multiple choice test after a unit that teaches the Constitution by going through the three branches, one at a time. Students are asked to "know" things like the qualifications for each branch, how a bill becomes a law (and everyone seems to show the same admittedly adorable Schoolhouse Rock video, "I'm Just a Bill," and what each branch of government does. The way that last point is done is usually by explaining that "Congress makes the laws, the executive enforces them, and the judicial interprets them." I betcha gazillions of kids can recite that back to you perfectly. And they can get a multiple choice question like the one below correct (even if they can't recite it, they will likely get it right, because they all know that when in doubt, the answer is "c").
It is the job of the judicial branch to
a. make the laws
b. enforce the laws
c. interpret the laws
d. all of the above
But do they have any clue what that means? Do they know that Congress can ABSOLUTELY pass a law that might be unconstitutional? How? Because it is not until the Court rules on a case that something might be determined to be unconstitutional. And the Court gets to choose which cases it hears. And which cases it does not. This is a basic--and very important fact--about our system that few kids understand, even after they've successfully crammed and passed the Constitution Test.

And more troubling, rarely are students asked to actually READ the Constitution. Students are told via PowerPoint presentations or through charts in their textbooks that Senators are elected for 6 year terms, instead of reading Article I, section three of the Constitution where this is stated.

Some critics of this approach might go so far to ask, why need to know this at all, in the age of Google, when the answer to how long Senators serve can be looked up on your phone in seconds? It is an excellent question to which I am still formulating an equally good answer. But in the meantime, I think we DO expect our citizens to have a modicum of understanding of how our government works.

The problem is that teaching that in a rote, memorization-sort-of-way is dull, dull, dull.

Let's say that you agree, but for whatever reason, your school or your department chair or whatever really thinks there should be a multiple choice Constitution test. Can't it be a more challenging one, in which students have to actually study and learn something in order to pass? Look, for example, at the question below:
U.S. Senators are elected
a. every two years
b. every four years
c. every six years (again, correct answer--when in doubt--is C)
d. every eight years 

Compare this to the question below. This question asks for the same knowledge, but now students have to apply that knowledge to what they know about members of other branches. Moving up
Bloom's Taxonomy...
Which official must be re-elected most often?
a. Representatives in the U.S. House**
b. the President
c. Senators
d. Supreme Court Justices
What if you changed the question above to a short answer or essay such as this:
Which official--representative, senators, president, or Supreme Court justice--would you consider the most "representative." Explain, making sure to explain what is meant by "representative."
Or this: which official above is the least subject to political pressure? Explain. 

Eventually, we might decide we should totally revamp how we teach the Constitution and offer students opportunities for more authentic assessments/projects. Check out these ideas for student projects. Some of them, admittedly, are way too difficult for middle school students, and many of them are even challenging for high schoolers. You would have to do some scaffolding before you let students loose on these. But think about how much more interesting lessons which led to these kind of assessments could be. Take the first one, in which students do research on some Supreme Court Justice nominees. Finding out about the nomination of Clarence Thomas not only will teach students about the procedure for how a Justice gets on the court, but about the politics involved.

And one last plea....

Once you've taught the Constitution--whether it's a special lesson or two for Constitution Day or a two week unit following the American Revolution, don't just forget about it. Go back to the Constitution often. Revisit it when you teach about the the "fight" between Hamilton and Jefferson about the Bank of the United States. Or Jefferson's decision to purchase the Louisiana Territory. Or about the constitutionality of slavery and the wretching decision made in the Dred Scott case. Or how the federal government used the 14th Amendment primarily as a way to defend corporations until the Civil Rights Movement. Or how the interstate commerce clause was (eventually) used to dismantle segregation. Or when teaching about civil rights in wartime and the Schenk case that arose in World War I. Or Nixon's impeachment and the questions it raised about the power of the Executive branch. Or the stories of how and why various amendments were added to the Constitution. So many more great examples....

There are SO many great Internet resources for you and your students. So until I post more about how to teach the Constitution (I plan to, soon! After the Revolution!), check out these great websites (if you haven't already found them on your own). 

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