This week, social studies teachers and students across the country will spend some time analyzing the same text: The U.S. Constitution.
Saturday marks Constitution Day, a holiday commemorating the founding document’s signing on September 17, 1787. The day is tied to one of the very few federal mandates that dictate the content of school curricula: Any school that receives federal funding has to teach about the Constitution on the holiday (or near it, if it falls on a weekend).
The requirement was the brainchild of the late Sen. Robert C. Byrd, who added it as a rider to a federal spending bill in 2004. Byrd worried that lack of public knowledge about the Constitution was a problem for the country. Even members of Congress, he said in 2004, “do not come really with, in so many instances, a basic knowledge of the Constitution and, of course, with a love and reverence for it.”
The knowledge gap has persisted. A 2017 nationally representative poll of U.S. adults found more than a third could not name a specific right given in the First Amendment. Only a quarter of respondents could name the three branches of government.
Teachers say that knowing how the Constitution works deepens students’ understanding of U.S. history and current events—but that it also provides vital information for students’ own lives. Teaching the document can help students better understand their own rights, get clarity on how the government works, and learn about the mechanisms for change, educators say.
The news cycle provides a lot of entry points into that discussion. This spring alone, several U.S. Supreme Court cases—including the overturning of Roe v. Wade—intensified ongoing debates about constitutional interpretation.
At the same time, though, discussing issues that could be seen as “controversial” in the classroom is a riskier proposition than ever. Parent activists and Republican state legislators have spent the last two years pushing to restrict how teachers can discuss race, gender, and social issues in schools—in some cases, offering cash rewards to those who turn teachers in for talking about prohibited subjects.
Teaching the Constitution can require getting into some polarizing topics: gun rights, the history of slavery, and policing among them. Education Week has compiled a few resources that are designed to help teachers navigate these conversations. We’ve grouped them into four different methods. You can use them individually, or braid them together.
- Study the text of the document. Developed jointly by iCivics and the Center for Civic Education, “The Constitution Explained” dives into the text of the Constitution and explores its relevance today through a series of short videos. “Why are ‘we the people’ creating the Constitution?” the introductory video asks. “The first answer is, to form a more perfect union. We are saying upfront that we have made mistakes, and our job is to keep making the American nation better.”
- Explore different perspectives. Constitution 101, a semester-long, high school curriculum, was designed to teach students “how [the Constitution] was written, how it works, what are the tests of it—but also what are the gray areas, and how do they play a part in that?” said Kerry Sautner, the chief learning officer at the nonpartisan National Constitution Center, which developed the materials. The lessons come with a “Founders Library” of supporting documents, selected by scholars on opposite ends of the ideological spectrum. In providing a diversity of perspectives, the Constitution Center hopes to be a “support and a shield” for teachers facing potential challenges to addressing these topics, Sautner said.
- Discuss the Constitution’s role inside the “schoolhouse gate.” What are students’ Constitutional rights? U.S. Supreme Court cases have constrained some student speech inside school buildings and ruled that students don’t get the same level of 4th Amendment protection as adults. Education Week’s 2019 video gets into the details—and some common misconceptions.
- Hear from current and former U.S. Supreme Court justices. The Annenberg Center provides lesson plans, games, and videos on the Constitution—including some videos of conversations between justices on key topics. The collection features Stephen Breyer, Sandra Day O’Connor, John Roberts Jr., Anthony Kennedy, and Ruth Bader Ginsburg.
For an in-depth look at several teachers’ approaches to this classroom holiday, see this story. And good luck!