Teaching second-graders about the U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights can be tricky, Pam Hofmeier says.
Most don’t understand representative government. They’re not sure what it means for people “peaceably to assemble.” They’ve never heard of a “redress of grievances.”
But they know about rules, like the ones posted on the wall of their classroom at Explorer Elementary School in Goddard: Follow directions quickly. Raise your hand for permission to speak or to leave your seat. Make smart choices. And finally, “Keep your dear teacher happy.”
“We have something like a constitution in our room, don’t we?” Hofmeier said during a recent lesson. “They’re the rules we have to follow. … The Constitution is a set of grown-up, adult rules we have for our country.”
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Rights, responsibilities and the founding documents will be popular topics in classrooms across Kansas this week as schools mark the federally mandated Constitution Day and many recognize Celebrate Freedom Week, a statute approved by Kansas lawmakers last year.
Constitution Day – the 227th anniversary of the signing of the landmark document – is Wednesday. A federal law passed as part of an appropriations bill a decade ago mandates the teaching of the Constitution that day in all schools that receive federal funds.
Celebrate Freedom Week initially was proposed by Kansas lawmakers to require that schools devote the third week in September each year to teaching kindergarten through eighth-grade students about the country’s founding. But the bill was amended to give schools the option of teaching those topics during any week of the school year.
“We always prefer to give districts flexibility in when they do these things,” said Don Gifford, educational program consultant for history, government and social studies for the Kansas Department of Education.
“September isn’t always the best time to do this kind of thing, because kids are just getting settled into a classroom, and it requires some planning,” he said.
Lessons about the U.S. Constitution, however, are required by federal law. The law establishing Constitution Day was created in 2004 with the passage of an amendment to an omnibus spending bill.
In addition to renaming the day “Constitution Day and Citizenship Day,” the act – known as Public Law 108-447 – requires all schools receiving federal funding to “hold an educational program on the United States Constitution on September 17” of every year.
At Explorer Elementary School on Wednesday, students will dress in red, white and blue, recite the Pledge of Allegiance and pose for an all-school photo on the playground. An assistant district attorney will visit several classes to talk about the legal system.
Hofmeier will teach her second-graders a little more about the three branches of government, the legislative process and women’s voting rights in part by showing Schoolhouse Rock videos: “Three-Ring Government,” “I’m Just a Bill” and “Sufferin’ ’Til Suffrage.”
The youngsters also will learn about the Constitution the way countless children before them have, singing the opening lines of the Schoolhouse Rock “Preamble” ditty:
“In 1787, I’m told, our Founding Fathers did agree,
To write a list of principles for keeping people free.
The U.S.A. was just starting out, a whole brand new country,
And so our people spelled it out, the things that we should be.”
“It’s watered down, very basic. We are just giving them their first little dose of it, introducing vocabulary,” Hofmeier said. “But social studies is very important, and they need their current events even at this level.”
In Derby, eighth-grade social studies teacher Steve Young said his students will produce a “public service announcement” regarding the Articles of the Confederation and the founders’ decision to create the Constitution.
He plans to publish the PSAs on the district’s eChalk portal and participate in a live chat moderated by the National Constitution Center on Wednesday.
Gifford, the state social studies consultant, said he understands the controversy over measures such as Celebrate Freedom Week, which opponents said amounted to micromanaging schools – mandating what needs to be taught and when.
Although a federal statute does mandate that every school mark Constitution Day in some way, “there are no Constitution Day police” patrolling classrooms to make sure there’s talk of the Founding Fathers, Gifford said.
The more serious issue, he said, is that history and social studies lessons often get squeezed out of the school day, particularly in younger grades, because of schools’ increased focus on reading and math.
“The idea that we need to designate the celebration of freedom in a week kind of belies the issues that we have,” he said. “We really should be celebrating freedom every single day in our classrooms and in the way we live our lives.”
After reviewing a lesson on the Bill of Rights, Hofmeier asked her second-graders to name some freedoms they learned about.
“You have the freedom to speak as long as it doesn’t hurt other people,” said Emma Bachman.
“That’s right, we can talk. We have freedom of speech,” Hofmeier said with a nod.
“We have the freedom to show our face,” said Hanna Main. “That means you don’t have to cover it up, like with a blanket and stuff.”
“You’re right. In some countries, women have to wear a drape over their face, but in the United States, we don’t have to do that,” the teacher explained. “We have the freedom to just kind of hang out, us girls.”
“We have the right to hang out with our friends,” added Makai Curtis. “And we can disagree with the government.”
On a “Constitution Week” bulletin board in the hallway, paper cutouts of students’ hands display some of the rules they think are important: Be kind. Do not push. Be a good sport. Help others.
And miniature scrolls show some of the freedoms they appreciate: The freedom to sing. The freedom to dance. The freedom to go outside with friends. The freedom to eat candy, have a pet, host a sleepover.
“It’s a great place to live, our country,” Hofmeier said, “because we have these freedoms. Lots of countries don’t.”