Teaching the bill of rights to students. It’s all about the relevancy of lessons. Why are we studying this? Because you need to know your rights and be a participant in democracy. First amendment cases are good for teaching because they get at the basics of student beliefs and misconceptions. It’s surprising how many of them think that it’s illegal to criticize the government, or the military, or that it’s illegal to burn the flag.
In order to facilitate this discussion I framed it in the current Snyder v. Phelps supreme court case. It’s a strong teaching case for two main reasons. One, it is so outrageous that we avoid the discussion of are they correct or not to say what they want. All of my students agree that it’s in bad taste, it’s rude, it’s abhorrent, it just shouldn’t be done. Because we all agree on that we can have a real discussion about should this speech be protected. We don’t argue about the content of the speech, but the constitutionality of it. It allows us to have a real issues discussion. Secondly it helps so much to have an undecided court case. I introduced the case on the same day as oral arguments. It’s a prediction of how the court will decide, and that give the students agency. They are actively interpreting current events in a way that directly relates to our school work. The current events aren’t tacked on, and there is true context and relevancy for the issues that extends beyond the classroom. They matter to the world, and that matters to the students.
As I continue to teach government I plan on keeping in mind that the court begins its sessions in October and intentionally lining my lessons up with that schedule. It’s so meaningful to use current cases as opposed to cases that have already been decided. It takes more work as a teacher, but it makes a clear link to following the news and education. Citizens have to be informed, and structuring the government class in a way that makes students participate in current events as well as understanding the structure of government dramatically increases student engagement and helps them create meaning from their schooling.