We the People
For the last twelve years, Lakeside Middle School eighth graders have participated in a national program, We the People...The Citizen and the Constitution. The curriculum is comprised of six units, which ask big questions: "What were the Founders’ basic ideas about government? What shaped the Founders’ thinking about government? What happened at the Philadelphia Convention? How was the Constitution used to establish our government? How does the Constitution protect our basic rights? What are the responsibilities of citizens? Then, these questions are broken down into study topics. Focusing on the Constitution, students study each unit, and then concentrate on one unit in preparation for a competition called a showcase. Mr. Jim Bannister, eighth grade Social Studies teacher, has received specialized training for this program.
Within their social studies classes the students formed teams of three to four students for the Showcase. Each team was assigned a unit from the textbook. Specific sub-questions under the units’ titles were to be answered in a prepared statement. Each year the sub-questions change for the unit. After the prepared statement, a panel of judges asked follow-up questions. For this segment, the students put away their notes and answered using their knowledge of the Constitution and their personal opinions. This year’s We the People Showcase was held on Wednesday, June 6.
Unit Five dealt with how the Constitution protects our basic rights. Team Jefferson, Mr. Bannister's fifth period class, presented on the First Amendment and the limits of free expression determined by the court. "The courts in our country have developed guidelines to use in limiting freedom of expression. Imagine that your freedom of expression is dangerous to the public's safety or our nation's security. For example, if you went into a packed movie theater and yelled "FIRE!" when there wasn't a fire. This could cause people to be harmed in rushing to evacuate for no reason at all." They cited the court case of Gitlow vs. New York (1919) in which Gitlow was found guilty of criminal anarchy. He published a paper that promoted a violent overthrow of the US government; it was considered an national security risk. Another court case was used to illustrate students' freedom of expression in schools. In Tinker vs. Des Moines School District (1969) students took their case to the Supreme Court to appeal their right to peacefully and quietly protest. Team Jefferson felt that although the students won at the Supreme Court level, "...students DO NOT have the same protections of our First Amendment rights as they do in society. The courts have said that students do not give up their constitutional rights to freedom of speech at the schoolhouse gate, unless the student's exercise of that right disrupts the educational process." They performed a short skit to illustrate this case. Follow-up questions from the judges had the students giving their own opinions on current freedom of expression topics: forms of religious expression, kneeling through the National Anthem, and social media post on weekends that carry over to the school week. They did not all agree, but they were all very respectful of their colleagues and used their knowledge of the constitution to back-up their thoughts.
The Constitution and how it helped to shape our government was the topic of Unit Four, with the sub-topic of how the Federalist and Anti-Federalist agreed and disagreed. Team Washington began their presentation with two students presenting the two sides' opinions in a mock conversation. This back and forth exchange of points of view was continued throughout the presentation. "Popular sovereignty is one of the few things both parties agreed on. Too bad this "agreement" didn't last. Natural rights were a big argument at the time. In the end our rights were added to the Constitution as the Bill of Rights." Another "hot topic" was republicanism. "People worried about things from too many people participating in government to not enough. The Federalist thought that the Constitution would prove itself by protecting its citizen’s rights, encouraging them to vote." Two examples of the conflict over natural rights that were presented were the internment of Japanese Americans and the Patriot Act. "Over 120,000 Japanese Americans were put into camps under the Executive Order 9066 issued by Franklin Roosevelt. This took away their Fifth Amendment rights to a fair trial and suspended habeas corpus. This right was suspended due to what at the time felt like a safety reason, but now we know it was unconstitutional." Congress passed the Patriot Act to monitor terrorism. The students presented two points of view on this Act: one, that it violated the Ninth Amendment rights of privacy, the other, the concern for national security after the attracts on the Twin Towers. "This shows how easily the government can ignore our rights and why the Anti-Federalists were right in wanting them written down." Follow-up questions for this team dealt with State verses Federal jurisdiction, gun control, and checks and balances for the branches of government.
"This (the showcase) is harder than it looks, but better than a test," stated one young lady. "This is more hands-on and more goes into it. You learn more because you spend more time and really become familiar with the subject, so you can answer the questions." Another student felt that We the People helped with her public speaking skills, particularly in front of adults she didn't know. One group shared that they really weren't friends before the showcase, but now have a great connection and learned how to work together as a group. "This really helped me develop my own opinions on issues," shared one eighth grader.
Through We the People our eighth grade students demonstrated their comprehension of the Constitution. They now have background knowledge to draw on as they contemplate current political issues. This showcase challenges our students to think analytically and to be civic minded students.