We started the Constitution last week, that is, the context around the Constitution and are starting the meat of it tomorrow. We looked at the Declaration of Independence and connected it to John Locke and the Natural Rights philosophy. We read pieces of the Articles of Confederation and connected it to the Preamble of the Constitution, where the six reasons for the establishment of the Constitution are specifically based on the weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation themselves.
We will read the Constitution, the whole Constitution. Every single word. It is not easy. Some of the language is obscure. Some of the concepts are difficult and challenging. It is truly a labor-intensive process. The students are not always up to the task. They whine and complain. I work to make the material as “sexy” as possible with discussion, role plays, creative projects, and connections to real events in their lives. And it’s hard work for me too. I’m not a constitutional expert and have to research and learn more and more to respond to their questions.
Sometimes I begin with Mike Wilkins’ Preamble created in commemoration of the Constitution’s Bicentennial in 1987 (see photo above). Wilkins ordered license plates from each of the states and territories to create this piece, which are mounted in alphabetical order by state. The whole project was nearly scuttled when there was a shut down of the license plate shop in the New Mexican prison system due to a prison disturbance. Minnesota fought to not allow UN DE because it looked like UNDIE. In the end, Wilkins prevailed. The piece is presently hanging in the National Museum of American Art in Washington DC. The students usually enjoy figuring out why he created this piece in the way he did.
In this world of wildly disparate interpretations of the Constitution, where most citizens do not even know what is actually in (and what is not in) this document (even those who run for the highest offices), where there is more reliance on hearsay and religious/ political sentiment than actual understanding of the document itself, I cannot think of a more important piece of curriculum to be exploring with the kids.
I remember a time too when I was a kid, when we were in U.S. history or political science classes, and never did we read Constitution. (And, of course, we were pretty happy we didn’t have to either.) We relied on the words of the teacher to tell us what to think. We read boring textbooks to tell us what we were supposed to know about the concepts held within. We remembered lots of rote facts. And we whined and complained about that. Never were we encouraged, except for some redacted quotes, to explore this document, to really know and care what was inside it– its parameters, its limitations, its potential, its craft, its flexibilities. I have been told by a few lawyer friends of ours that even in law school, students do not read the whole Constitution.
We presently find ourselves in the midst of a political discourse that has lost grounding in, sometimes even connection with, the actual founding document that reflects our basic principles and values as a nation. There are different and contradicting views about the heart of this document, the heart of this country, the heart of our commitments as citizens and the work that entails. I have to find a way to make the kids really feel and care about the significance of this journey. Somehow I have to infuse the core purpose of this work we will do into the slow, sometimes tedious, nature of parsing out the meaning of the Constitution’s words.
Obviously, my work is really cut out for me. Wish me luck.