I am a San Marino High School (CA) social studies teacher who tells the students enrolled in my U.S. Government class that with this subject matter they will learn about true greatness:
- The Declaration of Independence and U.S. Constitution
- Federalism and the Federalist Papers
- The Amendment process
- Judicial review
- Checks and balances
- The role of the government in terms of the history of public education, civil rights, our space program, World War II, and our national parks system
But I believe this greatness is especially clear when they learn about the First Amendment.
If you too think that it is important for high school students to learn about the First Amendment in detail, then I recommend following the five-step teaching strategy described below.
STEP #1: At the start of the semester, give students an incentive to go online daily in search of a newspaper article that raises a First Amendment issue.
The incentive I offer is extra credit to the first three students who send me an email with a well-worded, one paragraph description and a link to an article raising a First Amendment issue. They can receive up to 10 extra credit points, with each student in the class allowed to earn up to 30 extra credit points per semester.
STEP #2: Declare every Monday “First Amendment Monday” – and on this day begin the period with a 10-15 minute description of a newspaper article written within the past five years and which raises a First Amendment issue.
On the first Monday in my class this semester, I described for the students a New York Times article entitled “Students in Maryland Test Civic Participation and Win Right to Vote”
On the following Monday, I described a New York Times editorial entitled “A License to Say Anything?”
And on the Monday after that, I described a Los Angeles Times article entitled “Student Sues Citrus College Over Free Speech Restrictions”
Sometimes, rather than describe the article, I give the students a chance to read the article/editorial for themselves. As we move through the semester, students will ask and receive permission to describe an article found on the internet.
STEP #3: Whenever possible, provide students with an opportunity to engage in a Civic Learning Meet and Greet that raises a First Amendment issue.
A Civic Learning Meet and Greet is an opportunity for students to hear and learn from individuals appearing in either the textbook or the newspaper, with a typical Meet and Greet scheduled to last from 30--50 minutes and formatted along the lines of a television talk show with a student serving in the role of host.
As for a guest, consider the following:
Given that the textbook makes mention of the Supreme Court case of Texas v. Johnson, invite Gregory Lee Johnson to participate in a Meet and Greet.
Texas v. Johnson is the case that invalidated prohibitions on desecrating the American flag on the grounds that burning a flag in public is protected by the Free Speech Clause of the First Amendment. Years ago, Mr. Johnson participated (via speaker-phone) in one of my Meet and Greets. The students not only asked Mr. Johnson to describe the facts of the case, but they also asked him whether he thought minors should be allowed to burn the flag in public.
Given that the textbook makes mention of the Supreme Court case of Elk Grove Unified School District v. Michael Newdow, invite Michael Newdow to participate in a Meet and Greet.
Elk Grove Unified v. Newdow is the case in which Michael Newdow argued that schools should be prohibited from saying the Pledge of Allegiance with the phrase “under God” in it on the grounds that doing so violates the Establishment Clause of the Constitution.
Recently, Mr. Newdow participated (via video conference) in one of my Meet and Greets. The students not only asked Mr. Newdow to describe the case, but they also asked him the following question: “aside from your belief that recitations of the current version of the Pledge of Allegiance in public schools in the United States should be declared unconstitutional because of its inclusion of the phrase ‘under God,’ do you also believe that the phrase ‘in God we trust’ should be removed from our paper currency?”
Dave Gordon, the Sacramento County Superintendent of Public Schools, has also participated in one of my Meet and Greets and while so doing was asked by the students to describe his memory of the Michael Newdow case. He was also asked whether school administrators in Sacramento County, which continue to say the Pledge on a daily basis, ever inform their students that under the First Amendment they are not required to say the Pledge.
Given that a recent Los Angeles Times article described how the Hyattsville, Maryland City Council voted 7-to-4 to allow 16 and 17 year olds to vote in the town’s elections, invite one of the names appearing in the article to participate in a Meet and Greet.
Recently, I asked Patrick Paschall to participate in one of my Meet and Greets. Mr. Pashall is the city councilman who sponsored the change to the city’s charter and who was quoted in the article as saying “teenagers drive on public streets, pay income taxes on jobs and seek police support, which earns them a vote. We can’t say we want to hear their voices and want them to be more engaged but not do anything to engage them.” Mr. Pashall has agreed to meet with my students via video conference on a “First Amendment Monday” in February.
Given that a recent Washington Post article pointed out that the Supreme Court will soon review whether Texas’s rejection of a proposed license plate featuring the Confederate flag violated the free speech rights of the group that wanted the special plates, invite one of the names appearing in the article to participate in a Meet and Greet.
Recently, I asked R. James George to participate in a Meet and Greet. Mr. George represents Sons of Confederate Veterans, the group that wants the special plates. Mr. George was quoted in the article as saying, “offensiveness is not a permissible standard to restrict speech.” Mr. George has agreed to meet with my students via video conference. We're aiming for a “First Amendment Monday” in March.
For an article describing my Meet and Greet Program in more detail, see
STEP #4: Whenever possible, provide students with an opportunity to engage in a First Amendment simulation
Throughout the course of the quarter, I provide my students with a number of different First Amendment simulations, with the ones that students tend to engage in the most described below.
Simulation #1: In this simulation, students role play as radio station executives deciding whether particular talk radio show hosts should remain on the air
Simulation #2: In this simulation, students role play city council members called to decided whether to require filters in their city’s public libraries. The various proposals are to require filters:
a. on all public library computers all the time
b. on all public library computers with an "on/off switch" activated by the user
c. only on public library computers that children must use
d. on no public library computers at any time
Simulation #3: In this simulation, students role play members of the U.S. Supreme Court and examine different examples of abortion clinic protests before deciding whether or not each is protected by the First Amendment.
Simulation #4: In this simulation, students role play members of the U.S. Supreme Court and decide whether permitting student-led, student-initiated prayer at football games violate the establishment clause?
Simulation #5: In this simulation, students role play members of the U.S. Supreme Court and decide whether recitations of the Pledge of Allegiance in public school including the phrase “under God” violates the Establishment Clause.
STEP #5: Alert students to any/all upcoming First Amendment essay/photo/art competitions.
One of the better ones is called the First Amendment Cartoon Contest
A Word to New Teachers
Educators are increasingly trying to bring civic learning to the front burner, so don’t hesitate when it comes to the teaching of the First Amendment. Just jump in anywhere and anyhow. The time is right, especially in light of the recent terror attacks in Paris.
Besides, of all the things you teach in a U.S. Government course, the First Amendment is something that students typically have the most interest in.
So for the new teacher, this is a no-lose proposition. In other words, great forces outside of the classroom and great forces within the classroom want you to teach the First Amendment and, more than that, they want you to spend some serious time on it.
This piece was originally submitted to our community forums by a reader. Due to audience interest, we’ve preserved it. The opinions expressed here are the writer’s own.