Tag Archives: teaching government

Teaching the Bill of Rights to those who Shouldn’t Use them Yet

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Frank "Lefty" Rosenthal. He loved his Fifth Amendment

The Founding Fathers never counted on kids who know too much for their own good.

My students, in their urban-battleground existence in the Bronx, have seen enough bad situations to turn your Nantucket Reds a deep brown.   As much as they don’t want to admit it, their childhood has been accelerated.  They think grown-up thoughts, grown-up ideas, even grown-up vocabulary (especially what you can’t say in school.)

In spite of this, they are still children.  Still the ward of their parents. 

Now try to explain the Bill of Rights to them.  It’s as if you’re dangling the keys to a Porsche, yet you keep snatching it away until the drivers’ test.

The United States Bill of Rights, written in 1789 and ratified in 1791, outline the basic freedoms and rights enjoyed by all Americans.  It takes its rightful place among the faded parchment of our lore: the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution.  The Bill of Rights is also the most controversial of the three crinkly papers in the National Archives.  The exact meaning and extent of these rights is still hotly debated.  Conservatives want to go over the thing with White-Out and a Sharpie.  Liberals want to tack on another ream of paper covering everything from environmental awareness to Hacky-Sack regulations. 

Yet whatever your persuasion, one thing is clear: this is not kid stuff.  The Bill of Rights was meant for adults.

Many of your high-minded, Kum-Ba-Yah teachers of the granola type forget this mantra, with disastrous results.  After 30 minutes of finally getting a semblance of quiet from his little hellions, Mr. Patchouli diagrams how the Bill of Rights protects the freedom of everyone–even the students.  “That’s right, boys and girls, you have the right to say what you want, do what you want, read and write what you want…”

Think he’s getting his book reports on time anymore?  That science fair project ever get done?  How about the assessments he needs to perform his “data-driven instruction”? 

By January, this class has gone completely unhinged.  And all of them utter the same thing: “I’m allowed to!  It’s in the F***ing Bill of Rights!”

Many liberal-minded teachers are, unfortunately, like Mr. Patchouli.  They’re not bad people, and I’m sure they mean well.  Their problem is their audience–a pack of self-absorbed, out-of-control, feisty, moody, bored, defiant snot factories.   This is not the informed citizenry that Madison and Jefferson envisioned.  Yet these teachers treat them like adults, forgetting to be honest with them about their status.

So for those who must teach about American freedoms to children, here’s a step-by-step guide. 

AMENDMENT 1: Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances. 

This one is simple.  Make sure you stress two important caveats:

(1) You have all of these rights, but you can’t hurt anybody or cause anybody to get hurt.  (Conservatives can include caveats about Communism, terrorism, atheism, hippies, etc.  Liberals can include caveats about neo-Nazis, racists, Klansmen, fascism, capitalism, anyone remotely resembling Barack Obama, etc.)

(2) You’re a kid.  In school, at home, in life, you’re the property of adults until you’re 18.  You don’t have these rights yet.  Deal with it.

AMENDMENT 2: A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the People to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.

This one should be a no-brainer, just be careful of your students.  “Well-Regulated” is key: to legally own a gun, you have to abide by the gun ownership laws of your state.  The gun Ramon got “from his friend” who “just got out” probably doesn’t count.  Finally, for God’s sake, don’t mention Texas.

AMENDMENT 3: No Soldier shall, in time of peace be quartered in any house, without the consent of the Owner, nor in time of war, but in a manner to be prescribed by law.

This antique of the Revolutionary War served a purpose.  Stress the bad things the British did to houses, money, furniture and goods when discussing the quartering situation to younger students.  In high school, mention what the redcoats did to women–that’ll perk up the back row.

AMENDMENT 4: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized.

Amendments 4, 5, 6 and 8 are often grouped together.  I call them the “Law and Order/CSI/NCIS Amendments” since my kids probably know all these rights from these television programs, if not from their own experience.  Sit back and enjoy when your tough boy does his best Eliot Stabler impression and mimicks “tuning up” a suspect.

As for Amendment 4, this is when personal stories arise of families dealing with law enforcement.  If they’re guilty as sin, don’t tell it to the kid’s face.  Besides, he may get that gun he bought from Ramon and train its business end on you.

AMENDMENT 5: No person shall be held to answer for any capital, or otherwise infamous crime, unless on a presentment or indictment of a Grand Jury, except in cases arising in the land or naval forces, or in the Militia, when in actual service in time of War or public danger; nor shall any person be subject for the same offence to be twice put in jeopardy of life or limb; nor shall be compelled in any criminal case to be a witness against himself, nor be deprived of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor shall private property be taken for public use, without just compensation.

Few amendments have such legendary status as the fifth.  It’s chock full of protections for the accused, as well as the old eminent domain clause (to be avoided if in the Bronx, as the Cross-Bronx Expressway can be a touchy subject).  Just make sure they know that double jeopardy has nothing to do with the game show.  The “Right to Remain Silent” comes from this amendment. 

Finally, include a funny anecdote about “taking the fifth”, such as Las Vegas gambling kingpin Lefty Rosenthal invoking his rights 37 times to a Congressional subcommittee, thus earning his nickname.  Administrators love when teachers use organized crime: the RICO charts help kids with their organizational skills.

AMENDMENT 6: In all criminal prosecutions, the accused shall enjoy the right to a speedy and public trial, by an impartial jury of the State and district where in the crime shall have been committed, which district shall have been previously ascertained by law, and to be informed of the nature and cause of the accusation; to be confronted with the witnesses against him; to have compulsory process for obtaining witnesses in his favor, and to have the Assistance of Counsel for his defense.

Kids may get the impression that this is how all criminal trials are conducted.  Well, “Assistance of Counsel for his defense” does not mean GOOD assistance of counsel.  Again, as before, try to avoid personal stories with Amendment 6.  Last thing you need was a fistfight over why a cousin got a 10-year bit due to a dumbass public defender screwing up their case.

 AMENDMENT 7: In suits at common law, where the value in controversy shall exceed twenty dollars, the right of trial by jury shall be preserved, and no fact tried by a jury, shall be otherwise re-examined in any court of the United States, than according to the rules of the common law.

This is why the Enron people, the Adelphia folks and Bernie Madoff could not go to Judge Judy–to our chagrin.

AMENDMENT 8: Excessive bail shall not be required, nor excessive fines imposed, nor cruel and unusual punishments inflicted.

This is why we don’t have public flogging, disembowelment, breaking at the wheel, the stocks, the pillory, crucifixion, public beheadings, or body parts on pikes–don’t you just love the old days?

AMENDMENT 9: The enumeration in the Constitution, of certain rights, shall not be construed to deny or disparage others retained by the people.

This is the “dumbass” amendment.  Opponents of the Bill of Rights thought that such a bill was nonsense because it would be impossible to list all the rights a person had.  What about slapping your little sister?  How about dressing in your mother’s nightgown on the street?  When a fat kid takes your Twinkie, do you have the right to belt him in his chubby kisser?

Obviously, you have other rights.  These aren’t all of the rights, and Amendment 9 takes care of that.  Now shut up and finish your long division, you little pissant!

AMENDMENT 10: The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the States, are reserved to the States respectively, or to the people.

This is the one that caused a lot of trouble.  Southern rednecks thought this amendment gave them a green light to put on bedsheets and go buck-wild on blacks.  Some states thought it gave them carte-blanche to insert a prayer into public schools.  The fat kid invoked the Tenth as reason enough to take your Twinkie.

Legislation has taken a lot of the loopholes out of the Tenth, so much of the damage has been undone.  Thankfully.

Let me know how you do with this.  If there’s any questions about this method, let me know.  I’ll send that fat kid with the Twinkie.  That’ll straighten those little bastards out.

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The Khaki-clad Elephant: The Dangerous Waters of Teaching Politics

The minute I said it, the gasp from the class was overwhelming.

Some stood open-mouthed.  A few were clutching their mouths in a wretch of fear.  Still another student hid under his desk, not willing to withstand another onslaught.

All because I said I was a Republican. 

I didn’t say who I voted for.  Nor did I indicate my own disagreements with the policies of the previous administration.  The admission was enough to send students into a state of shock, dismay, and, in some cases, outright anger—although they wouldn’t hit me, out of respect.  I think one kid made a crack about it being obvious because I was as “big as an elephant.”

I was now the khaki-clad, L.L. Bean shirted elephant in the room (no pun intended), and I had to get used to it.

The question of politics is a tricky one in situations like the south Bronx, an area that has been overwhelmingly Democratic for decades.  As students, my children have to know about government.  One cannot divorce today’s government from politics, which dovetails into a discussion of the two dominant political parties.  It’s important to understand the sometimes fluid ideologies of both parties, as well as the histories of their development.

Yet how can a person teach effectively and accurately about our political system when one side of the political spectrum is immediately painted as a monster?

This was especially true this past winter on Inauguration Day, a day we should all celebrate as the beginning of a new Presidential administration.  This inauguration was even more significant, as the first African-American chief executive was about to be sworn in.  The students were wild with excitement, as they should be.  This was a day where we could all stand proud and watch our process continue to work as it began 222 years ago.

The ceremony inside the auditorium, however, really bothered me.  Some of the teachers had the students chanting Barack Obama’s name, almost in a Nuremburg rhythm complete with drums and jackboots.  There were songs, speeches, poems from children praising the new President.  None of this was particularly bad—how can an 8 year old think of foreign policy beyond “saving the world” and “make people happy.” 

Yet the prospect of hero worship, even if it’s somewhat deserved, was anathema to my sense of democratic fairness. 

You cannot have a hero without a villain—that’s the cardinal comic book rule.  Someone had to play the heavy (again, no pun intended).  After all, the heroes are defined by the villains they pursue, be they the Joker, Lex Luthor or Dick Cheney.  Luthor would’ve made a great CIA director.

On top of this was the tingling sense that these children were not getting a complete picture of American political reality.  We do, after all, have two political parties–with each party enjoying a sizeable electorate.  I wasn’t sure that my students were getting a fair representation of government.  As a child, I knew Ronald Reagan had faults–he couldn’t be right all the time, even if he could fill out a suit well.  As much as the liberal establishment cringes at the thought, Obama deserves the same scrutiny.

I had to provide some sort of sanity to the whole situation.  If this goes any further, there may be Obama youths walking around with multi-colored neckerchiefs.  Students may start roasting elephants in effigy.  Piles of Babar books could go up in flames.  Dumbo would be banned from the library.

After the celebrations, I was meeting with some of my older students: the same students that cringed in fear about my political affiliation.  To them, I represented everything Obama campaigned against: the war on terror, Iraq, big oil, Wall Street, the Patriot Act, all in one bald, chubby package (not unlike many leading Republicans.).

 It was then that I stiffened up and said the following:

“Guys, I’m really glad you’re excited about Obama becoming President.  You should be, and it was an important moment in our history.

 I just want to make sure that you’re realistic about what the President can and cannot do.  Remember that we learned that the President does NOT run this country—we do.  We elect a Congress and an executive to write and administer laws.  They work together, so no one person can do what they want.

Let me be clear.  You know I’m a Republican, and you may also know that I did not vote for Barack Obama…”

(another gasp from the students)

“I felt that my ideas were better represented by Senator McCain.  That does not mean, however, that Mr. Obama deserves less of my respect.  Even if I did not vote for him, he is the President of the United States.  He holds the highest office in our country, and I respect whoever is elected to that office.  Right now, that person is Barack Obama.  Who knows who it will be in four or eight years.   No matter who it is, they deserve our respect.

This leads me to my last point.  Remember that Barack Obama is a man like anyone else.  He will make mistakes—even George Washington made some.  So did Abraham Lincoln, Franklin Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.  Don’t expect him to make miracles.  There were 42 men who were President before Obama, and there will be many more after him, God willing.  We may even see a woman in the White House. 

The people in our government come and go.  It’s the Constitution, our plan, our engine of government that lives forever.  It was this plan that made us a great nation, and will continue to make us a great nation.  There have been good and bad people in our government, but the system they served still survives.  That’s what’s most important.”

I thought I’d be crucified at this point–or lynched, at the very least.

Instead, most of the students nodded in agreement.  Many understood how Obama fit into the context of our system.  Still others were grateful that I was so honest in my opinions.

It was incredibly satisfying to see that students, even students in a highly partisan community, can open up to different points of view.  I felt ecstatic, as if I had slain the Democratic PR machine with my use of doctrinaire constitutional policy. 

All I really did was deflate the Obama balloon and bring it that much closer to Earth. 

Flash forward to a few weeks ago.  I opened my unit on government with a new set of students.  We had discussed the heated debate over health care reform, and one of the students asked:

“I heard from an older kid that you were Republican, is that true?”

I nodded.

“Does that mean you’re one of those weirdo white people that yell and scream at one of those meetings?”

Nope.  I’m too busy correcting your terrible essays for that nonsense.

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Videos for the Classroom: StudyBeat.com video on American Government

As usual, I’m always on the lookout for new material for the classroom.  At first, I thought this stuff was a little too corny, but it plays well in classrooms.  Also, this particular video provides most of the basic nuts and bolts of the three branches of American government. 

This video is excellent for review purposes, or as a quick introduction to your unit on government.  If you’d like more videos from StudyBeat.com–and they tend to be pretty good–click here.

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