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August 29, 2012 We the People — A Constitutional Approach to Classroom Rules By Alycia Zimmerman
Grades 1–2, 3–5, 6–8

    We teachers know the importance of establishing a clear set of classroom expectations on the very first day of school. We have to establish rules that are broad enough to cover bizarre contingencies (“What rule says I can’t turn my pencil into a rocket launcher?!”), but that are also specific enough to speak directly to our students. And we need buy-in from all of our students. They need to feel that our rules are their social contract, supporting their “inalienable rights” as students in a caring community. In my classroom, we hitch a ride with our country’s forefathers as we draft and ratify our own classroom constitution — and learn some American history along the way.


    Back to School + Constitution Day = Fortuitous Timing

    I guess I missed the memo about the 2004 law that renamed September 17 Constitution Day (formerly Citizenship Day,) and that requires all public schools to hold some sort of programming about the U.S. Constitution on or around September 17. Oops! What kismet, then, that I usually begin the school year with a class analysis of the Preamble to the Constitution. I was law-abiding and didn’t even realize it! (Here’s a Scholastic News article about the Constitution Day law.)

    The U.S. Constitution was signed on September 17, 1787 — but I think I can get away with doing our class Constitution study anytime during the first few weeks of September. Please forgive me, George Washington, but I don’t think I can make it until September 17 without establishing the rule of law in my classroom. After all, I don’t have the benefit of the Articles of Confederation.


    Resources for a More Perfect Classroom Understanding

    Many of my 3rd graders have never heard of the Constitution, let alone know its purpose. So, in order to make our Constitution study meaningful, I have to provide a lot of background information for my students.

    BrainPOP has a short animated movie about the history of the U.S. Constitution. (You can sign up for a free trial membership to get access to this movie.)

    Scholastic also has an entire section with elementary-age-appropriate Constitution resources perfect for students who are beginning constitutionalists:

    “Kids should understand that the Constitution is not just something that happened in 1787, the way that it is sometimes taught in school. There are countries around the world today that are struggling to write a constitution and it's such a difficult process, and we have, here, the oldest, most successful constitution in the world, so we should be very proud of that. But it only works if we're interested in it and we learn about our government and our communities, because the Constitution provides for everyone to participate.”

    The Constitution by the Book

    In addition to the wealth of Internet resources about the Constitution, there are also several children’s books I like to read aloud to my class to accompany this mini-unit.

    Jean Fritz’s Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution provides a very well-researched, fact-filled account of the writing of the Constitution. In addition to reading the book, you can show the Weston Woods video version on SchoolTube.






    If You Were There When They Signed the Constitution provides a background survey of information about the Constitution that would be appropriate for 2nd–4th graders. I assign pairs of students to each read a section of the book and they share the information with the class in a “jigsaw” format.



    An illustrated, cartoonish take on the Preamble to the Constitution, David Catrow’s illustrated picture book We the Kids will enliven the heavy text for younger students. I find the glossary particularly useful.







    For upper elementary and middle school students, The Amazing Life of Benjamin Franklin provides historical context for the events surrounding the writing of the Constitution. 





    Unpacking the Preamble and Rocking Out!

    For my 3rd graders, it is unrealistic to read and analyze the entire Constitution. We stick with the Preamble, and even that feels like a challenge. You can view a scan of the actual Constitution at the World Digital Library, download a PDF with the text of the entire Constitution from the Constitution Center, or you can keep it simple, as I do, and just give your kids this copy of the Preamble to mark up. 

    As a class, we go through the Preamble line by line, discussing the writers’ intent and rewording the text into a modern “translation.” My students feel very grown up to be closely analyzing this primary document — and realizing that they can understand it! 

    My favorite part is when it is time to SING the Preamble. Thanks to Schoolhouse Rock! from my childhood, I’ve never forgotten the Preamble — and I doubt my students will either. You can watch the Schoolhouse Rock! Preamble video on YouTube, or you can buy it from iTunes. I copy the Preamble, available here, onto paper, and we sing it several times every day until my students are no longer tripping over words like prosperity and tranquility. Singing together is also a great bonding activity — I can feel our classroom community getting stronger as we belt out the Preamble!


    Writing Our Constitution

    At last it is time to write our Classroom Constitution that we will all be expected to uphold during the school year. My students really get into the spirit of this activity, embracing some of the flowery language of the Preamble as a model for our constitution. We first brainstorm our collective goals and needs in order to have a safe, productive, and inspiring classroom. You may want to use this “We the Students” planning worksheet from Scholastic that you may want to use for brainstorming. We find the overarching themes in our list, condensing, for instance, “don’t push” and “no fighting” to “be safe.”

    Then, as a shared writing activity, we combine everyone’s ideas into the constitution that I chart onto poster paper. Each of the students sign the constitution, and we chorally read it aloud as a celebration of the ratification. Finally, the students copy the text of our constitution onto a document that they bring home to discuss and get signed by their parents. Here is the template I use with my students.

    While signing our Class Constitution, all of the students hopefully take ownership of its ideals.


    Such Prosperity: Even More Resources!

    There are tons of resources on the Internet to support classroom lessons about the U.S. Constitution. Below are just a smattering of the resources available:

    Do you teach the U.S. Constitution in your classroom? How do you make it relevant for your students, and what resources do you use? Please share your thoughts in the comments section below!


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Susan Cheyney