PP

Observing Constitution Day
with Literacy Activities

Laurel Singleton, Center for Education in Law and Democracy

Constitution Day can be observed in the reading/language arts curriculum, as well as in social studies. In the early grades, picture books with constitutional themes can provide the basis for an excellent Constitution Day lesson. For middle and high school classes, books, short stories, poems, and essays with constitutional themes can be used as the basis for a seminar or civil conversation whose goal will be to develop greater comprehension of the reading material, as well as insight into some aspect of our constitutional government. The following suggestions are meant as stimulants to teachers’ thinking, rather than prescribed lessons.

 

Early Elementary


The following are two of many picture books that have constitutional themes. For each, we have provided a reading guide with a summary of the book, initiating activities to set the book in a civic education context, discussion questions, and follow-up activities. This type of reading guide can be very helpful in bringing a civic education perspective to discussion of books read in the literacy block.

Voting: Granddaddy’s Gift, by Margaree King Mitchell, illustrated by Larry Johnson
(New York: Bridge Water Books, 1997).

Freedom of Religion/Tolerance: The Christmas Menorahs: How a Town Fought Hate, by Janice Cohn, illustrated by Bill Farnsworth (Morton Grove, IL: Albert Whitman, 1995).
 
Upper Elementary/Middle School

For upper elementary and middle school students, Readers Theater can be an engaging way to involve students with readings that have constitutional themes. Readers Theater is a form of shared oral reading. Readers Theater involves the whole class in reading skills, language appreciation, creativity, self-expression, and group cooperation. In Readers Theater, a script is created from the text of a book. The text is not edited; rather, it is divided up into different “voices.” For an introduction to Readers Theatre, click here.
For Constitution Day, teachers might select two or three different texts on a particular theme and create scripts to be presented and discussed in class. For example, for a focus on civil rights, students might present readings of the following:
The poems “Desegregation” by Eloise Greenfield and “Stormy Weather,” by Joyce Carol Thomas, both from Linda Brown, You Are Not Alone: The Brown v. Board of Education Decision, edited by Joyce Carol Thomas (New York: Hyperion, 2003).
A children’s book, such as The Bus Ride that Changed History: The Story of Rosa Parks, by Pamela Duncan Edwards, illustrated by Danny Shanahan (Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 2005); If a Bus Could Talk: The Story of Rosa Parks, by Faith Ringgold (New York: Aladdin, 1999); or Freedom Summer, by Deborah Wiles, illustrated by Jerome Lagarrigue (New York: Atheneum, 2001).
An excerpt from Freedom’s Children: Young Civil Rights Activities Tell Their Own Stories, edited by Ellen Levine (New York: Putnams, 1993).
An excerpt from Dr. Martin Luther King’s "I Have a Dream" speech.
Similarly, for a focus on the 14th Amendment and Japanese-American internment, students might present readings of the following:
The poem "In Response to Executive Order 9066: All Americans of Japanese Descent Must Report to Relocation Centersby Dwight Okita, in Celebrate America in Poetry and Art, edited by Nora Panzer (New York: Hyperion, 1994).
A children’s book, such as The Bracelet, by Yoshiko Uchida, illustrated by Joanne Yardley (New York: Putnam, 1996); Baseball Saved Us, by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee (New York: Lee and Low, 1995); or So far from the Sea, by Eve Bunting, illustrated by Chris K. Soentpiet (New York: Clarion, 1998).
An excerpt from A Fence Away from Freedom: Japanese Americans and World War II, edited by Ellen Levine (New York: Putnam’s, 1995).
Excerpts from opinions in the Supreme Court case, Korematsu v. United States.
 

Middle/High School

The civil conversation model model developed by the Constitutional Rights Foundation (CRF), like a Socratic seminar, engages students in close analysis of a text (note that text is broadly interpreted, since a visual or piece of music can serve as the text on which a conversation is based). The conversation takes place with the students in a circle. The teacher acts as a facilitator.

To prepare for the conversation, students read the text and answer questions that require them to first comprehend what the text is about and what its main points are and then to analyze that text. CRF suggests the following question sequence:
1. This selection is about –
2. The main points are:
3. In the reading, I agree with
4. In the reading, I disagree with
5. What are two questions about this reading that you think need to be discussed? (The best questions for discussion are ones that have no simple answer, ones than can use materials in the text as evidence.)
One way to begin the conversation is by asking every member of the group share one of the questions they have about the text. The conversation can then continue by discussing the questions raised. Another way to begin the conversation is for the facilitator to ask a question. This may be the most effective way to begin when students have not had much practice using the model and developing questions.

Following the conversation, students should have the opportunity to reflect on the conversation and assess their own and others’ contributions. This reflection can be prompted using such questions as: What worked? What improvements can we make in our next conversation? What insights did you have into the meaning of the text as a result of listening to others’ ideas?

The following are just a few examples of texts that might be used in a civil conversation marking Constitution Day:
Sections of the Constitution, such as the Preamble or the Fourteenth Amendment.
Excerpts from landmark Supreme Court opinions, such as Justice Jackson’s opinion in West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette or Justice Brennan’s opinion in Texas v. Johnson.
Historic speeches, such as Ben Franklin's speech at the close of the Constitutional Convention, George Washington's Farewell Address, or Thomas Jefferson's First Inaugural Address.
Poems, such as Langston Hughes’s "Let America Be America Again" or the lyrics of Woody Guthrie’s "This Land Is Your Land."
Historical photographs, such as those from the book Remember: The Journey to School Integration, by Toni Morrison (New York: Houghton Mifflin, 2004).
Shorter literary works, such as the short story “Harrison Bergeron,” by Kurt Vonnegut, or the play “The Crucible,” by Arthur Miller.