CENTER FOR EDUCATION IN LAW AND DEMOCRACY
The Pledge of Allegiance: A Teachable Moment
Lesson Ideas
Teaching Controversial Issues
Colorado Law requiring daily recitation of the Pledge passed in May 2003. However, following a temporary Federal Court injunction, this law will be re-considered by legislators during the 2004 legislative session.

Teaching about controversial public issues is an effective method for engaging students in the work of citizens. Of course, teachers have numerous controversial issues from which they can choose; even what appears to be one issue—mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance, for example—can embody several different issues and conflicts. For example, some see the issue as involving freedom of religion, while others see it as involving freedom of speech. Still others question the efficacy of the policy (i.e., whether reciting the Pledge does develop patriotism).

In deciding what issues to use in the classroom, teachers should consider the following:

The students—Is the issue age appropriate for the students? Is it interesting enough to engage student interest but not so "hot" that students cannot comfortably move past their own positions to participate in reasoned inquiry and dialogue?

The issue—Is the issue truly contested (that is, is opinion about the right solution divided)? Does the issue present a clear conflict between two "goods" (e.g., patriotism and individual liberty)? Is the conflict one that has endured over time, manifesting itself in different specific issues? Will teaching the issue help reach an important curricular goal?

While we would not advocate that all teachers should necessarily address the issue of mandatory recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance in their classes, many will find themselves answering all of the above questions "Yes" with respect to this issue. If they do—and they make the decision to teach about the issue—they must decide how to frame the issue.

Before the Colorado legislation was passed, teachers Jason Barnes of Bear Creek High School (Jefferson County Schools) and John Zola of New Vista High School (Boulder Valley Schools) developed a lesson in which they framed the issue as: "Should the phrase 'under God' be retained in or removed from the Pledge of Allegiance?" Through a series of readings related to the case from the 9th Circuit Federal Court for the Eastern District of California, Michael P. Newdow v. United States, students develop an understanding of the arguments supporting and opposing the inclusion of this phrase in the Pledge. They then write a persuasive letter advocating a position on the phrase. A class discussion culminates the lesson. To get a copy of this lesson, contact Jason Barnes.

Other questions that might be used to frame the issue are:

  • Is the new law mandating recitation of the Pledge good public policy? (Is it an effective way to achieve the legislature’s purpose with minimal burdens on individuals?)
  • Is the new law constitutional?
  • If the issues surrounding Colorado’s new Pledge of Allegiance law are seen as a conflict between the need for national unity/patriotism and individual liberty, does the law find the correct balance between these competing values?