My letter to the Social Studies Department Chair at West Haven High School
Dear Mark …and to every other Civics or AP Government Teacher in the USA:
Sorry to interrupt your well-deserved summer vacation.
But I have a resource that I think you should use next year in the Advanced Placement American Government class. You should share this resource with the Issues in Government classes.
This Sunday’s NY Times (7/2/17) magazine has special section devoted to a single spread layout, four pages long, that features an annotated United States Constitution.
How could this be used in your classroom?
You will note that on the front of the section is the editors’ statement about the Constitution, that “Schoolchildren are sometimes forced to read it.” You have mentioned several times that students at every level sometimes have difficulty reading a primary source document like the Constitution. They are not alone. The editors of the section also note that scholars “pore over it,” inferring they too are reading the text to better understand this primary source document:
“For most Americans, the United States Constitution remains a distant and archaic text, a relic to be revered but rarely consulted.”
In presenting this annotated document, the editors have given teachers a tool to help students better understand our country’s basic rules. They have implemented a literary strategy known as “chunking the text” which means breaking down a difficult text into more manageable pieces so that students can close read for better comprehension. Chunking helps students identify key words and ideas, develops their ability to paraphrase, and makes it easier for them to organize and synthesize information. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text multiple times for what the text says and how the text works in order to determine how the text has an impact on their lives.
Several sections of this annotated Constitution have commentary from a lawmaker or a scholar or an author or a NYTimes editor. Over 30 individuals offered commentaries printed in the margins including: Representative John Conyers (Michigan), Representative Adam B. Schiff (California), Senator Mike Lee (Utah), Senator Lamar Alexander (Tennessee), Senator Patty Murray (Washington) Janet Napolitanto (former Secretary of Homeland Security), Jamal Green (Columbia Law Professor), Lawrence Tribe (Harvard Law Professor) as well as staff writers Adam Liptak and Emily Bazelon.
Each short commentary, about one or two short paragraphs long, serves as a model for students to follow. Students can be asked to imitate what the contributors have done and chunk the text of the Constitution in order to rewrite text in their own words. By chunking the text, students are better able to identify key words, to analyze ideas, to paraphrase, and to synthesize information.
Each commentary is connected by an arrow imposed on the section being annotated. For several sections Amendment 14 -Civil Rights) there are several commentaries. In total, there are 40 commentaries offering multiple points of view on our founding charter.
For example, Senator John McCain writes about the “common defense”(Article I: Section 8):
“With the powers given to us by our founders, it must be the urgent work of Congress to meet our sacred obligations to give our service members everything they need to defend our nation and our liberty.”
Vanita Gupta, former assistant attorney general at the Department of Justice writes about the 14th Amendment,
“The struggle to realize the promise of this brief but important clause has been at the heart of every movement for civil rights in this country and continues to animate social justice activism of today.”
Their examples serve as models to show students how to analyze and to synthesize the language of the document.
What teachers have with this annotated Constitution are 40 mini-lessons they can share with students sequentially or by order of a trending topic (capital punishment, freedom of the press, etc.)
But that’s not all!
There is a prologue to the inside spread, a two page essay by author Garry Wills, who has written about James Madison, framer of Constitution. His essay, titled “Child of the Enlightenment,” discusses the principles derived from the the Age of Reason that guided the “secular miracle” of the Constitutional Convention over the course of a year: convened in 1787 and ratified 13 months later in June 1788.
Wills considers what he calls the “myth” of the checks and balances built into the Constitution, suggesting that:
James Madison was not so much as wanting to encourage “competing interests but to arrive at a ‘disinterested’ view of a common purpose, what Enlightenment philosophers call ‘virtue’ – or public spiritedness.”
Wills argues that such virtue was-and still is -the key component of all government.
Finally, at the the bottom of Wills’ prologue, there is a timeline marking several Constitutional milestones, beginning with its origins in Ancient Greece and ending with today.
Taken as a whole, the special section this Sunday eliminates the need for civics textbooks, which I have often suggested are dated. We both know that students are more motivated when they respond to the issues being discussed today.
This four page spread of newsprint is an entire civics course. ..you just have to get a copy! (or you can borrow mine).