On Sunday, September 17, 2017, we the people (of the United States) will be celebrating the 230th year of our Constitution. There was legislation passed in 1997 that designated September 17th as Constitution Day since this recognition marks that day back in 1787 when the delegates to the Constitutional Convention signed the document in Philadelphia.
There were two provisions in the 1997 legislation that created Constitution Day. The first is that the head of every federal agency provides each employee with educational materials concerning the Constitution. The second provision is that educational institutions which receive Federal funds should offer a program for students every Constitution Day.
That second requirement for Constitution Day does not define the kind of program that schools should offer students; the requirement seems intentionally vague and small, considering the impact this document, and its multiple revisions, have had in defining the conditions of the American society our students will inherit. Educators are free to choose what to do in offering a program.
Given that Constitution Day falls on a Sunday in 2017, the day of recognition will move to Monday, September 18th. For those last minute Sunday night planners, there are a number of different websites with prepared lessons for all grade levels.
A quick google search for ideas, for example, yielded multiple websites for materials. There were lesson plans for elementary students on the Scholastic website for grades 3-5 . There are also Scholastic lessons for grades 6-8. Another website, The Constitution Center is offering a series of lessons as well.
If prepared lesson plans are not possible, educators can always share a selection from the Constitution. They could review (close read) the Preamble, the Bill of Rights, or any one of the 27 Amendments. Those educators who favor history can share the story of how the Constitution became necessary after the political and economic unrest that followed the Treaty of Paris in 1783. They can explain how the efforts of four ultra-nationalists (James Madison, Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and George Washington) prevented the United States from being a failed ex-British colony.
History trivia buffs can share that back in 1787, many of the delegates, including Madison who was most responsible for the document, doubted the Constitution would work. The delegates did not speak of it with the same reverence that today’s politicians do. Included with those doubters was the Honorable Benjamin Franklin.
Given today’s political polarization, a more timely Constitution Day activity in a secondary school would be to share Franklin’s feelings about the Constitution by having students review the opening to a letter sent before the Constitution went up for a vote:
I confess that I do not entirely approve of this Constitution at present, but Sir, I am not sure I shall never approve it: For having lived long, I have experienced many Instances of being oblig’d, by better Information or fuller Consideration, to change Opinions even on important Subjects, which I once thought right, but found to be otherwise. It is therefore that the older I grow the more apt I am to doubt my own Judgment, and to pay more Respect to the Judgment of others.
Franklin’s begrudging acceptance of the Constitution could be a lesson to students, those future citizens being trained in the classroom, that political opinions can change. As Franklin stated, the Constitution that was ratified in 1787 was not entirely perfect, but he approved it because he respected the judgment of others. He advocated that other delegates do the same in the conclusion of his letter:
On the whole, Sir, I cannot help expressing a Wish, that every Member of the Convention, who may still have Objections to it, would with me on this Occasion doubt a little of his own Infallibility, and to make manifest our Unanimity, put his Name to this instrument.
Franklin understood that the United States needed the example of unity by delegates at its political birth. As a result, for 230 years, the Constitution has been the framework which has kept the United States united.
Issues in contemporary politics could be addressed by educators who choose to use Franklin’s words as a model for healthy political discussions in class. The same respect for the judgment of others Franklin wrote about 230 years ago should be a model for respect shared in classrooms. Educators can focus on having students doubt a little of their own political “infallibility” and to practice as fellow citizens to listen to others speak about their points of view.
That right to speak is guaranteed by our 230-year-old United States Constitution….so Happy Constitution Day!