Students in Bob Baker’s American studies classes at Ferris High School should know their rights. At least they ought to by the end of next week.
That’s when the high school juniors will dig in to the first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution that make up the Bill of Rights.
They’ve spent the first few weeks of school studying the roots, ratification and framework of the constitutional government and took their first exam on Tuesday.
“We’re setting the foundation,” for the study of American history, government, civics and for the rest of the school year, Baker said. “It’s an important piece.”
Baker’s students won’t be the only ones taking a look at what is believed to be the oldest written constitution of any nation this week.
Last year Congress set an annual observance day that requires any school receiving federal funds to set aside time for lessons on the U.S. Constitution to commemorate the anniversary of the document’s signing and the birth of our government on Sept. 17, 1787.
The bill was initiated by Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., who always carries a copy of the Constitution in his suit jacket. “Without constant study and renewal of our knowledge of the Constitution and its history we are in peril of allowing our freedoms to erode,” Byrd says on his Web site.
Since the Constitution and Citizenship Day fell on Sunday this year, all schools will be observing it on another day.
The mandate has been applauded by supporters of civics education, who contend that the emphasis on reading, math, writing and science and standardized testing under the federal No Child Left Behind law puts social studies on a back burner, especially in the elementary schools.
However some educators believe the federal directive to observe a Constitution Day is just one more undue mandate forced into classrooms already taxed be federal and state requirements.
Baker said the mandate seems to be shaped by the impression that “the American people are ignorant of their own Constitution; that somehow the public schools are failing to teach it.”
“I’d say that’s not true of Spokane schools,” Baker said. “We are teaching history.”
In Washington, the study of the U.S. Constitution is a graduation requirement, and high school students locally take three years of social studies, including world history and American history.
In elementary school, the study of American history begins in the fifth grade. Third-graders study the city of Spokane, and fourth-graders study Washington state history.
Nationally, the U.S. Department of Education spends about $100 million a year on professional development grants for history teachers.
“I think it’s more logical to believe that kids are learning a lot of history,” said Gary Nash, a professor of history at the University of California Los Angeles and the director of the National Center for History in the Schools.
It is true that high-stakes testing “seems to have driven history out of the classroom,” Nash said.
“But that doesn’t mean we have historically illiterate children,” Nash said. “Let’s think about the popularity of the History Channel,” a cable television network devoted entirely to history programming.
What has changed is the way teachers are teaching the subject, he said.
Literacy is a top focus for many school districts, and the social studies curriculum provides another opportunity to focus on reading and writing.
“We are definitely more intentional about certain types of skills; we are working intently on making them better readers,” said James Noble, a Ferris teacher and social studies department chair. “How can you teach history if they can’t read or write?”
However, unlike high school teachers, elementary school teachers are responsible for teaching all subjects in their classrooms, particularly those measured by the WASL including reading, math, writing and now science.
Schools can lose federal funding if students don’t meet standards on those portions of the high-stakes Washington Assessment of Student Learning, now a graduation requirement.
Social studies “is less of a priority, unfortunately,” said Vicki Soderberg, a teacher at Logan Elementary School. “There’s just not a lot of time anymore.”
Last year Logan created a social studies-based video that focused on the history of Logan neighborhood, paid for with a $65,000 technology grant from the Beaumont Foundation of America.
Students in all grade levels participated, each taking a piece of social studies curriculum and connecting it to the neighborhood. Students studying American history in the fifth grade, when they begin to learn a little about the U.S. Constitution and the makeup of U.S. government, interviewed Tom Foley, the former speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives.
“It’s important to engage young people in history, and show them that it’s exciting,” UCLA’s Nash said. “If they see a connection to the past and the world they see today, then history matters.”
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