“The First Amendment is more complex than most students first recognize, and it affects their everyday lives,” Jo Boggess Phillips said.
Phillips teaches 12th-grade civics, AP U.S. government, politics, and state and local government at Ripley High School in Ripley, West Virginia. Phillips said current events help students make sense of the First Amendment by allowing them to understand the issues Americans face every day.
The Constitution dominates her lesson plans throughout the school year, so Phillips submitted several different activities to the 1 For All First Amendment Challenge earlier this year. In May, the American Society of News Editors awarded 40 secondary-school educators $1,000 each for their innovative efforts while teaching the First Amendment in classrooms across the country. Phillips was one of the educators who received the honor.
One activity Phillips used in the classroom involved a letter that was sent to to the board of education and dealt with freedom of religion.
“Our school district dealt with a challenge to several religious symbols and activities, which were located or occurring on public school property,” she said.
The letter outlined the First Amendment concerns regarding the establishment clause and included photos of the religious symbols in question. Phillips said it sparked a meaningful dialogue in the classroom.
“The lesson allowed students to see how the First Amendment can be applied in terms of court rulings and board procedure,” she said.
Phillips said the debate over where to draw the line regarding the “wall of separation” between church and state was intense and educational.
In another class activity, Phillips asked students to create infomercials to explain the First Amendment to classmates. Students created short videos to explain one of the five parts to the First Amendment. Phillips said the project allowed students to incorporate technology with their knowledge of the First Amendment. Several students also decided to draw on First Amendment issues at school to help with their explanations.
“I am very passionate about making sure students understand the U.S. Constitution and become informed citizens with the ability to make good choices, which will make America a better place to live,” Phillips said. “Making sure our future citizens understand the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution gives them the capacity to perpetuate our American liberties.”
Heather Jancoski teaches at South Mountain High School in Phoenix, Arizona, and also received the 1 For All First Amendment Challenge honor. Jancoski teaches advanced broadcast journalism to ninth through 12th grades, in addition to yearbook, radio and video classes.
South Mountain High School has a weekly student news broadcast. Thirteen Jaguar News students compiled different stories to create a First Amendment-themed broadcast. Jancoski said students focused on the five freedoms and their relationship to current events, as well as the civic responsibilities of citizens.
The broadcast included a piece about Mary Beth Tinker and theTinker Tour at Arizona State University. Jancoski said a few students decided to put the piece together after realizing that many of their school peers did not know much about the First Amendment.
“After the show aired, I had a lot of students come up and ask questions to myself and the U.S. government teachers about how it impacted their lives,” she said. “The students were very much unaware prior to the show of what they could do at school with their rights and how they were limited or granted, especially when it came to clothing issues that could be within the guidelines of the school dress code.”
Jancoski said students need to learn about the First Amendment and their rights so they are set up for success upon graduation. For more information on the Challenge or a complete list of winners,check out a previous article from SchoolJournalism.org.
The 1 for All First Amendment Challenge was funded by a generous grant from the Robert R. McCormick Foundation. 1 for All is a national nonpartisan program designed to build understanding and support for the First Amendment freedoms of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition. 1 for All provides teaching materials and lesson plans at 1forall.us to help everyone learn more about their First Amendment rights.