Senator Robert Byrd (D-W. Va) died at 92 this morning after being admitted to a Fairfax, VA hospital last week for heat exhaustion. Byrd, who was elected to serve a record-breaking nine consecutive terms in the Senate following three terms in the House, is remembered in the many obituaries that appeared today for his unwavering dedication to the needs of the people he represented. His colleagues also characterized him by remembering his impassioned speeches and his love of the Constitution. Reported to have carried a pocket-sized copy of the Constitution around for reference, Byrd devoted himself to the words of this country's founders-and wanted every American to do the same through Constitution Day.
Byrd successfully pushed for legislation in 2004 that deemed September 17th "Constitution Day." According to the law, all federally-funded schools are mandated to teach their students about the U.S. Constitution in some form on that day, from elementary schools to the college level. Initially, the legislation received mixed reviews; while teachers did not appreciate another federal mandate, many legislators wanted students to know more about their country's founding document than they do about television shows.
Six years later, though lesson plans and activities for all ages abound on the Internet, teachers still struggle to find time to fit Constitution Day-based lessons into their curriculum. Furthermore, many teachers feel that the requirement is redundant, as they already teach about the Constitution at other points during the year. In Montgomery County, Maryland, for example, students are required to take a course on national, state, and local government, which includes Constitution lessons in the curriculum, and teachers have told me that singling out one day to focus on it seems superfluous. On the other hand, some colleges, like the Milwaukee School of Engineering, hold special events for a week surrounding Constitution Day. There are plenty of resources available to you if want to celebrate the Constitution in your own schools (see list at the end of this post).
Most educators would agree that the Constitution is something every resident of the U.S. should know and understand, so please take the time to teach it, even if it is in a simple way. FairVote has a particular suggestion relating to our belief that we should prepare our young people to be active participants in our democracy. Knowledge of the law and civic participation (such as how and why to vote) need to be ingrained in the brains of new voters, especially when only 59 percent of eligible voters 18-24 are registered, compared to 71 percent registered of eligible voters overall, according to the FairVote fact sheet. Knowledgeable young voters become voters for life. One talent teenagers are known for is their ability to talk; if one friend knows how to vote, they can tell others, and so on. After Sen. Jamie Raskin's successful legislation in 2007, Maryland law authorizes school systems to specify curricula for their students, but we hope to see more schools and teachers take it one step further. Recognizing Constitution Day is a vital step in this process of getting young people involved and interested in the laws and people that govern them. Democracy cannot function with an indifferent populace.
Links to resources:
FairVote's Learning Democracy curriculum: http://www.fairvote.org/lesson-plans
American Bar Association activities: http://www.abanet.org/publiced/conversations/constitution/lessons.shtml
The Constitution Center's page with resources and events: http://www.constitutioncenter.org/ncc_progs_Constitution_Day.aspx
Center for Civic Education activities for grades K-12: http://www.civiced.org/index.php?page=constitution_day
The American Political Science Association resources:
See a list of what colleges and universities are doing: