Teens and Teaching the First Amendment

education, First Amendment, School Libraries

By: Jamie Gregory

It’s a somewhat perfunctory drill led by a school librarian: lecture students about giving credit to sources of information, not stealing someone else’s ideas, and being aware of copyright restrictions. However, teaching teens how to think about intellectual freedom is an essential component of any school librarian’s job that is much more broad and with serious real-world implications. School librarians and teachers must ask themselves if they are truly giving their students authentic experiences to learn more about intellectual freedom and how it applies to their own lives.

Intellectual freedom is not drill-and-kill content assessed through multiple choice or matching questions. It’s alive in our society, concepts driving American principles through our everyday lives. One challenge is how to engage teens in issues related to intellectual freedom which may seem esoteric and inapplicable to them. There are many ways to present these difficult, complex topics to all levels of students in ways for them to see how these issues directly relate to them in ways that feel anything but perfunctory. 

I was first introduced to the idea of implementing a First Amendment research project when I attended the Intensive Journalistic Writing Institute in Washington, D.C., in June 2008, led by master teachers Carol Lange and Alan Weintraut. While the institute focused on how English teachers could use elements of journalism to teach the AP English Language and Composition course, I still adapt elements of what I learned there to my school library classroom. Below, I present ideas I found were successful which can be adapted for various student levels and courses.

The First Amendment provides a rich array of learning opportunities for students which are compelling, complex, and sometimes even contradictory. It provides an accessible way for students to enter the ongoing national conversation about intellectual freedom through their own lens.

Beginning activity

For a “hook” and as a way to activate prior knowledge, I used the Four Corners activity. After reading a question or statement related to the First Amendment, students formed an opinion and then moved to a designated area of the room corresponding with their opinions: strongly agree, somewhat agree, somewhat disagree, strongly disagree. We would then discuss each topic.

Sample questions:

  • Do you have the right to say something in class that your teacher disagrees with?
  • Do you have the right to wear a shirt that says “No war in Iraq” or one with a picture of Malcolm X? What about a shirt with a Confederate flag?
  • Can you be searched in school?
  • Can you have a religious club in school? A gay club?
  • Is it constitutional to teach about religion in a public school?
  • May teachers refuse to teach certain materials in class if they feel the curriculum infringes on their personal beliefs?
  • Do you have the right to write about controversial things in your school paper, or even to have a school paper at all?
  • Should students be prevented from reading certain books in schools?
  • Should the Internet be censored in schools?
  • Can a school lead a prayer session?
  • Can students be disciplined for protesting at school?

This activity also helps students begin to choose a single topic for more in-depth research that interests them. In this exploratory phase, the teacher and school librarian should encourage the students to pick a topic which interests or directly relates to them, sparking their intrinsic motivation to learn.

For another way to “hook” students, pick a court case featuring student rights. Present the issue as a narrative, telling the story of what happened, leaving out the court decision. Have students make predictions that they can then research to verify the outcome. 

Instructional strategies

As a way to teach writing thesis statements and learning how people think differently about difficult topics, I continued with a variation on the Four Corners activity.  For scaffolding purposes, I would help students write a sample argumentative thesis statement. Then they would work on changing that statement to represent all four points-of-view on the chart below. This practice teaches students to think about a controversial topic from at least two different perspectives. It also teaches how people qualify arguments, adding complexity to thinking.

Sample arguement

After doing some research and reading, try the Four Corners activity again with modifications. This time, students move to an area and then have to state their opinion (one sentence) with one piece of evidence from their reading to support their opinion (one sentence). 

Also, have students write down an opinion statement about their topic on an index card. Shuffle them around the room, asking students to write the opposite opinion underneath the first one. The overall idea is to expose students to how people think differently about the same issue, considering each viewpoint equally and acknowledging the validity and merit of various viewpoints.

Helpful library resources

Students should never form opinions without reading how others argue about the topic. It is essential to provide teens with examples to build a foundational knowledge about complex topics and then progressing to their own evaluations. Work with your school librarian to provide credible resources for your students. There are many excellent book series which can be used, as well as databases and reliable websites. 

Book series

  • Teen Rights and Freedoms
  • Personal Freedom and Civic Duty
  • US Supreme Court Landmark Cases
  • Landmark Legislation
  • Landmark Supreme Court Cases
  • Analyzing the Issues
  • At Issue

Databases

  • Opposing Viewpoints in Context
  • Points of View Reference Center
  • US History in Context
  • Academic Search Premier
  • SIRS Issues Researcher
  • Credo Reference
  • SIRS Government Reporter
  • Issues & Controversies
  • Issues & Controversies in American History

Websites

See below a screenshot of how the SIRS Issues Researcher database from ProQuest provides a template for students to begin thinking about how to respond to an essential question with two different opinion statements.

SIRS Issues Researcher database from ProQuest
SIRS Issues Researcher database from ProQuest

Assessment/evaluation suggestions

Think beyond tests and quizzes. One year, after learning about the Montgomery Bus Boycott and studying the rhetoric used to make it successful, I asked my students to design their own economic boycotts. They had to think about our local community and issues that mattered to them, brainstorming specific nonviolent, economic actions they could take to affect change and exercise their First Amendment right to assemble and protest. They were also required to create an educational brochure or pamphlet to be handed out to the public, explaining their actions and what they hoped to achieve, as well as examples of what they would share about their campaigns on various social media outlets.

For another example, my classes followed the case of Snyder v Phelps during 2010-2011 school year, discussing whether or not the Westboro Baptist Church crossed the limits of free speech rights by protesting at military funerals. It is a divisive issue to be sure, and when the decision was handed down in March of 2011, we discussed the ruling and the logic used to reach the decision. I could informally assess their application of what we learned about rhetoric and argument based on how they interpreted and evaluated the Supreme Court’s decision. Plus, it was just really cool to see the real-world, real-time application of what we had learned throughout the year.

Another year, my AP English Language students were particularly enthusiastic about this First Amendment research project, so I went one step further. I bought some plain black fabric and made them all black armbands to wear on the anniversary of the Tinker vs. Des Moines court case. I remember one teacher warned me that I should tell the principal first so that none of the students would be issued a disciplinary referral. I couldn’t have invented a more compelling reason to justify their research than that.

students wearing black armbands

Jamie Gregory

Jamie M. Gregory is a National Board Certified Teacher in Library Media working in her 6th year as a school librarian at James F. Byrnes High School in Duncan, SC. Previously she taught high school English and French for 8 years. Her academic interests include book censorship and academic freedom in K-12 schools, inquiry-based learning, information literacy, and literacy in high school classrooms. She is an active member of the South Carolina Association of School Librarians serving as the 2019-2020 Chair of the South Carolina Book Award committees. When she is not reading or researching, she enjoys spending time with her husband and two sons cooking, traveling, playing board games, and going to Iron Maiden concerts. Find her on Twitter @gregorjm.

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