The law establishing September 17th as Constitution Day was created in 2004 with the passage of an amendment proposed by Senator Robert Byrd to that year’s Omnibus Spending Bill. The law renamed the observation formerly known as “Citizenship Day” and before that as “I Am an American Day.” Whatever its moniker, the day is devoted to celebrating the signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. The 2004 law not only renamed the day, it also mandates that all publicly funded educational institutions provide instruction on the history of the Constitution on that day.
I doubt that anyone would argue that one day is sufficient time for achieving full understanding of the four-page Constitution crafted in secret by 55 men during a hot Philadelphia summer. However, it could be just enough time to instigate further explorations that lead your students to understanding the document’s historical context, and its connection to current issues and events. That’s an excellent step toward civic engagement.
Annenberg Classroom, presented by The Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics, offers several points of entry to hook your students on the Constitution. For example, the first segment of the video Key Constitutional Concepts is a lively look at the state of the nation in 1787 that led the Framers to that stuffy hall in Philadelphia. It explodes the heroic mythologies that have grown up around the Constitution’s authors and portrays them as ordinary people who were trying to resolve ongoing conflicts within our new nation that the Articles of Confederation failed to resolve. The states were at odds over issues such as state sovereignty, taxation, land claims, and slavery. States threatened each other with war and behaved as sovereign nations. The Federal Convention participants went into Independence Hall thinking they were going to do a bit of tinkering with the Articles to make them more durable. Instead, they essentially threw out the existing, failing government and, through statesmanship and compromise, developed the document that defines our current system of government.
Another approach is to look at the Constitution within the context of current issues. A Call to Act: Ledbetter v. Goodyear Tire and Rubber Co. tells the story of Lilly Ledbetter, who sued her employer when she discovered that she had for years been receiving lower wages than her male counterparts. Her fight for equal pay is a compelling case study of the three branches of government. If your students tuned in to the 2012 election campaign and the Democratic convention, they might remember that Ms. Ledbetter spoke at the convention and the law that has her name on it–the Lilly Ledbetter Fair Pay Act of 2009—was frequently cited as a victory for Obama’s first term in office.
Constitution Day is a good time to involve students in current conversations on Constitutional issues. Annenberg Classroom’s Speak Outs feature provides blog posts on topics from wiretapping to government regulation of sugary drinks to whether or not the president needs Congress’ approval to use force in Syria. The blog posts provide background on controversial topics that are making news or being considered in the courts. Students are then invited to share their views. Many of the student posts could serve as models of expository writing for your students.
Search learner.org for even more resources for Constitution Day. Your students might enjoy diving into an aspect of the Constitution that keeps judges, pundits and the rest of us up all night—the vague language that is open to interpretation and fuels ongoing arguments about immigration reform, gun control, and health care reform. Many of today’s court rulings, Senate debates and Facebook rants are based on how individuals interpret the language in the Bill of Rights and other Constitutional amendments. View the first segment of Democracy in America, program 2, “The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?” with your students about what American society might look like if our Constitution was not open to interpretation.
Constitution Day can be the day your students begin lifelong study of and participation in civic life. What will you do to get them started?