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Constitution Day ushers in mandate to teach the Constitution

By Donna Krache
CNN

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(CNN) -- Time for a civics pop quiz: Do you know which constitutional amendment protects you from "unreasonable search and seizure"?

Without referring to a game show, can you define "double jeopardy"? Do you know which branch of the government interprets the law?

Federal lawmakers want to make sure your children know the answers to these and other questions about the Constitution, so last year they passed a law mandating its teaching on "Constitution Day."

Public Law 108-447 didn't start out as a bill to promote civic education. It is actually an appropriations bill.

Sen. Robert Byrd, D-West Virginia, added an amendment designating September 17 as Constitution Day, mandating the teaching of the Constitution in schools that receive federal funds, as well as federal agencies. Since September 17, the actual birthday of the Constitution, falls on a Saturday this year, schools will be observing the day on Friday, September 16.

Remember those required civics classes you took? In some cases, they've gone by the wayside. The focus on No Child Left Behind testing, especially in the elementary grades, has put an emphasis on core subjects like math and reading, resulting in less time for civics. Many high schoolers lack knowledge about their most basic civil liberties.

A study titled "The Future of the First Amendment," commissioned by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and released early this year, listed among its findings that nearly three-fourths of high school students either do not know how they feel about the First Amendment or admit they take it for granted, and nearly half of the students surveyed incorrectly believe that the government has the authority to censor the Internet.

Ted McConnell, director of the National Campaign to Promote Civic Education, sees this as a dangerous trend. "The good news," he says, "is that young people want to give back to their communities. The bad news is that they distrust government and politicians because they are not receiving civic education." McConnell sees Constitution Day as "an imminently teachable moment" for civic education.

Peggy Altoff, president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies, agrees that there is a need for a focus on civics in schools. Constitution Day is "a fine idea," says Altoff, "unless it becomes the only education on the Constitution that occurs within a school or a district."

Al Frascella, director of Communications and Government Relations for NCSS, shares that view, adding,"Civic learning should go on every day, not just on one day."

The mandate may be a tall order for teachers who want to avoid a dry, historical fact approach to teaching the Constitution. Altoff, who is also a K-12 social studies facilitator for the largest school district in Colorado Springs, Colorado, offers educators some advice. She says that it's important for teachers to "emphasize real examples of civic-mindedness." Both she and McConnell point to the actions of civic groups and private citizens who rushed to aid victims of Hurricane Katrina.

The goal is to engage students while making them realize that citizen action and participation in government is crucial. Teachers can refer students to the news for examples of the Constitution in action, specifically, the role of the three branches of government as the confirmation process of U.S. Chief Justice nominee John Roberts unfolds.

"The Constitution is not only about the 39 men who signed it, not only dry historical facts," says McConnell, "but it's a living, breathing document."

Altoff says that many school districts and states have resources in place to help teachers address Constitution Day on all grade levels. There are public programs planned as well.

The National Constitution Center in Philadelphia is offering hands-on initiatives, including America Reads the Constitution, where communities are encouraged to have individuals from all walks of life take turns reading portions of the document. The reading of the Constitution in Philadelphia will take place on Saturday with 100 participants.

As for the effectiveness of Constitution Day, Richard Stengel, president and CEO of the National Constitution Center, cautions that although it's only in its first year, he expects the initiative to grow.

"It's a bit of civic 'chicken soup'," he says. "We don't know what it can do, but it can't hurt."

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