We the People: A Community Model for Exploring the U.S. Constitution

We the People: A Community Model for Exploring the U.S. Constitution 

One of the more rewarding learning experiences I’ve had with my 14-year-old son this year has been participating in We the People MN, a series of community teach-ins about the Constitution held at Solomon’s Porch, a Minneapolis gathering space housed in a former church. Run completely by volunteers, We the People MN bills itself as “A Community Conversation to Understand the U.S. Constitution.” I wanted to share a little about our family’s experience with the series in the hope of inspiring other programs like it across the country.

The idea for the series came from Cara Letofsky, a South Minneapolis resident who posted on her neighborhood Facebook group that the 2016 election made her want to learn more about the Constitution. About 60 people responded that they shared that desire to come together as a community to educate themselves politically. A small group of about ten volunteers followed up to plan the series, deciding what amendments they especially wanted to learn about and collaborating to identify community experts who might be willing to tackle leading a discussion of particular amendments. Working their community connections, they lined up a group of highly qualified presenters willing to volunteer their time, including a law professor from a local university, a Minneapolis city council member, attorneys, law students, and organizers from groups that are deeply involved in such contentious Constitutional issues as gun control laws, the right to vote, and reproductive rights.

The organizing committee decided on a format of 10 two-hour presentations, spaced out every two weeks from mid-January 2017 to late April 2017. The first program was a kick-off potluck (because everything always goes better with good food) and a public reading of the entire Constitution, with participants taking turns reading sections aloud at the mic. The organizers also distributed free pocket copies of the Constitution, donated by one of the organizers, Constitutional law professor Matt Filner. Finding free or cheap pocket Constitutions isn’t difficult, luckily. The National Center for Constitutional Studies, for instance, offers a bulk purchase of 100 pocket Constitutions for $40 on their website.

Cara Letofksy, the woman who’d sparked the idea, expected perhaps 20 people to show up to the first presentation. To her surprise, over 80 people attended that first event, and attendance has usually averaged between 100 to 150 participants at subsequent events.

In their initial planning discussions, the organizers knew they couldn’t cover the entire Constitution, so they decided to focus on Constitutional rights that might be most directly challenged under a Trump administration. Other communities might want to choose a different focus, such as looking at ways the Constitution directly impacts local issues and controversies.

The We the People MN series has covered such issues as the branches of government and separation of powers, as well as the First Amendment’s guarantees of freedom of expression and assembly and the Second Amendment’s guarantee of the right to bear arms (as well as the limitations implied by the wording of the amendment). One program was devoted to the right to privacy (and the limits on our privacy). Another event focused on the Fifth, Sixth, and Thirteenth Amendments and their relevance to criminal justice today. The series’ last presentation on the amendments will look at the right to vote guaranteed by the Fifteenth, Nineteenth, and Twenty-Fourth Amendments—and how that right to vote is being steadily eroded today. The series’ last gathering, planned for the 100th day of the Trump administration, will feature a community potluck and “next steps” discussion.

Each event has included a “TED”-style talk by an expert to set the stage for further discussion, followed by time for participants to talk in small groups and share their thoughts and bring up questions for the expert presenter. Almost every presentation has also included brief talks by local activists working in some way on problems raised by ongoing Constitutional debates. Often, these activists have given participants in the programs concrete ideas about how to get involved. For instance, at the event devoted to Second Amendment issues, a presenter from the group Protect Minnesota passed out factsheets about upcoming gun legislation and tips for creating effective talking points. The group highlighted that the most effective advocates usually find a way articulate their personal connections to proposed legislation.

Each presenter also typically sends out readings ahead of time through the We the People MN Facebook page for participants who want to take a deeper dive into topics, though the readings aren’t required to understand the presentations. The readings have ranged from excerpts from the Federalist Papers to summaries of key Supreme Court cases to up-to-the-minute news articles about contemporary Constitutional controversies.

For my son and me, attending these events has been a bonding, highly relevant way to study civics together. Throughout our week, we often find ourselves still talking about what we learned at the most recent We the People presentation. The series has given us new tools for understanding how the Constitution relates to our everyday lives and the lives of those around us.

I’ve also found the series personally helpful as I’ve stepped up my own game as a citizen this year. I’m calling my legislators and attending more public hearings, meetings, and protests than ever (and when I can, hauling my son along with me). Studying the Constitution in this way has given my son and me a clearer sense of what people fighting for change are up against and how we as citizens can make the best use of our time and people power.

Above all, I love that my son has seen people of all ages and backgrounds getting together every other Sunday afternoon to educate ourselves about our Constitution. To me, that’s been such a powerful example of lifelong learning and civic engagement, one I hope will stick with him the rest of his life. I think another crucial piece of the whole experience has been learning from people who are actively involved in the conversation about how to define our Constitutional rights and who are fighting to preserve those rights.

The volunteers who set up We the People MN are hoping to export the model elsewhere. They have plans to create a curriculum to help other people set up their own series, ones that will be relevant to their local communities. If you’d like to learn more, see videos of the presentations, and keep apprised of curriculum developments, you can visit the group’s public Facebook page.

Topics in History: Investigating Watergate

Topics in History: Investigating Watergate

How did a break-in at a campaign office lead to the resignation of the President of the United States? This list of resources will help you investigate this chapter of U.S. history.

Resources for Studying the Supreme Court

Resources for Studying the Supreme Court

With elections finally behind us, many will shift their attention toward the next Supreme Court nomination. It is the perfect time to expand our families’ understanding of this important institution. I’ve got two great resources to help get you started—Our Supreme Court, A History with 14 Activities by Richard Panchyk, written for grade levels 5 and up and Jeffry D. Stock’s Supreme Court Decision: Scenarios, Simulations and Activities for Understanding and Evaluating 14 Landmark Court Cases, written for grades 7 to 12. 

Our Supreme Court is part of the fabulous “For Kids” series published by the Chicago Review Press. Divided into eight chapters, author Richard Panchyk introduces readers to such topics as the founding of the courts, free speech and freedom of religion, civil rights, criminal justice, and regulation of business and property rights. Presenting Supreme Court cases chronologically, Panchyk demonstrates the ways that U.S. court opinions have evolved over time.

 An especially interesting feature of this book is its interviews with 35 individuals, each involved in landmark court decisions. These include talks with former Secretary of State and Secretary of the Treasury James Baker as well as David Boies, lead counsel for Vice President Al Gore in Bush v. Gore (2000). Fourteen unique activity ideas, including making a Supreme Court scrapbook, being a courtroom artist, role playing, and creating a neighborhood zoning map are also included in this book.

The text in Our Supreme Court is substantive and full of detail. This is a resource most suited for students intrinsically motivated to learn more about this subject matter. Panchyk’s book is not another dry text book. Well placed text boxes, interesting photography, engaging writing, and opportunities for student engagement make this an appealing, informative guide.

Written for children 10 to 17, Our Supreme Court could be easily adapted to teach multi-aged learners and would work equally well at home or in a larger group setting. Pancyk’s book retails for $16.95 and is available online and in bookstores. 

    In the opening pages of Jeffrey Stock’s Supreme Court Decisions: Scenarios, Simulations and Activities for Understanding and Evaluating 14 Landmark Cases, the author writes that his intention is “to teach students about important Supreme Court cases and to help them to think critically about the major historical decisions that have shaped the development of the United States.”  Supreme Court Decisions is lets students interact with specific landmark cases in order to understand the imprint they have left on the evolution of our legal system.

 Stock does not expect his book to be used as a stand-alone text. For a deeper understanding of the complex legal issues referenced in Supreme Court Decisions, he recommends exploring additional resources. Our Supreme Court would complement Stock’s work nicely.   

    As in Our Supreme Court, cases in Stock’s book are presented in chronological order.  Each of the 14 cases is presented in a single chapter. At the start of each section helpful notes under the headings “Quick Reference” and “Background” are provided for instructors. “Quick Reference” succinctly identifies the issue, the players, the ruling, and the significance of the specific case. The “Background” section provides the instructor with historical context and additional information about the case. Both sections are brief and do not require extensive time for preparation.  

The student section is divided into two parts. Section one provides a fictional vignette or scenario depicting the circumstances surrounding a specific case. Thoughtful discussion questions follow each vignette. Students are asked to identify what major issues need to be settled, discuss the facts as they’ve been presented, and to anticipate the court’s response. 

In Section two of the student section the actual case is presented followed by a write-up of the court’s actual ruling and the aftermath of the decision. Lastly, readers are asked to consider how the particular ruling is still relevant today. 

Ideas for 15 follow-up activities, which can be used with any of the 14 cases presented, are also provided. These include writing a letter to the editor in response to a specific verdict, creating a flow chart that shows how a case wound up in the Supreme Court, making a political cartoon, and creating a television news report that describes a Supreme Court ruling.

Stock’s writing is lean. Adroitly condensing multifaceted concepts and details, he delivers information with a straightforward style that most students will appreciate. Supreme Court Decisions is an extremely flexible resource that suits a variety of learning styles. Depending on your child’s level of interest, you may choose to study all 14 cases and attempt all of the activities. On the other hand, you may simply wish to familiarize your child with a more basic understanding of how the Supreme Court functions. It may be enough to review a small sampling of the cases Stock presents here.  

Supreme Court Decision is 98 pages. It retails for $19.95 and is available online at Prufrock Press and in bookstores.

Homeschooling provides families the chance to explore whatever issues seem most significant at a particular point in time. An extra special bonus is discovering great resources, like the ones I’ve described here, which address these interests and also help our children to better understand the complicated world in which they live.  

Summer Reading: Ballots for Belva

Ballots for Belva: The True Story of a Woman’s Race for the Presidency by Sudipta Bardhan-Quallen

Reading level: Elementary

Whatever your opinion about this year’s Presidential election (and if my friends on Facebook are any indication, most of you probably have a lot of opinions!), it’s pretty amazing that just a century after women won the right to vote, a woman has a real shot at becoming President of the United States. 

But Hillary Clinton won’t be the first woman to appear on the ballot—that distinction goes to Belva Lockwood, who — in 1884 and again in 1888 — decided to do something about the fact that women weren’t allowed to vote by running for President. (That’s right—though there were laws prohibiting some from voting, no laws said women couldn't run for President.) It was a bold move, but Belva’s life had already been a history of bold moves: Unlike most of her peers, Belva went to college and to law school, and became a lawyer, even arguing cases before the Supreme Court. Plenty of people thought Belva was being unladylike and inappropriate, but she was undeterred. And she had a surprising amount of support: Even though women couldn’t vote for her, Belva managed to receive more than 4,000 votes in the 1884 election as the official candidate for the National Equal Rights Party. Ballots for Belva: The True Story of a Woman's Race for the Presidency tells her story—one that doesn't appear in most U.S. history books.

This picture book biography of Belva’s life keeps things simple, introducing readers to Belva through a series of events in her extraordinary-for-her-time life. The author pays special attention to Belva’s passion for equal rights for everyone—for women, yes, but Belva’s campaign also advocated equal rights for African-Americans, Native Americans, and other marginalized groups. She also takes a fairly matter-of-fact approach to the criticism Belva received for her unorthodox activities—from both the media and more traditional people and sometimes even from her fellow women’s rights activists. 

Though this is a picture book, it’s not just for younger readers. Older kids will find Belva fascinating, too, and this book is a great introduction to her life. (The bibliography at the back of the book guides you to further reading suggestions,) I liked the period illustrations (though what’s with the random cats?), which really help tell the story. There are a few places where the storytelling falls a little flat for me, but Belva is absolutely interesting enough to pull you along through an occasional dry patch.

(If you’re playing summer reading bingo, this one counts as a biography of a historical figure you learned about this year if you’ve been following the 2016 election, as a nonfiction book, or as a book you can finish in one day.)

Stuff We Like :: 9.25.15

home|school|life's Friday roundup of the best homeschool links, reads, tools, and other fun stuff has lots of ideas and resources.

Hello, autumn! It’s so nice to see you. Our traditional fall hiking trip may be off the table this year, but that doesn’t mean we have to skip our traditional post-hiking funnel cakes, does it?

around the web

It’s a lot more fun to make jokes about the 1880s Presidential races than the 2016 one.

Emily St. John Mandel’s book editing advice is pretty much spot-on.

I mean, who wouldn’t want to build a seven-mile-wide scale model of the solar system?


at home/school/life

on the blog: I love Shelli’s post about making peace with the messiness of homeschool life.

on pinterest: Highlighter pencils? Sign me up!

from the archives: I really liked Watch the Sky—maybe it deserves a spot on your middle grades library list?


reading list

Oh, gosh, we are absolutely loving Three Times Lucky as our morning readaloud. I don’t know how we missed this one for so long.

I’m recommending M.E. Kerr’s short story collection to all my short story writing students. (Do not skip the biographical note at the end!)

Fellow history buffs: I am totally Amazon-stalking SPQR: A History of Ancient Rome. It’s scheduled for November, but I keep hoping it will magically ship early.


at home

We are pretty relaxed in our holiday observances (we did a Star Wars-themed Darth Seder a few years ago), but I love the ritual of forgiveness and acceptance, letting go and holding on that comes with Yom Kippur.

I think I’m making a few of these Fino Circle scarves for holiday presents this year—my brain seems to gravitate toward mindless knitting right now, and at least this mindless knitting produces gorgeous results.

Almost two years ago today, Jas and I had our first conversation about maybe-possibly-what-do-you-think-about starting home/school/life magazine. I’m so glad we took the plunge!