If your child came home today knowing a little bit more about the U.S. Constitution you can thank Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who pushed for a law that would require all schools that get federal funds to acknowledge the anniversary of the signing of the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787.
The first Constitution Day was in 2005, and while teachers do recognize the importance of the event, they admit it can be a challenge to offer an appropriately educational celebration when school has barely begun.
Several calls to area schools found produced no major events this year. Richard Stockton College will host a free talk by former Supreme Court Justice Deborah Poritz at 6 p.m. Tuesday in the college Performing Arts Center.
Arlene Gardner has another idea. Director of the Center for Civic and Law-Related Education at Rutgers University, she welcomed the law, but said the anniversary is just too early in the school year. She joked that the founding fathers should have waited until around, say, Thanksgiving.
“In September the poor teachers are just getting going,” she said.
She believes that the lessons of the Constitution are better integrated throughout the year. Toward that end she would like to see the state instead require more civics education in middle school. The state does require that civics be integrated into high school social studies courses, but students must also get economics and financial literacy, which have gotten more attention.
The center did a survey five years ago and found few schools requiring civics, and Gardner said there is room in the middle school curriculum to offer it. She also thinks middle school is a great time to teach students about becoming good citizens. They are old enough to understand the concepts, but still young enough to be idealistically open. She also worries that students who drop out of high school never get the lessons at all..
“This is teaching about their role in society,” she said. “It’s teaching about government, and their role in it. It’s showing them how to research an issue, go to a public meeting and speak about it.”
Gardner is looking for a couple of state Legislators willing to sponsor a bill to require the middle school civics course. In the meantime the center will continue to promote its activities, which take place all year long.
“We are citizens every day,” she said, “not just on one day.”
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