Thinking Constitutionally

Thinking Constitutionally

Crestwood students use the Constitution to write classroom rules.

Like many others, Crestwood Elementary's cafeteria contains small, round tables with benches and stools where students can sit together and enjoy lunch. The walls are decorated with artwork made by student Picassos, brightly colored drawings and paintings hanging next to school announcements.

One wall, however, is adorned with something far more important: classroom rules written by a handful of classes and modeled after the U.S. Constitution.

"There was a mandate from the federal government to teach the Constitution on Sept. 17 this year," said Jeff Copp, a second-grade teacher at Crestwood and the social studies department lead who organized the project. "So we asked the teachers, who were writing their classroom rules at about that time, to write their rules in the form of the Constitution."

Teachers asked their students to list and discuss which rules and guidelines they felt were important for their class for the year, Copp said. In the process, the students would learn the importance of the Constitution, an objective required by the Standards of Learning benchmarks.

"In my class, we talked about the importance of the Constitution, but we also talked about students' rights and responsibilities," Copp said. "We started with the preamble and modeled our introduction on that and went through the rules. We talked about how the Founding Fathers signed the Constitution when they had finished it, and all my students signed their names at the bottom as well," he said.

ALTHOUGH THE classroom rules don't change much from room to room or year to year, giving students the chance to participate in the process remains an integral part of the procedure, Copp said.

"The idea is to make the rules more important to the students. When someone is breaking one of the rules, we have a discussion to see how we can make it better and what we can do to prevent it from happening again," he said, adding that he and his class "keep the process going for the course of the year."

When comparing the Constitutions side by side, an observer can see that the "language and terminology changes as you get into the older grades," said Kathleen McDonald, assistant principal at Crestwood. "It's neat to see that the students signed their rules."

When writing rules for a group of children, McDonald said that it was important that the rules be positive. "Sometimes it can be very difficult to word things that way, but it's better for the children," she said.

"Two girls wrote the rules in pencil and then went over them with red and blue marker," said Michael, a sixth-grade student in Carol McNertney's class. "We voted for the rules we wanted."

In Michael's class, the most important rule was to be a good student. "That means we need to show respect to each other," he said.

TEACHING THE Constitution "evolves" a little each year, said fifth-grade teacher Hollis Miller as her students filed in for the day. "It gets better as you go along. We're able to review what a preamble and introduction are and how to use that to write our rules, which also helps with other kinds of writing," she said.

By the time students get to fifth grade, they've had a chance to think about the Constitution after learning about it the year before. "The students have good questions, a lot of 'what ifs,'" Miller said. "They also have a lot of citizenship questions if they're part of immigrant families. They want to know if they can be president."

Students are more likely to handle problems with classmates among themselves if they know or participate in the rule-making process, Miller added.

"We worked in groups to decide on which rules to have," said Marcy, one of the students in Miller's class. "We figured out which rules were the best for our class and decided together."

Writing the class rules in a style similar to the Constitution "made it fun" because it allowed students to "talk about ideas and social studies and history and the Constitution all at the same time," said Jordan, another student in Miller's class.

The project was not limited to older students, as children in Maryanne Madden's kindergarten class explained.

"We watched a video on Constitution day," Madden said as her students explained their class rules.

"Share and care is my favorite rule," said a girl named Yazdan. "I share with my baby sister."

"When we watched the video, we saw that we were like the Founding Fathers," Madden said to her students. "They had rules and we have rules."