Schoolkids learning American principles by practicing them

Sunday, July 20, 2003

Nation-building begins at home.

Earlier this month, a reporter for The State newspaper in Columbia, S.C., asked students from two local elementary schools why we celebrate the Fourth of July.

Kids from one school said what you would expect kids to say. Fireworks, food and lots of fun figured prominently in the answers.

But kids from the other school – Nursery Road Elementary – had a very different take on the holiday. Fireworks were barely mentioned. Instead, every single response included the words “freedom” or “independence” – and sometimes both.

My personal favorite (from fifth-grader Vante Lee):

“We celebrate the Fourth of July because we celebrate our freedom and the chance to make our own decisions.”

What’s going on at Nursery Road? Nothing less than a quiet revolution that could change the direction of American education.

Last week, a Nursery Road team of teachers, administrators and parents came to Washington, D.C., to meet with teams from 10 other schools from around the nation. They are all part of the First Amendment Schools initiative sponsored by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the First Amendment Center (

After only one year as a “First Amendment Project School,” all 11 schools had remarkable stories to tell – stories of schools working hard to create laboratories of democracy and freedom.

Students at Nursery Road know how to talk about American principles because they are busy practicing them. This spring, for example, these elementary students registered more than 300 high school students to vote. Meanwhile, at Edith Bowen Elementary School in Logan, Utah, kids began broadcasting their views on the school’s television station. (The first editorial was by a third-grader sounding off about the food left on trays in the lunchroom.)

And it’s not just about students. Many of the parents at Fairview Elementary School in Modesto, Calif., are recent arrivals to this country. Some are still learning to speak English. But after hearing that Fairview was a First Amendment School, they got excited about exercising their new freedoms. Barely weeks into the project, parents were circulating a petition asking for a fence in front of the school to protect their kids from traffic.

Freedom works.

Students and faculty at Cesar Chavez Public Charter School in Washington, D.C., are working together to implement a new school-governance plan that gives everyone a voice in decision-making. Lanier High School in Jackson, Miss., just held a “constitutional convention,” drafting a plan to ensure that students have input in shaping the life of the school. (It’s up for a vote this fall.) And in Massachusetts, Hudson High School spent the year building a new governance model – a bold experiment in student leadership and democratic dialogue that begins this fall.

These schools (and a growing number of others like them) are powerful answers to the hand-wringing in Washington these days about the poor state of civic education in schools, the low interest among young people in the democratic process and the deterioration across all age groups of civic virtue and engagement.

Recent proposals by the White House and Congress to improve instruction in civics and history will help. But learning about freedom and justice, however important, can never be enough; educating for democratic citizenship must be more than an academic exercise.

The solution is to involve students and all members of the school community in the actual practice of democratic freedom. Nobody learns very much about exercising the rights and responsibilities of citizenship from textbooks; American principles must be lived and experienced.

What’s at stake? Just ask the kids.

This year five third-graders at Nursery Road wrote and illustrated a story about “the loss of the First Amendment.” It seems that one day the president discovered the First Amendment was missing. No one could find it. No one could even remember what it said.

Then Congress started passing illegal laws, including a law against the freedom of speech. “This is one of the things the First Amendment states that Congress can’t do,” write the kids. “Even the president had to ask if he could speak freely.” The citizens got mad at Congress.

Fortunately, a child from South Carolina saw what was happening and begged her mother to take her to Washington, D.C. Although they had to wait a day to see the president, “the following morning, the child from South Carolina proudly recited the First Amendment to the president.”

The story ends with this: “The president was so happy that he decided to gather the citizens and tell them the good news. Everyone was delighted that the First Amendment was back. Life in the United States returned to normal with freedoms for everyone.”

Let’s keep it that way. Let’s make every school a First Amendment School.

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