I’ve come to a horrible realization of late–my students are in fear of the government. At first, when I noticed it, I attributed it as a manifestation of the Michael Brown and Eric Garner cases that are ubiquitous in the news cycles and, likely, in the conversations in their homes. They directly told me that they feared police officers, and questioned why they had the rights to kill people in the streets without going to court or jail. I attributed this too to politics at home, and knowing what kind of interactions many community members likely have with authorities, and a number of conditional factors that may pass; after all, kids love the police. They have police toys, costume uniforms, shiny badges, awesome hats–elementary kids usually see police officers as real life superheroes and don’t eschew that view until truancy comes looking for them. Or so I thought.
After the second, third, and fourth times I heard it in different classes and different grades, I started to realize that this was a deeper issue about authority and government. They viewed (as many do) the government as an all authoritative uberparent with unlimited powers to conduct any action against any citizen; and they understood that law enforcement officials are just a manifestation of the government. They don’t understand that the government is the agent of the citizen (or is supposed to be) and the will of the people is supposed to dictate the actions of the representatives and thereby the people. They aren’t an uberparent, in a best case scenario they are a manifestation of the will of the people just as police and law enforcement are a manifestation of the government.
I work in an overpopulated, immigrant neighborhood with a primarily English Language Learner (ELL) student population. In general kids aren’t intimately familiar with the breakdowns of local, federal, state, and agency authorities–these students, its seems, are less so. In terms of law enforcement the subscribe to the maxim: if they aren’t soldiers, they’re cops. As I moved forward in my Social Studies curriculum I started to realize that my students have no sense of the source of power, and in fact seem to think they live in a society devoid of any agency let alone any concept of government as an agent of the people for equality.
Part in response to dealing with the impact of current events and part in an alignment with the scope and sequence of my subject cluster, I asked for and received permission to approach American History through the lens of Civil Rights and equality issues with my 5th grade classes. In order for the students to understand the continuing history of the struggle for Civil Rights and equality in our society, and to dispel and disabuse them in misinformation I began writing my own curriculum and steeled myself on my personal creed in teaching history–assume students can handle the truth. I prepared to hold myself to the standard that without tragedy, triumph is neutered; without the horror of Emmett Till, Rosa Parks isn’t as monumental.
Looking at the history of the struggle for equality and equity in the United States I started with slavery and had more than one section of my 5th graders inform me that their minds were blown in terms of the horrors of the institution in the United States. They never knew that approximately two million slaves died in the Middle Passage; they never knew that babies could be born into slavery; they never knew that children worked as soon as they were able; they never knew that both blacks and whites captured, sold, and owned slaves; they never knew that dogs are treated better today by law than slaves were then. Showing them the layouts of slave ships was particularly powerful once they realized that the formations might be vertical with many tiers.
My students were struggling to find humanity in an institution that is defined in their textbook as “a cruel system in which one person can own another”. They fired questions at me as quickly as they could to find a “happily ever after” for their concept of slavery.
“What if the slave owner was nice to their slaves?”
“Well, you have to remember that this was still a person that believed in owning other people.”
“What if the slave owner died?”
“Usually the slaves were inherited by someone else….though occasionally slave owners set them free like George Washington did.”
“George WASHINGTON owned SLAVES?”
The shock of the truth isn’t paramount to being unable to handle it. My students do very well with the truth, and many of them can smell disingenuous lessons from a mile away. Instead, I tell them that history’s heroes were only men, and just as we learned the Columbus was not as altruistic and noble as we had been taught, so too was George Washington only a man…and a man of his time as well. There are no scales, just lists of deeds. For me, and hopefully for them, this contextualizes our American pantheon in a way that makes our tall “all-good” Founding Fathers relatable more than deplorable. By un-sainting them we actually make them figures we might actually hope to emulate the good from and learn from the lessons of their less enlightened actions.
When I came to the next lesson–the Constitution–it became exceedingly clear, very early, that they had no experience with the world the Constitution aims to espouse in it’s Seven Principles. They had a particular rough patch with the notion of Popular Sovereignty because it goes against their notion that the government allows citizens to have certain rights. The government exists because the people willingly give it authority…the inversion knocked their socks off. The fact that we have Individual Rights that are inalienable was particularly empowering.
Before this lesson, it appears to me that the students were walking in the negative space between illegalities to determine what their actions should be. Permissible actions were constrained by the letter of prohibition. My aim in showing them the Constitution was to arm them with a positive framework–the Government acts within delegated responsibilities, the people may dance in their lives on the open fields of inalienable rights. I have attempted to give them knowledge of the open field of possibility by positively framing their rights versus their restrictions…and I have found that different groups have reacted and latched onto different dimensions and aspects of those rights.
My first section became highly interested in the intersections of Popular Sovereignty, Individual Rights, and The First Amendment especially (though the Second Amendment is always a very popular one). They were, without anything but exposure to the letter of the Constitution’s principles, suddenly empowered by a world of ownership. They owned themselves and owned their government. In a life where the great “They” has always been the organization equivalent of an Almighty and Judgmental God, the intersection of those three Constitutional elements opened their eyes to the possibility of agency, the right to equity, and a voice in the din.
My second section, more than somewhat alarmingly (though still impressively), latched onto the Second, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments. They were interested to know that Police need warrants to abscond evidence or to even enter premises without permission. They were excited to hear that there were, in fact, questions they were not required to answer of authority figures…provided they answered them correctly. They were caught on the idea that you don’t have to bear witness against yourself. One student in this group was highly interested in the idea of Delegated and Reserved Powers. He likened it to Limited Government, which did openly bring us back to Individual Rights.
Having discussions about the Constitution without a solid discussion of the Seven Principles of the document leaves it mostly neutered. When discussing it in the whole-group setting rather than leaving them to read independently and returning to assist them through the archaic text, they are able to voice their ideas and bring it into question again.
Many of the students wondered if we are really actualizing the Constitution because they see the news, and they feel the brunt of being in an immigrant population and an impoverished population, and a minority population. Though I worry about the students who most exuberantly attached to the Second Amendment or the Fifth, the kids that latched onto ideas like Delegated Powers, Freedom of Speech, Freedom of Assembly, ad the Right to petition your government have them address them in session are especially empowered to stand up for what they perceive to be right and speak truth to power as they become teenagers and adults with ideas.
I look forward to discussing the Constitution with my remaining sections of 5th Grade to see where their current events knowledge and their ability to latch on to big ideas takes our conversations. It is important for students to be empowered by their rights and to understand the framework for the freedoms we hold sacred and the foundations and mortar of our Republic. I additionally look forward to empowering them with information as they follow the history of Civil Rights, and reveal that ever expanding definition of “All men created equal”.
I eagerly await the moment when I discuss with them the manner of First Amendment deployment that was occurring during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s, because there in lays the power of those Individual Rights and the usage of those rights to speak for what they think is right. I can’t wait for them to tell me that I’ve turned their pre-existing concepts on their ears.
As I develop this unit, I expect to make it clear to them that their sudden understanding of the wide open fields of rights have come with constrictions after all–that equality has not historically been dealt out in equal parts—and that is the reason for the continuing struggle to petition, demand, and announce equality and equity. That is the Civil Rights component and it is manifest in people executing the rights that our culture deems “God Given”. As we roll through the Civil War, the Suffragist Movement, the tensions of 19th century immigration, all the way through to Marriage Equality and the current tensions between communities and police, I excitedly await their unique perspectives and insights on the continuing path for “All” to be “Equal”.
Every time they tell me I’ve blown their mind I know that I’ve empowered them…and at the end of the day that’s what education is all about.