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Learning and Living the First Amendment

School Administrators Center

Does your schools involvement with the First Amendment consist of one or two civics lessons a year? If so, you could be missing the chance to use your school as a mini democracy lab, with student citizens. Find out how you can apply the five freedoms in the First Amendment to school governance and everyday issues. Included: Links to lesson plans and resources on the First Amendment.


A year ago, if students had come to Fairview Elementary School principal Robert Williams with a petition, he quickly would have sent them back to class. "I used to say kids' petitions had no place in schools," said Williams, who oversees the kindergarten through sixth grade school in Modesto, California.

Last year, though, Fairview became one of 11 focus schools in the First Amendment Schools Project. The goal of the project is to develop schools that model democratic citizenship and teach students -- and adults -- to use their First Amendment rights responsibly.

Now, Williams receives petitions from students and parents about everything from school uniforms to the need for more playground balls, and he frequently meets with petitioners, no matter how young they are. "This school has been transformed," he added. "I knew when I heard about the First Amendment Schools program, that it would add meaning to my job, by helping kids become good citizens and exercise civic responsibility. I know my kids will be leaders."


First Amendment Basics, Resources

The First Amendment is part of the Bill of Rights, the first ten amendments to the U.S. Constitution, adopted December 15, 1791. Although most people think only of the freedoms of speech and the press when the First Amendment is mentioned, it actually assures citizens five basic freedoms:
* freedom of religion;
* freedom of speech;
* freedom of the press;
* freedom to peacefully assemble; and
* freedom to petition the government for a redress of grievances.

The First Amendment Schools Web site provides resources for applying First Amendment principles in schools, including:
The Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) has published a guide for educators, called The First Amendment in Schools. Written in question and answer format, the book provides instruction for teachers and administrators on applying First Amendment principles to school governance and common school situations.


Developed by the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the First Amendment Center, the First Amendment Schools Project is designed to move First Amendment's ideas out of textbook discussions and into practice in classrooms and school hallways, while deepening educators' understanding of the First Amendment.

"We are trying to help schools become more responsible in teaching and implementing the First Amendment," said Sam Chaltain, a former teacher who is the First Amendment Center's coordinator for the project. "We're trying to identify communities in which everyone sees what the First Amendment requires of us as citizens."

Each First Amendment Project School received a three-year grant in March 2002. Participants are required to create laboratories of democratic freedom; commit to promote inalienable rights and civic responsibility; include all stakeholders; and translate civic education into community involvement.

"The program believes that every teacher needs to be a civics teacher," added Michael Wildasin, ASCD project director for the First Amendment Schools Project. "This is bigger than the social studies curriculum or the academic mission. The sorts of skills that informed citizens need, such as the ability to discuss controversial issues in a civil manner and to ask informed questions, can be honed in any class."


Most administrators do not realize that First Amendment freedoms are involved in the decisions they make every day. Can you expel a kid with blue hair? Do you push a panic button if a lesson on the Middle East segues into a discussion of Islamic beliefs? What happens when a kid refuses to stand for the Pledge of Allegiance? Should students be suspended for demonstrating on the schools front lawn?

On just one day -- January 24, 2003 -- five stories were spotted in U.S. newspapers about school conflicts with First Amendment connections. Among them: an administrator called meetings to decide what to do about students wearing Confederate flag apparel; a principal banned the student newspaper from covering a controversial issue, only relenting when the local media reported the story; and a student Bible group, prohibited from distributing fliers on campus unless the word prayer and any Biblical quotations were eliminated from the flier, filed suit against a principal.

"Most educators want to get it right," Chaltain said of allowing students and staff to exercise First Amendment rights. "But many dont have the time to fully understand the issues."

Frequently teachers and administrators avoid mentioning religious beliefs in classes, for example, believing it is a taboo topic. In fact, there is a difference between teaching religion and teaching about religion, Chaltain said. When teachers avoid the subject of religion, students are denied valuable cultural information.

To help them better understand those and other issues, teachers were issued books about creating democratic classrooms, which includes holding class meetings and presenting lessons on First Amendment freedoms in class.


Both Williams and Beverly Ashby, principal of Butler Middle School, a First Amendment School in Salt Lake City, Utah, said schools are the most logical place for students to practice the citizenship skills outlined in the First Amendment. If you want kids to leave 12th grade as responsible citizens who understand their rights and vote, you have to give them the experience," said Williams.

"I realized I had been running a benign dictatorship," added Ashby, after joining the program. "Part of this project's purpose is to teach students how to participate in a democracy by letting them participate."

That does not mean, though, that students can wander the school, assemble whenever and wherever they wish, and spend hours drafting petitions on whatever irks them. The program stresses that freedom does not mean freedom from responsibility. "It teaches students to exercise their rights responsibly and respectfully," Wildasin said.

Exercising one's constitutional rights also can take some practice. Williams is teaching students and parents that not every issue requires a petition. "We're giving kids experience with First Amendment responsibility to help them. Thats not to say I'd be happy if students took over my office."

In another example of rights with responsibilities, students came to Ashby asking permission to go out on the athletic fields during lunch hour. That privilege had been revoked after students left litter on the fields. Ashby agreed students could go out, after they agreed to clean up after themselves. "They can go out if they are responsible," she said. Ashby added that if she finds litter outside, the fields again will be off limits to lunchers.

Community service also is part of school life at Butler; students are encouraged to identify a community issue that needs addressing, develop a resolution, and work on solving the problem. The school newspaper now is reporting on community as well as school issues and, after some journalism instruction, student print and broadcast journalists are being held to higher standards. Students also produce a weekly video news program. "We stress that they have the responsibility to produce accurate information that will be read and viewed by others," said Ashby.


Students' role in greater policy issues also has grown. Fairview students are participating on a committee to decide whether a uniform policy should continue, although parents will make the final decision.

Parental involvement also has increased at Fairview since it became a First Amendment school. After the staff educated community members about their rights, parents are asking to participate on more committees, Williams said.

At Butler, students are electing classmates to a student senate; one senator represents every 35 students. The senate is expected to meet twice a month to discuss issues, with parents and administrators in attendance. Senators will be responsible for reporting back to their "constituents."

First Amendment School Hudson High School in Hudson, Massachusetts, also formed a new student governance program that involves students in school-wide decisions, said teacher Josh Otlin, who is involved in the program. Students now are debating which student groups should be allowed to sell candy in school, and will report their recommendations to the school committee in the spring.


Not everyone is embracing the program yet. "Some members of the faculty have reservations about the wisdom and/or feasibility of giving all students a voice in serious decisions that affect the school," said Otlin. "Faculty and staff have also had concerns about having the prep-time required to successfully launch and sustain this new initiative."

Being a First Amendment School does not always make a principal's job easier either. But the programs goals should be a school's goals, Williams and Ashby said.

"Anything you can do to make the kids want to belong and unify the school is positive," Ashby said. On the other hand, she conceded discussing and decision-making require more time.

Most believe the effort is well spent, however. "It is worth it because in the long run, we will have an educated citizenry," Williams said.


Article by Ellen R. Delisio
Education World
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Links updated 10/25/2011