At a Glance

  • Daunted by teaching the Bill of Rights and its complex vocabulary to students? Middle-school teacher Christine Valenti explains how she introduces her students to the Amendments.

Teaching the Bill of Rights

Introducing Students to Primary Sources Comparing and Contrasting A New Way to Look at History

Video Transcription

  • The Vocabulary of the Bill of Rights
  • Learning to Answer Questions
  • Wrapping It Up

  • 4:27
  • 2:57
  • 0:57
  • Christine Valenti: My class is approximately 30 students and it's a class of mixed-level abilities. I have probably six or seven students that have IEPs, which are Individualized Educational Plans, and they need extra supports in class and there is actually another teacher in the class that assists with those students.

    And then I also have very motivated, high achieving, gifted and talented students in that class. So it's a really, it's a mixture of everybody.

    As a document, I think the Bill of Rights not only embraces the rights and freedoms that we have as Americans, but one of the things that I think my students got the most from the lesson, now that I've delivered it, is that they see that the Bill of Rights is still very much active and alive in our daily lives. And I really felt as though this topic of the Bill of Rights captures the whole essence of freedom and independence as the history of the United States evolves. So, it's sort of that common thread that I can carry from the beginning of the class to the end of class.

    Christine Valenti, in classroom: You should be able to take the key ideas behind the Amendments and put them into words that make more sense. Let's say a 2008 vocabulary. So I've come up with a summary sheet and one of the goals that I have for us in class today is to read the Amendment and then match it up. And I didn't do it numeric order, I scrambled the summaries around. You have to read through the list of summaries and figure out which one matches to the correct Amendment.

    Christine Valenti: When you look at a document such as the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, there's wording or phrases that maybe most students in 2008 wouldn't understand. I think in teacher-speak we call it "front loading vocabulary," in which you pre-expose the students to words that you know will be more challenging. And I really took, like, almost a day and a half just doing vocabulary words. And especially when we started looking at the Supreme Court cases, they really had no idea of what the word affirm means or what does it mean when opinions concur or a dissenting opinion. So, that was the key to unlocking their knowledge and making sure that they understood the vocabulary first.

    Christine Valenti, in classroom: Alright, Maha, probable cause.

    Maha: Probable cause. A good reason for suspecting that a person has broken the law.

    Christine Valenti, in classroom: Good. So probable cause would be a good example of yesterday, when I said that if a person were driving down I-270 and they're stopped for a speeding ticket yet the police officer notices that boy, there's a substance on the back of the car that I would say looks a lot like maybe blood, and then they could use that as probable cause to further investigate maybe there's something inside the trunk, and then that could lead them on to a search.

    Christine Valenti: Once we got the actual Bill of Rights, my students and I, we highlighted words that they could actually relate to when they were reading the Bill of Rights, and I try to use a strategy that, hopefully, they can use in other classes. It's the idea that if you read something that's difficult, you try to look at the words that you know and try to make sense out of the words that you don't know and maybe replace it with another word that makes more sense to you.

    And then another part of the lesson was to apply the summary and their understanding of the Amendments to an actual current event article that would sort of highlight or embrace what that article was—or that Amendment was about.

    Student 1: Like, everyone has the right to bear arms.

    Student 2: What did you get for the applications one?

    Student 1: Hm?

    Student 2: What did you get for the applications?

    Student 1: Oh, it's on the second page. "Gun owners seeking open carry law."

    Student 3: It's "citizens are protected from unreasonable searches and seizures" and "probable cause is needed for search warrants."

  • Christine Valenti: They come up with really good questions. Like, you know, "Why did they only choose four years for the president, but six years for the Senate?" And, "Why do you need to be older to be a senator than a member of the House of Representatives?"

    So, I think before a teacher takes on any of these primary resources, like the Constitution or the Bill of Rights, they have to be very knowledgeable of it yourself. Because if you don't know it, it's going to make it really, I think, more challenging for the kids to understand it, if you don't have a grasp yourself.

    Student: Did they choose like random people so that none of the people who are gonna get guilty, like, know about the jury?

    Christine Valenti, in classroom: Before the judge and the attorneys for the plaintiff and the defendant determine the jury pool, they ask a series of questions to make sure that you don't know either of the attorneys, that you don't know the defendant, that you're not closely related to the topic that the case is about. They try to—it's called the voir dire process. They're trying to find out as much information from potential jurors before they actually seat the jury.

    Christine Valenti: Primary resources can challenge sort of a more generalized view of history as written in the book. Not only does it make you question history, but it gives you perhaps another point of view of history that you didn't have before, or maybe even question more than what the book stated.

    It was really refreshing to see that they took something from class and brought it outside of their—outside the classroom, to knowledge that they saw on television or on the internet.

    Christine Valenti, in classroom: Amendment Two is the idea that you have the right to bear and keep arms. And that is, in other words, people can own handguns. And the headline was "Gun owners seeking open carry law." Did anybody actually take a moment to look at that headline and the information that was underneath it?

    Student: Yeah, they were—it seemed to me that they were saying that gun owners wanted to be able to just carry the guns out open in public.

    Christine Valenti, in classroom: Exactly. There is a movement in Illinois—his is written by the Chicago Tribune—that there are people who support the idea of gun rights, where instead of having your gun concealed or locked up that you could carry your handgun unconcealed.

    Christine Valenti: And this ties back to the whole purpose of teaching American history, is that you want your kids to think critically, historically critically. History is just not the passage of time or something you read in a book, it's something that's happening now and we're a part of, and we can learn from what's happened in the past and we can also apply it to what's going on today.

  • We spent two days looking at eight Supreme Court cases that I selected that really related to eight out of the 10 Amendments. And I tried to get court cases from the Supreme Court that include student issues, high-interest levels like lethal injection, and then also there was student drug testing for extracurricular activities. So I tried to choose Supreme Court cases that were not only current, but really would have been a high interest level to them.

    And then they answered, like, a debriefing after that. Like, what did you find the most interesting about these cases? Were you surprised that there are so many cases that involve students? And pretty much we wrapped it up from there. And, I know that—I feel like they're much more aware of their rights and also how these rights are just evolving in front of them, every day, with news events.

Middle-school teacher Christine Valenti explains how she introduces the vocabulary of the Bill of Rights to students and how necessary it is to have a good understanding of the Amendments and their language before teaching the topic.