Denver Bar Association
December 2009
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Back to School - Round 2

by Doug McQuiston

Click here for a DBA-DPS Update

Readers of The Docket may recall my adventures last May in the second grade at Schenk Community School. If so, you’ll be surprised to hear that the folks at Denver Public Schools decided to give me another chance. This time, though, they had the sense to put me into a high school class. Good call.

In September, I spent the day teaching American History (four classes of it), to a wide range of mostly college-bound students from tenth to twelfth grades, at South High School. When I arrived on campus on that sunny September day, the first thing that hit me was: "Man, am I old!" It seemed like a century ago that I was in high school. Wait — it was. The early 1970s, to be more precise.

Next, I was smacked with a jarring realization of how much our universe has turned. On many levels, it’s a whole different world for these students than the one we lived in back in the last century.

The student body at South was a new-millennium mix of races, ethnicities, languages and national origins. Groups of girls in hijabs — even a few full abayas — walked by giggling and speaking in everything from Farsi or Arabic to African dialects, mixed seamlessly with flawless valley-girl English. I also heard fluent English mixed with Vietnamese, Hmong, Mandarin, Spanish and even Russian. A typical day in an American High School, circa 2009.

What a perfect setting for our special lesson plan — the Constitution. The students had been studying the American Revolution and our Declaration of Independence, so my segue into our founding document, in honor of Constitution Day, wasn’t much of a leap. That said, this was their first glimpse at it in print. They were daunted at first when I handed out their pocket U.S. Constitutions, courtesy of the Denver Bar Association.

Their first question was whether they could keep them. I told them they could not only keep them, but I was going to require that they read them, and keep them around after class to re-read, too. We dove right in, breaking down the document, discussing the Articles and Amendments.

The students struggled at first with the concept that the document was not a grant of rights to citizens by the government but rather a limitation of the powers that the citizens delegated to the federal government. But then, as we talked about it, it clicked — in America, the people had the power. Government didn’t exist to grant rights to Americans — it existed only because the American people decided that they needed to form a "more perfect union" than their previous Articles of Confederation, so they spelled out government powers — a radical notion in 1787. Maybe even more so today. The kids were excited to have figured it out.

Some of our exercises put the students into the shoes of the delegates to the Constitutional Convention — what would they have done? How would they balance the interests of their constituents with the need for an enduring document? We discussed how the document came together as the result of log-rolling political compromise as much as high-minded statesmanship.

I benefited greatly from the 90-minute class periods. The extra time gave us a chance to get deeper into the subject. Other than a little goofing around from time to time, the students used their time well. They enjoyed learning things about the Constitution that they didn’t know before stepping into the classroom that day. For never having seen the document before, they "got it" at a pretty sophisticated level. They had an innate "fairness compass," a framework on which they fit the difficult concepts of separation of powers, taxation, regulation of commerce, free speech, restrictions on search and seizure, etc.

Our discussion of Congress’ taxation powers in Article I, Section 8 worked into a raucous — and surprisingly conservative — group discussion about the "unfairness" of the taxes taken from their part-time job paychecks. They all agreed that their take-home pay was too low. But then, because most of the students were going to be heading to college, one suggested that the "government should pay" for it. That discussion quickly moved back to taxes — they realized they could "give" everyone free college education, but as "delegates" to the new Constitutional Convention, they’d have to figure out a way to pay for that. The connection between government "benefits" and the tax bite became clear.

Then came the Bill of Rights. I handed out a synopsis of a Supreme Court First Amendment case, Hazelwood School District v. Kuhlmeier, which deals with the concept of free speech in high school. When could a school newspaper censor or exercise "prior restraint" on a particular article? Does a high-school journalist working on the school paper even have First Amendment rights? The students read the opinion, picked up on the key points (guided by an outline I passed out), then broke into groups to tackle some specific exercises on how they might draw the line on restraining students’ free speech rights, and why.

After the groups finished their work, I had them select a "lawyer" from their group to come up to the front of the class and brief it on their problem, how they approached it, their conclusions, and reasons for reaching the conclusion. Some enjoyed the "public speaking" aspect of the exercise, while others looked like they would rather be someplace else.

When the day came to a close, I realized I still wouldn’t be in the running for Guest Teacher of the Year. But thankfully, I never got that unnerving sense I remember having in front of Ms. Smith’s second graders that I was never in control, that I wasn’t really "teaching." As I left South High that afternoon, I was glad DPS gave me another shot.

The DPS–DBA program still needs volunteer Guest Teachers. Try it. You’ll spend a couple of days way outside your comfort zone, but you’ll come away with a whole new respect for teachers — and a restored belief that, (as The Who told us in their famous 1979 double album), "The Kids Are Alright."

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