One of my beginning-of-school routines was to teach the guarantees of the Bill of Rights using some engaging memory devices. Bill of Rights Day, December 15, would be another great time to teach this lesson. Using a strategy I learned at a professional development conference many years ago, I had students themselves identify ten physical “hooks” in the classroom. (This strategy is based on the “method of loci,” an ancient approach to remembering large amounts of information. Many teachers use the same principle when they employ a seating chart during the first few weeks of school in order to learn students’ names.) I led the class to identify physical objects in the classroom that were prominent, permanent, and stationary. We started from the overhead projector cart and worked clockwise around the room, identifying and memorizing all 10 objects before moving on to the next step. In my classroom, the hooks chosen by each class were often as follows:
Hook # 1 Overhead projector cart
Hook # 2 Electric fan
Hook # 3 White board on the side of the room
Hook # 4 Window
Hook # 5 Book case
Hook # 6 U.S. flag
Hook # 7 Wall-mounted television
Hook # 8 Wall-mounted public address system speaker
Hook # 9 Floor
Hook # 10 Ceiling
Working with the class as a whole, and encouraging choral responses, I drilled them several times on what object they had picked for each number. “What’s # 1?” “Projector cart!” “What’s # 5?” “Book case!” It’s important for each student to be sure of the object that represents each number before moving on to the next step.
Step 2: I explained the main idea of the protections guaranteed by each Amendment, and asked students how they could associate the protection with its corresponding “hook.” It’s important that the students themselves have time to reflect and suggest the connection between each physical hook and the guarantee(s) contained in the Amendment. In this manner, the students “own” the connection and the memory device will be much more effective than if the teacher chooses the method of association. This process takes some time, but time spent in this activity is an investment that pays lasting dividends in terms of academic understanding as well as rapport in the learning community of the classroom. If the method of association is humorous, or uses rhyme, rhythm, or music, so much the better! The most memorable and effective associations were those that were silly and unique. Below are some examples suggested by my students through the years. I recommend that you give some advance thought to the possible hooks that students may identify in your classroom, but let students take the initiative as much as possible in making the actual selections.
Hook # 1: How do we use the projector cart in ways that will remind us of the First Amendment, which guarantees freedoms of religion, speech, press, petition, and assembly?
Religion: Projector bulb: “I have seen the light!”
Speech: The projector cart is sometimes used as a podium, which is where people give speeches.
Press: We write on transparencies to “publish the news” for the class each day.
Petition: If a student wants to find me to request (petition for) a change in classroom rules, the projector cart is the most likely place in the room where he can find me. Imagine running into the room and sliding on one’s knees to beg for the change!
Assembly: The classroom is often cold; if we all assemble around the projector, we’ll stay warmer. Imagine warming hands around a “fire”.
Hook # 2: How will the electric fan remind us of the right to bear arms? The fan has blades, which can remind us of weapons.
Hook # 3: How will the white board remind us that we cannot be required to quarter troops in peacetime? We will imagine an unwelcome soldier trying to come into the room through the white board—he can’t get in that way! (This is a great opportunity for an artistically-inclined student to volunteer to draw the soldier on the board.)
Hook # 4: How will the window remind us of the protection against unreasonable searches and seizures? If a police officer is peering through the window looking for something inside, we tell him he has to go away unless he has a warrant.
Hook # 5: How will the book case remind us of the protections of the Fifth Amendment? The books are silent–we can’t make them talk to us (no forced confessions). If we think the books have some information we need, we must take the proper steps to find that information (due process).
Hook # 6: How will the U.S. flag remind us of the right to a fair and speedy trial in a criminal case? Imagine a judge, robes flying behind him, rushing into the room with the flag, yelling, “Liberty and justice for all!—even criminals!”
Hook # 7: How will the television remind us that, if someone sues me for more than $20.00, I can insist on a jury trial in that lawsuit? People in Judge Judy’s courtroom could have asked for a jury instead of having her hear and decide their cases.
Hook # 8: How will the speaker remind us of the protection against cruel and unusual punishment? The interruptions and announcements often seem cruel!
Hook # 9: How will the floor remind us of our unlisted rights? If we started to write on the floor to list our rights, we would run out of floor space before we could name all the rights we have.
Hook # 10: How will the ceiling remind us of the powers reserved to the states? The Constitution is the limit (ceiling) on the powers of the federal government; the sky is the limit on the powers of the states and the people themselves.
It often took me most of two 50-minute class days to teach the entire Bill of Rights in this manner, as we had lots of discussion for each point. I used this opportunity to dispel some myths and misunderstandings that students may have had. For example, the First Amendment guarantees free speech, but we don’t have unlimited free speech. As is the case with all our other rights, we have the responsibility to observe some limits on our freedom of expression in order to live in a civil society where we don’t violate the rights of others. Parents are not violating the Fourth Amendment when they go into a teenager’s room; the Constitution applies to actions by government, not actions by individuals.
When we finished working through the Bill of Rights, it was fair game for a quiz any time. Also, when I saw my students in the hall, I would ask them randomly—“Joe, what’s the Second Amendment?” I was holding them accountable for learning the Bill of Rights, and holding myself accountable for learning my students’ names!
Another way I reinforced the understanding of the Bill of Rights was that we would sing them (to the tune of “The Twelve Days of Christmas”). I gave bonus points to choir students who would make a recording of the song so that I didn’t have to lead the music! Before long, students were asking for a Bill of Rights quiz because they knew it would improve their grade average.
The investment of time to develop a deep understanding of the Bill of Rights set the foundation for many other activities throughout the school year, and former students still tell me that this lesson is the reason they know their rights today.
What methods do you use to help students understand the Bill of Rights? What memory devices (for this or other topics) have been fun and engaging for your students? How might you use similar strategies to address those elements that you have identified as vital lessons that you want your students to own forever?