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Bringing the Constituion into the Classroom

Social science teacher, Chuck Saint, with Jim Nasella, conducting Constitution Day at Hoover High in Glendale.

This is the fourth year I have been participating in Constitution Day – going into schools for just one period to present the U S Constitution to Social Science high school classes. When I go into the classrooms, I explain to the kids that I realized when taking Constitutional Law in recent law school classes how extremely brilliant the writers of the Constitution were because that basic law, the longest lasting written constitution in world history, is certainly partially responsible for the success of our government and country.

When I found out about the program, sponsored by the ACLU of Southern California, I knew it was made for me because I am a lawyer, a former teacher and a retiree (in other words, I have time to go into classrooms between 8 a.m. and 3 p.m. on weekdays.) Constitution Day, the holiday, was instituted by Congress to commemorate September 17, the day the Constitution was ratified by all the states in 1787. It was on that day that the individual colonies first became the country, the United States.

Surprisingly, the students with little success in school, the ones I expected to have their heads on their desks sleeping, were the most enthusiastic.

Once I was trained and went into the classroom, I was astonished by the students’ reactions. I had anticipated that they would be bored by something as remote and as abstract as the Constitution. Instead they were interested, one might say, excited by the idea. And they were excited by the same things the ACLU is excited about – the First and Fourth Amendments: They have the right to have the freedom to express their own opinions and more importantly, there is something in the Constitution that protects them from unreasonable searches by the police and their teachers. Often they would flock around my desk with questions as I tried to struggle to my next class. And surprisingly, the students with little success in school, the ones I expected to have their heads on their desks sleeping, were the most enthusiastic. With this much success, of course, I was hooked. I had to come back each successive year.

The work on Constitution Day is not just visiting classes. I usually spend as much time contacting school administrators and teachers and scheduling my visits as I do in classes. A few times I had to visit schools during their break times and literally chase teachers around the school grounds to make contact. Teachers have incredibly busy schedules, and they are overwhelmed by the number of students they have in a day and the assignments to give and evaluate for each one. A teacher after successful sessions last year asked me, “Same time next year?” When I tried to contact him this year, I could get no answer. Finally, when I walked into his classroom, he explained that there was a different Social Science Chair at his school, who simply through inertia would not respond to the program, and he was not at liberty to communicate with me about such things. The new facts I find out about the turgidly slow way schools operate constantly amaze me.

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As an ambassador. I have found myself to be in a partnership with teachers. At a Burbank, California, continuation school, a number of teachers stood at the back of the classroom during my presentation and presented me with hastily written questions to answer for the students. This year I found myself several times being a co-teacher with the regular teacher, with again that teacher asking me questions on behalf of the students. Also, I have been revisiting classes, and, the other evening, I unexpectedly ran into a class I had who were studying in the Glendale Library (unfortunately causing a minor disturbance). Two teachers are becoming involved in my other activities, including the peace vigil I join every Friday evening

This year I joined a committee to create a new Constitution Day curriculum. Head of the committee was Elvia Meza, who runs the program for the ACLU and two persons who have years of teaching experience in the Los Angeles Public Schools, Penny Kunitani and Paul Landau. My colleagues who teach Constitution Day in Glendale have told me that it is a much better program than those in the past.

I spent five days teaching the Constitution in Glendale recently. After finishing the second class in a continuation school, the kids broke out in spontaneous applause. This is why I keep coming back. We worked in four schools in Glendale. The League of Women Voters, which I had recruited last year, covered Pasadena, perhaps preferring their own slant to the ACLU’s. Burbank schools seemed to want to go their own way on Constitution Day.

While we accounted for almost 2800 students last year, we only accounted for 900 this year. But I look at it this way. The students we covered last year were covered this year, if not by us by the League and teachers in Burbank. Because of us, we awakened in them the need to bring the Constitution to students, and that is much better than it was four years ago before we started.

Social Justice Pioneers

Jim Nasella