Constitution Day celebrates the anniversary of the signing of the United States Constitution on September 17, 1787. I’ve written before about how to order your own pocket U.S. Constitution. Today, in honor of Constitution Day, I am giving away two books (Hip Pocket Guide and Our Documents) that will help you and your family learn about the U.S. Constitution, and I am sharing advice about civics education from City Councilman Ron Nirenberg (campaign site) based on his experience developing classroom materials and civics education programs.
Earlier this year, I learned that Nirenberg carries a pocket U.S. Constitution with him in his briefcase. Nirenberg is one of a group of local enthusiasts who want to make Constitution Day a bigger thing in San Antonio. This year, KLRN is hosting A Conversation with the Constitution, a moderated discussion about the U.S. Constitution, at the KRLN studios.
Nirenberg’s passion for the U.S. Constitution goes back at least to his years as a graduate student at the Annenberg School for Communication at the University of Pennsylvania. After graduation, Nirenberg became a program director for several initiatives at the Annenberg Public Policy Center, including Student Voices, FactCheck.org, and the Annenberg Classroom.
I recently spoke with Nirenberg about his approach for teaching civics, and he highlighted some teaching materials that he helped develop. These materials, both online and in book form, are relevant both for classrooms and for home education.
Nirenberg says, “In order to teach people about active citizenship and being involved in government, you have to make it relevant.” Instead of talking about founding theories, such as separation of powers, Nirenberg likes to start the discussion with something concrete: “What’s wrong in your neighborhood?” Then, he follows up by asking, “OK, so you don’t like that pothole in front of your driveway. Here’s the budget of city government, and here’s the portion that’s allocated to fixing potholes. Here’s the person who sets that budget who you can contact.”
The key, he says, is to start with what’s relevant to them, and then to help them to understand their role in the process. The next step is to build on that: “At a certain level, the city’s jurisdiction reaches its limit, and you get to the state, and to the federal government. It’s not about the theories and it’s not about the branches and the high offices, it’s about ‘This is a problem we face in our community,’ and these are the systems around it that help us deal with that problem.”
This approach underlies the materials that Nirenberg helped develop while he was at the Annenberg Center, including The United States Constitution: What It Says, What It Means: A Hip Pocket Guide—the edition that Nirenberg still carries in his briefcase. “On one part, it has the original text of the constitution; on another part, it has a contemporary interpretation of the language, as well as citations to laws that support it. It was geared towards young people.”
Another book developed during Nirenberg’s time at the Annenberg Center is Our Documents: 100 Milestone Documents from the National Archives. This full-sized book contains the text of key documents in American government, plus brief introductory notes. It’s illustrated with facsimiles of some documents, as well as portraits of selected authors and historical photographs. “We distributed thousands of these by caseloads for schools,” says Nirenberg.
Getting these original documents in the hands of students is essential. “Everything that we did through Annenberg Classroom, through Student Voices and the affiliate projects, was free. We would provide full, bilingual curriculum to schools around the country. We would provide pocket Constitutions and literature for schools to use at no charge.” The free materials were funded through a combination of national grants as well as local funding in 22 cities.
In addition to learning about civics in the classroom, students can learn at home. The Annenberg Classroom offers a wealth of free, online materials. The Hip Pocket Guide and Our Documents belong in every home library. Nirenberg’s question, “What’s wrong in [our] neighborhood?”, is a good conversation starter at the family dinner table. Justice Luz Elena D. Chapa and her husband take their daughters with them every time they go to vote. Several San Antonio City Council members, including Nirenberg, host regular public meetings with constituents; here is a notice for a recent event:
If you are feeling ambitious, plan a family vacation to Philadelphia to visit the National Constitution Center.
This post originally included a giveaway, but it is now closed.