As a teacher, I wonder how my students and their families think about the Constitution. Do they think of it only as a historical document, unchanging words from the past? Or do they think of it also as a living document, composed of timeless ideas that shape the present and the future?
I recently taught a lesson about the Civil War amendments with a group of fourth-graders at my school. Even though we began by discussing the Civil War, I linked these primary documents to important decisions that had to be made in the early- to mid-20th century.
We began by reading this passage from the Declaration of Independence:
“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
Then we read this part of the 14th Amendment:
“...nor to deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”
Under the broader essential question, "How did the Civil War impact the United States and its people?" I wanted us to think about the specific question, "Why is the equal protection clause in the 14th Amendment important?"
To help us answer that question, we read Henry's Freedom Box: A True Story of the Underground Railroad (by Ellen Levine, illustrated by Kadir Nelson). It is a story about Henry Brown, a slave who is torn away from his family of origin and who later has his own wife and children torn away from him. With help from friends, he mails himself North to freedom. He became known as “Box” Brown.
"How could the 14th Amendment have helped Henry 'Box' Brown?" I asked. I listened to the hum of learning as pairs of students thought through the question.
"The 14th Amendment would have saved his family," said Aleyah.
"He could have had life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness," chimed in Sebastian.
Suddenly, one of my students asked a question. This is the most important part of a lesson, the moment when the topic sparks curiosity in their hearts and minds.
"What do you think Henry Brown's owner thought of the 14th Amendment? What do you think he thought about those words in the Constitution?" asked Jacob.
We had a discussion about how important it is to understand that all people are equal and that all people should be protected under the law—and how devastating it is when some people aren't treated and protected equally.
"Without the 14th Amendment, we might not be together in our classroom today," I said, "because the 14th Amendment was an important part of the Brown v. Board of Education decision that allowed us all to go to school together here in South Carolina, no matter the color of our skin."
We ended the lesson with this question: "Who could the 14th Amendment help today?" Will my students think about what they learned as our society debates marriage equality, immigration reform and other issues that affect the lives of human beings? I hope so! It is their voices and lives that will make our country and our world a more or less human place for all people.
Barton is an elementary school teacher in South Carolina.