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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Freedom of Religion Freedom of Religion — Student Perspectives

Kristen Borges’s students

The students whose interview comments are excerpted here were enrolled in a ninth-grade civics class at Southwest High School in Minneapolis, Minnesota, when this program was videotaped. Here they discuss their experiences role-playing as lawyers and Supreme Court Justices in a mock trial of a Supreme Court case dealing with the First Amendment and the impact their teacher’s constructivist methodologies have had on their level of interest and learning.

The case

Desjohnna: I’m representing the school board. The school board is fighting because they think they should be able to pray during football games and graduations and things like that. We think that if you want to pray it’s your freedom of religion to pray.

We had a packet that was about five or six pages and we had a lot of information in it that we had to read through and pick out what would be for our case and what would be against our case and get down to the root of what the Constitution’s really trying to say and how we could interpret that into our arguments. So it was processing all this information.

I’m worried that I might not be able to defend my case as well as I want to, that they might come at me with something that I’m not going to be able to back up or that I haven’t thought they would. I might get a little nervous then. But I pretty much think I have down what I’m going to say and what they are going to come at me with. I found a lot of good points that I could argue with, so I was feeling really good about the case.

I had never argued before the Supreme Court before and I was real nervous but I had to get my mind clear and read what I had down. When the family side went up, I felt more confident about our case because I didn’t feel like they really had a strong argument. In the end I probably was wrong. The Supreme Court decided that the families had a stronger case. I think they had one strong argument that since she said “in Jesus’s name I pray,” she pointed out a specific religion and that does go against the Lemon Test.

Destinee: It seemed like I was studying day and night just trying to figure out how to present my case and make it really good. What surprised me about the other side was that they came back with things that had nothing to do with the case and I thought they were going to be a little more prepared.

Two of the girls in the class have a way of thinking that because they’re Christian it’s right for everybody else who is Christian to think the way they do. I think that they both think so much alike because they were brought up strictly Christian in different ways than I was brought up as a Christian. They don’t understand anything that I say about it. I am Christian but that doesn’t mean that it’s right for [prayer] to be in a public school. I just get kind of angry at them because it’s like, “Why don’t you understand?” It gets frustrating. You try and listen but it doesn’t help when there is so much bickering back and forth.

Ina: I think we’re learning ways to look at different points of view because you can look at this case in four different points of view and come out with something different.

I’m arguing with the school board. The problem is that a female mentioned religion at the football game. We’re arguing whether she should have said it while at school. I don’t think that she really made anyone feel bad by saying “In Jesus’s name I pray” because she said “I” and didn’t say “we” or “you have to.” She didn’t use any of those other words. So I think she should have freedom of speech. They told her to write the speech so why is there a problem now? I feel that she did the right thing. I don’t think that the Mormon family really should have [brought the case].

We’re going to cite the [case] from 1990 where they ruled that you can have after-school sessions of religion, and the football game was an after-school event. So we’re going to see how far we’re going to get with that. [It will be a challenge] getting everyone to see our side. Because by the family already winning this case twice and taking it up a higher step, more people think we’re going to have a problem getting people to agree with us.
Jesse: I was a lawyer for the family side. I just thought I had more arguments on that one and I could back them up easier.

The first day, we [started] to get our arguments together and we put our feet in the other people’s shoes, like the school board, and looked at what they would use so we could look [at] how to back those up and defend them. That’s kind of how we got a strategy to win. I looked through the packet and highlighted lots of stuff and then we went on the Internet and looked up previous cases about religion in school.

John: I’m an attorney for the family. My preparation is going pretty well. We’re getting everything together for tomorrow. I was listening to the Justices and it sounded like they were in favor of the school board. They were saying that [the families] could just get up and leave if they want to. But I feel pretty strong about what we have to say tomorrow.

We’re going to surprise them in the beginning. We’re going to go up there and say a little prayer of our own, only it’s going to be different to show how the families felt. We’re going to say “God bless all our players in Satan’s name we pray” to show that that offends people. And I guess we’re just going to go up and say the precedents from past cases and try to get in their shoes and try to counter what they say.

Kaila: I’m the Chief Justice. I wanted to be an attorney for the school board and there was no room. Ms. Borges picked a number and we had to guess it and I just chose the highest number and I got it. Everybody said I’d probably make the best Chief Justice ‘cause I was really open to everything. At first I thought the Chief Justice chose who would win the case, but then I heard that you had to vote and I was okay. It’s a hard job; it’s very hard and I wouldn’t want to have it when I get older. I think I should have done a lot more research and maybe studied it a little more.

In the beginning I was looking more on the family winning because I just thought the families have good points. But then, when I read the background, I was more for the school board. So I kind of changed my mind because I didn’t see it as such a big deal as people made it to be. I didn’t really agree on the respondents winning. I really wanted the plaintiffs to win

I think it was really heated in there. Everybody was very passionate. But I think at times they really mixed up their opinions with the facts.

Kurtis: I’m the captain of my team so I’m like leading everything. I think it’s going great because we have everything we need for tomorrow. I was kind of concerned because we were saying what we were going to do and I think that the other team was listening. But we got some new stuff. We’re going to throw some curves at them that I don’t think they’re ready for.

I really don’t like to do all that readin’ and writin’ but I figure if I want to be a lawyer, this is what it takes, so I might as well get used to it and start practicing now. So I went home and I looked on the Internet [for] some information that could be helpful in our case. The Supreme Court hasn’t ever had a case like this, so it was hard to find related cases in the same situation that they ruled on. We just kept using 1963, when the Supreme Court decided that reading a Bible off the intercom was unconstitutional.

My key argument is that we’re going to try to lead a prayer, but not like a Christian prayer. I want to see how the other lawyers and the judges feel about that, because that’s the same situation on the football field. I’m trying to throw a little curve at the beginning to hit them with the big thing so they’ll come out and prove I was wrong. I think that [the other side] going first also gives us an advantage, because whatever they say when they go up we can just think of a comeback at that.

We were arguing the Lemon Test. The Lemon Test is basically like saying that [the speech] has no religious purpose, or it doesn’t advance religion, or it doesn’t prohibit a religion. They did not pass the Lemon Test at all. They kept trying to say they’re right but you can [only] do your religion as long as it doesn’t harm or harass other human beings. That’s what they failed to realize.

I think the outcome is good. I was surprised that we had the same exact outcome as the real case and I think in real life it will help a lot of people not to be offended.

Thomas: I was a Supreme Court Justice. I thought it was going to be boring, something that would be just for fun or something. Sometimes I don’t even pay attention. The first day I didn’t read some of the stuff but then I started reading more and then I just got really into it at the end. I thought it would be a little easier but it was fun as it got harder and harder.

Zev: It was fun doing it, a good way to learn about the Supreme Court and it was fun being a judge, kind of hard, you know, seeing what they go through every day. [I] thought it was a pretty cool experience. I had to go over the Constitution a little bit, study the case, find background information, and look at other stories that had to do with that case. If I were to start over, I would probably look over the case a little more and try and ask a little more questions and be a little more involved in discussion.

Group work

Desjohnna: My group is on the same page pretty much. I’m used to working with my sister. I usually debate with her and we’re really strong together but the other people on my team I had to get to know first. One person on my team was siding with the family. She didn’t really want to be an attorney for the school board and we had to kind of talk her into it, but in the end she was our secret tool that we used against them.

All of us think that we should definitely be able to pray when we want to. So I think that we’re really going to do well, because we are all putting our heads together. We found that we had missed some things that other people in our group had figured out and it was a lot more information than we realized we had.

Destinee: I think it’s important for us to work in groups because then you’re not so solitary with your work and you don’t have to just sit there and read from a book. You can interact with other people and get their point of view. Maybe it will change your way of thinking. When you work in these groups it gives you a different perspective of whatever they’ve been thinking so then you kind of switch gears and you think well maybe this person thinks differently than me so maybe I should kind of think in their shoes so I can see where they’re coming from.

[One member of my group] is kind of a goofy, class clown-type of guy and I was really surprised that he was being really serious with this case and he took it to the extremes. He really, really worked on this. It also surprised me that our group worked well together because some of the people in that group don’t get along.

John: I didn’t think we were going to work as well together as we did and it went pretty well I think. Some of the people in our group weren’t really close friends or they didn’t really talk to each other a lot so I didn’t think we could work that well together.

Kaila: You get to know everybody’s opinion and what they think and sometimes you don’t agree with it but you get a feel for everybody, what they stand for. It’s good because these are some of the people you’re going to be graduating with and you’re going to know for the next three years, so I think it’s good to sit down and talk.

Kurtis: Working in groups you’ve got to pick a leader, because if you don’t have a leader you’re going to fall apart because everybody is going to do what they want to do. My group chose me to lead because they know that I’m good at everything and I know how everything goes. So I think groups are fun if you’ve got people that are willing to work together and willing to listen and do their part.

I think we worked well but we were kind of surprised at what Jesse said, ‘cause we weren’t planning on him saying what he said. He said that they were forced to listen. They weren’t actually forced, they could have walked out or something, but he should have said that they have the right to not have to hear that. That’s what he was supposed to say. But it still worked out for the best. We still came through. We worked well as a team.

Sometimes [the teacher] picks our groups, but most of the time we get to pick our own groups. I think it’s good to work in groups because you get to learn more about your classmates and how they feel about the situation and you get more points of view other than your own. Their points of view can get you to realize that you’re not thinking right or something, like you need to change how you look at things. I learned how to work together and how to take different points of view and accept what somebody’s saying and try to understand it. I really learned how to listen to other people and listen to what they have to say. It could be helpful.

Role-playing

Desjohnna: I think it’s cool. I might consider this as one of my jobs, because I’m researching jobs in another class. I’m going to research this one to see if I want to pursue this since I like it so much. I like debating a lot and getting to say my opinion on subjects, because for a long time, even when I was little, I never got to say my opinion. I’m liking that people will listen now that I’m older and they respect me more since I’ve shown them that they can respect me, that I respect them.

Ina: I like being in the heat of the moment debating with people. I like to do that, because I think I’m pretty good at it. I feel I can just shut you down.

Kristen Borges’s class

Desjohnna: We do activities in her class and it’s easier for us to understand what she’s saying when we’re having fun with it. Instead of just lecturing us about it and sitting in front of the class and talking about government, we get to actually experiment with it and do mock trials so we can become more a part of it. We are learning while we’re having fun. She always wants us to get up, get in groups, and talk about things so that we can learn more. We take notes, too, so we can write it on paper and see it.

It’s easier to remember the stuff when you actually do it instead of just reading it out of a book. You actually get to experience it hands on. You understand it more and you understand what it’s really all about.

She made it so you wanted to actually read and figure out information and think more instead of forcing you to do it. She said okay, if you do, then you can debate for your side. And it was like, okay, I want to sit down and find some good arguments to make the other team think more about their case and I actually want to learn about the Constitution, what things I can use against them. I don’t think in [Kristen Borges’s] class that I’ve ever had to argue something that I don’t believe in. She basically lets us choose what side we want to be on. She might ask us to find some ways we could argue a side that we didn’t want to be on, but she wouldn’t really make us argue for that side.

I think she’s more of our friend then our teacher. She doesn’t try to act like she’s better than us. She tries to come down to our level as a teacher instead of just lecturing us. She kind of is a friend, you know. She doesn’t really act like a teacher, I guess.

Destinee: She is such an incredible teacher. She’s got this specific way of learning that makes it so that it is not boring and she relates to us more than just on a teacher or student level. It’s more like she actually cares about what she’s doing and she can laugh with us. She can ask you direct questions without making you feel like you’re being put on the spot. There is a lot of energy in her class. I personally like it because you don’t have to sit and be bored and read. I’m more of an artsy person. I like to act out things.

Ina: She’s a cool teacher. She’s funny. She’s got a sense of humor. She’ll catch attitude quick. You can’t make her angry that quick. She’s always happy. She’s always up-going. She challenges us. But she doesn’t just throw it at us. Like if we don’t understand it, she’ll go back, tell us, explain it four, five, six different times, then she’ll move onto something else. She’s my favorite teacher in the school.

Jesse: She’s nice and funny. We both like the same music and stuff. She plays the guitar, bass, and drums. She wants us to do hands on and get in groups instead of just taking down notes. It’s more fun so you learn more. When you just have to sit there and listen to her and take notes, you kind of get bored and tune out and don’t learn anything, but when you’re doing this all the time, there’s something to do to keep you busy. We keep doing more fun projects. Each one keeps topping each one, so it’s like, “What’s going to be next?”

John: Ms. Borges is a great teacher. The way that she teaches class is really fun. Like what we’re doing right now. We’re not just reading out of the book and jotting things down. We actually experience it first-hand. A lot of my classes [are] all bookwork and notes but Ms. Borges mixes it up. I seem to pay attention more. When it’s bookwork I just try to jot it down and get it done with. When we’re working in groups, I listen a lot.

Kurtis: Ms. Borges is a good teacher and she teaches you a lot of things that you need to know. She’s hard sometimes, but she gets her point across and that’s good. I think that that prepared us a lot. She cares about your life and how far we go in life and how we do. I like that sometimes she gives you one-on-one attention if you need it.

For the whole year we’ve been learning about the Constitution. We’ve only been working on textbooks maybe twice. She lectures but she makes it fun. We can ask questions in the middle of a lecture, so it’s not like just sit there [and] be quiet all day. It’s kind of like we’re involved in it, too.

[When Ms. Borges went from group to group] I think she was trying to make sure we were on task. I think she was trying to make sure that we were getting prepared for tomorrow. We would say something and she would think about it and maybe throw something in like “How about this?” or “How about that?” She’ll help us out like that.

Thomas: In the beginning of the year I thought I’d fail the class but it wasn’t that hard at first. Then we started gradually getting a little harder and I just kept up with it. It’s hard to describe but some teachers, they just don’t know how to teach. They just tell you to pick stuff out of the book or write stuff down and think of something. The way Ms. Borges teaches, I would have no other teacher. She can be funny at times and she helps you–doesn’t tell you the answer but tells you how to do it and where you can find the answers.

Zev: It’s a lot better than the way [other teachers] teach, ‘cause a lot of teachers just kind of say, “Alright here’s a book, now you get to do bookwork, write it down on paper, answer these questions.” With Ms. Borges, it’s a lot more fun. She helps us and we do a lot of group activities. We don’t do very much bookwork, like we might have two assignments out of the book this year.

Being a citizen

Desjohnna: This class allows me to be a citizen because it teaches me more about the government. Citizens of other countries that come here and want to become citizens have to take a test about the government. Civics tells you those questions and answers so I become more of a citizen, too.

I figured out that it’s way more complicated than I thought it was. In my old school, I learned about a three-ring government of checks and balances and just the main parts of the government, but now I actually get to see what happens on one basis of the government. It’s way more confusing, way harder than you could ever imagine it would be. Just reading out of a book doesn’t explain to you that the Supreme Court Justices have to be really open-minded and you have to know way more stuff than you think they know. You respect them more after taking a walk in their shoes.

I’ll know more about the government so I’ll know that if I’m not happy with a certain law, I have the power to change it. But I’m going to think twice about changing it because there’s so much that it has to go through. I’ll just be more aware.

Destinee: I learned that when you really go into it there are so many privileges and rights that you have as a citizen that you wouldn’t have if you were not. Like if I wasn’t a citizen, I couldn’t vote. That’s a big part. It’s deciding what your country is going to be based on. Before I took the class my perspectives on voting were a lot different. It was just kind of a day where you got to go and check off a ballot. But it means a lot more now that I know about what all the different branches do and how the Constitution works. It makes me feel a lot more power when I know that I’m going to be able to vote and pick somebody that’s going to lead my country.

Ina: Back at the beginning of the year we had to do stuff that was currently happening. At first I wasn’t really thinking about what is Congress going to do today. Nobody that I know thinks like that. So we started getting into it and explaining how the government works and I started trying to get more into it because I want to know more of what’s going on today, because you never know what might go on. So I started asking more questions about it. It’s our rights. We have a right to our rights. We have a right to know them. I knew some rights existed but I didn’t actually know that there was a piece of paper that told us our rights. I didn’t know anything about the Bill of Rights and any Amendments.

I think it’s confused. You have the same laws but different situations. Then people try to push this one so far and push this side so far. It gets kind of tricky when you start reading them both and then looking at everything. Like it’s supposed to be separation of church and state, but on every coin it says, “In God We Trust.” So all types of different things get in the way of that.

I think I’d like it better if I could vote, because I feel that I could speak out more with my opinion. We have opinions, too, you know.

John: I’m just learning about how a case can go from state court to federal court to the Supreme Court and how it can get appealed. I’m also learning a lot about Constitutional rights and how many Justices there are and about the Chief Justice. It’s nice to know about your Constitution and rights that you have as a citizen because you live in America and you want to know what’s going on. If you ever get in a position to be in the courts, you want to know what to do. I’ve been sort of thinking about being a lawyer when I’m older, going to law school.

There is no law that you can only have one religion or you can’t say this or that and they can’t prohibit you from assembling somewhere because we wanted a country different from when we were controlled by Great Britain. We wanted one where we could be freer, have free speech, and assemble anywhere. We could print anything that we wanted to. We could have any religion that we wanted to. It’s important, because to be a citizen you have to know about the past of our country and to vote you should know a lot about the Constitution so you can make a good vote and pick who you really want to be President.

I actually learned how hard it is to make a decision on a case that comes to the Supreme Court and actually had heated conversations that made me think more and made me want to win. I actually went home and studied a little bit more.

It’s made me think more about voting in the future and it’s helped me learn more about presidents and the executive, legislative, and judicial branches. It helped me think more about what I’m going to have to do in the future as a citizen.

Kaila: At the beginning of the school year I thought civics was just something very new because last semester we learned a lot about the government and the First Amendment. I thought it was going to be the same thing. It was kind of, but we learned more about a lot of the twists that life puts on us, like with the First Amendment and how people get away with a variety of stuff. It comes in pretty handy with life itself, because people do sue for the wrong reasons or they sue for the right reasons and civics really just pinpoints the First Amendment and what it’s all about. Civics tells you what it’s like after school and what people go through.

Kurtis: We learned how to deal with certain situations and how the whole legal system works. Like we learned how many judges we have and how long it takes to get up to the Supreme Court and how many cases they hear a year and how the Supreme Court is run. Just in case you ever get into some trouble or you want to sue somebody or something, you know the steps to take and the proper way to go.

I never knew that the First Amendment said this because we never read the First Amendment. We just know the five because we drew our hand and then we wrote the five Amendments in it.

We were discussing how some people take the law and make it try to mean something else because the founders are dead, so we really don’t know what they mean. So the class asks, “Why don’t they change it and make it for the new day?” And Ms. Borges said that we’ve been doing this for 200 years and it’s been working so they want to stay with what we’ve been doing.

I think that some laws that the states have need to be changed, like the right to bear a gun. I think back in the old days you needed that because British soldiers were all around. Now that we’ve established police and everything to protect you, people shouldn’t be able to carry them around. There are so many out there it’s dangerous.

Series Directory

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Credits

Produced by State of the Art, Inc., in collaboration with the National Council for the Social Studies and the Center for Civic Education. 2003.
  • ISBN: ISBN: 1-57680-679-0

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