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Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers

Rights and Responsibilities of Students Rights and Responsibilities of Students — Student Perspectives

The students whose interview comments are excerpted below were seniors enrolled in an honors-level constitutional law course taught by Matt Johnson at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School, a small, college preparatory, public high school in Washington, D.C. The lesson engaged them in a simulation of a Supreme Court trial on a hypothetical case involving student rights. Students began the lesson by each preparing and presenting a brief on a case that they had previously studied, underscoring that this was a culminating activity for the semester. They then divided into groups of three (plus a group representing the Justices) and prepared to either appeal or respond to a specific hypothetical case. The lesson concluded with the decision of the Court and an ensuing discussion.

Otis Bewear v. the Banneker Student Government Association (SGA)

Ashley: The case of Otis Bewear v. the Banneker Student Government Association is about a student [who] wants to run for SGA President. The teachers told him that in order to run he had to post a campaign sign and give them a speech that he was preparing. He said that he would do the speech but that he had planned on speaking to the students instead of posting campaign signs. They said that in order for him to run, he had to post a sign. So he posted a sign the size it was supposed to be but all it said was “Bewear.” He posted it in a boy’s bathroom. The school said that he couldn’t run anymore, because he didn’t follow directions, but he actually did follow directions.

We’re supposed to be using the knowledge from each of [the] cases that we had and that the rest of the class presented to us. We have to find out what cases help us and what cases hurt us, and have the best argument to support Otis.

Kayeen: I’m arguing for Otis Bewear, the petitioner. He was suing for violation of his First Amendment rights. My group pretty much came to the conclusion that [the school] really doesn’t have much of a case because there was really no reason to put his name off the candidacy. He had fulfilled all of the requirements, unless the sponsor found it disrespectful to make a poster and put it in the boy’s bathroom. There is no way that it can be proven that it was done out of malice unless [Bewear] openly admits it. They really have nothing to base their argument on for withdrawing his name. We basically decided that our arguments would be that he followed all of the rules for being able to run and the student government has no basis [for its decision]. We figured that we needed at least one legal reason, so we decided that this didn’t violate the Tinker rule, which meant that it was not materially or substantially disruptive to anything that was going on in class. So you have two common-sense reasons and one court case defense.

Latia: The student didn’t follow the correct rules for the activity, so the teacher dismissed him from it. The student went to court to fight for his First Amendment rights, saying it was a violation. The teacher stated that he did not follow the rules, therefore, she did not violate his First Amendment rights. [We] are working to prove that the teacher had a right to remove him from this event.

Zaneta: I’m on the side of the respondent, which is the SGA. My argument is that the program is school-sponsored, so the teacher could pull his name off of the ballot if she thinks that he didn’t act [in accordance with] the standards of a campaign. We were going to use Bethel v. Frazier, Tinker, of course, Hazelwood v. Kuhlmeier and Karr v. Schmidt. Those were the cases that helped us and hindered us.

Sloan v. District of Columbia Public Schools (DCPS)

Dana: The case is dealing with parents of students who attend school in the District [who] are being given a voucher worth $5,000. They can use [the voucher] to attend any school they want–public, private, Catholic, Jewish. This parent [Sloan] feels that this shouldn’t be right because her tax dollars are being used to fund these vouchers at private institutions, and she feels it’s a violation of the First Amendment. I’m on the side of Ms. Sloan, and we pretty much have to argue that the voucher itself and the actions the schools have taken are violating the establishment clause of the First Amendment.

Troy: The Supreme Court ruled in favor of the petitioner, Carla Sloane. I was on the respondent side, the District of Columbia Public Schools. I felt that we, too, had a very convincing case. I obviously felt that we should have won. I think the arguments that we gave follow prior Supreme Court decisions and were stronger arguments. Usually when we do things like this, I’m on the side pitted against my actual feelings. This time, I got a side that I actually felt for. I think that if you give money to all people, they should have the choice to do whatever they want with it. They weren’t discriminating against one group or another. The school board gave out blanket vouchers to all people in the state and said you can use this money to send your child to whatever school you want. Some parents felt that their tax dollars were going to religious schools and things like that. We figured out the main things to present the case—the Lemon test, the First and Fourteenth Amendments, the compelling state interest. I figured that if we divided the three parts up amongst us, we would have a better chance of winning the case. At one point [the other side] said that the money was only given to people to go to religious schools. I just waited for my turn so I could get up there and tell the court that the money was given to everyone, so everyone had an equal opportunity. I was just trying to sit back, listen to some of the things that they said, [and] find little niches in it that I could use to my own advantage and the advantage of my group.

Working in a group

Ashley: I think we work well together. We worked on a mock trial during the school year and we did well on that. [One member] is good at playing Devil’s Advocate. He’s probably the best at seeing both sides of the situation. [Another member] is good at finding the cases that will help us and the cases that will hurt us. I think I’m the more logical one of the group and that I could understand why a student would sue the school, or vice versa. I think putting us in groups of people that we wouldn’t normally work with, or putting us in groups in general, will help with our communications skills. That’s something that we’ll need in the future.

Dana: We work well together. The entire class worked together for the mock trial earlier this year, and [another member] and I were on the same team. Pretty much our thinking is along the same wavelength. With [the third member], it’s the same thing. We all know each other well, and regardless of our personal views of a specific topic or issue, we always can quickly adjust ourselves to fit the roles that we have. Working with them is fun because they have great ideas and they bring up a lot of good issues that are beneficial to the arguments that we need for our case.

Latia: In groups it’s better because you get to hear other people’s opinions. Even though you have your own point of view, when others come together, it changes your point of view. You look at it in a different perspective. We have to gather facts on what would hurt [our case] and what wouldn’t. We separated it. [One member] brought the facts that would hurt us; I brought the ones that would help us. We brought them together to see if we agreed, and then we analyzed it. We had to agree–sort of like a compromise.

Troy: I don’t know how he came to put us in a group, but I didn’t mind. [We] worked together on the mock trial, so [we] already [had] a good chemistry. Being the kind of person that can get along with anybody in the class, I knew them already.

Zaneta: When we first got the case, we thought we didn’t have a case because it didn’t seem like we had any points. But we put our heads together—she would say something and I would say something—and then we would just agree. She’s my peer. She’s also one of my close friends. It was easy to work with her. We were always on the same level, so it was pretty easy, especially because we knew what each other thought.

Role-playing as the Justices

Green: I was the Chief Justice today. I asked questions of the petitioner and the respondent and I tried to keep the Court moving along and keep it from getting too heated. I tried to make sure that everything flowed. Coming into the case, I didn’t know that I would be directing things. I sort of just fell into that role but it didn’t really change the way I looked at things. During the deliberations, we tried to get everyone’s opinion out, make sure that everyone understood all of the facts, and each person tried to influence others to come to their side. In the end, we decided that we weren’t going to come to a united decision, so we decided to have a majority and a dissenting opinion. The first vote was just to gauge where everyone is coming from. I believe it was five to four in favor of the respondent. After the vote, everyone gave their statement of what they saw as the issue and why they were ruling the way that they were. The second vote was to determine who was going to be the majority [and] who was going to be with the dissent. We had one sustaining [member] who didn’t vote. After all the issues came out, people started to understand the case more clearly. It kind of switched. We had five in favor of the petitioner and three in favor of the respondent.

Otis: My role today was one of the Supreme Court Justices. Basically, I always play the role of the hard judge, trying to throw a monkey wrench at everybody’s case so [they] won’t know whose side I really agree with. By using constitutional laws, I try to be psychological to disrupt you. That’s why I ask questions that most of the time don’t even pertain to law–just to see how well you flow. Because I’m an only child, I learned to view people and watch people closely. I think I got to develop that skill quickly. Hearing you say things and the way you say things tells me a lot. I think it’s harder for me to actually come out and speak because I really am a shy person.

Participating in a simulation

Ashley: It teaches us more about our constitutional rights, and I think that’s good for us as students because sometimes the administration might try to throw their weight around. We’ll know if something doesn’t feel right to us. We’ll know how to combat it and what cases are in our favor or what cases are against us. So I think it’s good both in law and in life.

Dana: I’m hands-on; lectures don’t work well for me. Because we’re required to do the briefs and argue the different sides for each case, I think that it gives [me and] my classmates an opportunity to put ourselves in that situation, even though we weren’t born in the 1860s or whatever. I know that a lot of the cases we discussed are directly related to events that are happening at school. Because we actually work with these cases, I think we learn the issues a lot better and better understand the cases themselves.

Green: This gives us a chance to incorporate the things that we’ve been learning all year. It’s like icing on the cake. Everything we’ve been doing [gives] us background knowledge, lets us understand everything. This sort of seals it and allows us to put our knowledge to use.

Otis: I enjoy it because you’re not really aware of how much you know until you actually have a chance to demonstrate it. This makes it more real for you. We read the books (“Oh, this happened in the past, this is history.”) but when you’re doing it, it’s like right now. It allows you to take a role and get into the mindset of those who made history and to see how they were thinking. It allows you to experience it. I think when you sit down and read books, you’re really not getting taught–you’re teaching yourself. I feel if I knew it, I wouldn’t be here at school. I think this kind of teaching allows your brain to be used. A lot of times when you say stuff and you hear other student’s opinions, they break it down in terms that a teacher might not do for you. This type of teaching allows you to get input from your peers. You actually hear your opinion out loud so you can learn. This teaches you how to communicate clearly. I want to be a public servant, so it allows me to understand people and to really try to comprehend what they’re saying before making a judgment, so I will not get the wrong idea or think too quickly or judge too quickly.

Troy: I like the class because I like to speak. I like the interaction. I’m not one who would rather sit down and read a book. I like doing group exercises and class work and simulations like we did today. I feel that I’m able to get a better educational experience if I’m able to hear opinions of others and voice my opinions myself. When we first came into the class, Mr. Johnson told us that our number one priority is to win the mock trial. Every year that Banneker has been in a mock trial, they’ve been able to come in first place, second place, or both first and second. So he let us know straight from the get-go that we were going to be doing a lot of interaction exercises because the mock trial is one of the biggest interaction exercises we’re going to do in our high school career. I felt that by him not actually going from the book every day, giving us opportunities to talk in class and discuss some issues, he was preparing us for our experience at the mock trial. I feel that at one point we all need to go into something a little bit controversial because everything does not need to be taboo.

Zaneta: At first it seemed kind of pointless to me because we just got in a group and went over the cases. I thought it was boring and there was no point in doing this. After a while, when we started acting out the actual cases and pretending we were in court, it really made me put the cases that I learned to work and it was more of a hands-on thing. It really made me understand more about my rights as a student and what I can and cannot do.

Matt Johnson's teaching style

Ashley: Mr. Johnson is one of the best teachers because he teaches us to work more independently or he teaches us to work more in groups. The teacher may be the one that’s supplying us with the information, but he teaches us to rely more on ourselves, or to work with someone else, instead of just relying on the teacher to take us by the hand through an assignment. In a real world, no one is going to take you by the hand and lead you through anything. You have to do it on your own. If we learn that now, we’ll be more prepared in the future.

Dana: Mr. Johnson is a cool teacher. He’s very understanding, but when it comes time for business he [says], “You need to knuckle down and do this.” When it seems as if he’s too demanding, to the point where he gives so much work that you’re about to break, he’ll pull back a little bit, and he’s like, “Well, maybe we can compromise on this.” He’s very forgiving in some instances, too. If you don’t do your homework, he’ll at least give you an extra day or two to turn it in. He knows a lot, he’s very cognizant of what’s going on in the world around us, and he pretty much applies the knowledge that he has learned to this class. It’s not just law class, it’s world class if you ask me. The things we learn we can apply to anything that’s going on.

Kayeen: I think Mr. Johnson is a great teacher. I take him for D.C. Government and for Law and I always look forward to both classes. In D.C. Government, we always did hands-on things. He replaced our final exam with a project where we each had to choose a topic that has to do with D.C. Government, go out and find facts about this topic, take at least 12 pictures of something that had to do with this topic, and [make] a calendar where you have the pictures on the top and on the bottom you have your facts put in on different days. Everybody thought it would be easy, but everybody’s starting to find out that it’s more difficult than was expected. But it’s still more fun than sitting down for two and a half hours and taking a final exam.

I have a personal relationship with him because he was very supportive of me in the moot court competition. Sometimes we can joke around and things like that. He’s not dead serious in class. Even when a kid might act a bit disrespectful, that doesn’t affect him. He can shrug it off and maybe even make a joke about it and keep going. The kid doesn’t feel the need to act disrespectful because he’s not really getting too much attention for it.

Latia: He’s fun and he lets us speak our voice. I guess that’s what makes this class better. It’s not just him talking. He lets all of us voice our opinions. It brings excitement to the class. We share our opinions and he puts his input in. He lets us have freedom of speech. Usually he’ll give us something to read first. Then he’ll lecture to make sure we understand. Next, we voice our opinion. He combines three different types of teaching. I guess that’s what makes the learning better, and it helps me retain. We know our side from reading it, his side from going over it verbally, lecturing, and then the students going over it together.

Otis: You really don’t see Mr. Johnson as a teacher. You kind of see him as your peer who is just a little bit smarter than you. He’s really down to earth. The quizzes are hard, but by the same token, when he teaches, it’s always one-on-one. You can express yourself. Your opinion counts. It’s not me lecturing you. It’s me starting off but then the whole class kind of teaches each other based on the conversations and stuff you read. So really I see him as a facilitator directing the conversation after he has set the standard of what you should know. Basically the rest of the class is your personal opinion about what you learned, how this affects you, how it doesn’t, “what-if” scenarios.

Troy: I consider Mr. Johnson my friend. I take two classes with him so he and I have had a whole lot of time to interact. We talk about things going on in school, outside of school. Because of the mock trial, he was able to meet my family. He gives me little tips that I can use at home and tells me things that he thinks might help me on my way to college.

Zaneta: Mr. Johnson is not like most teachers because he makes things fun. He talks to us like we’re adults and he treats us like adults. He never yells at us or scolds us or makes us do busy work. Everything he teaches us and tells us to do is for a reason. He’s really nice and he helps us with whatever we need and understands us. His door is always open to us. Mr. Johnson would never tell us what to [do with] a case; he would just ask us questions and get our minds going. When he would ask us questions, we would say, “Oh yeah, I remember that.” We didn’t want him to tell us, of course, or we wouldn’t learn anything. Once he tried to get us going, we really started to think and find points that would help us. He’ll ask, “Do you remember any case that would have to do with anything like this?” and we’ll answer the question and go on from there. It’s like an outline. He gives us the topic and we have to fill in the ABCs and the 1-2-3.

Textbook use

Dana: The We the Students textbook is the different court cases that relate to students and their rights. I’ve pretty much used this textbook for nearly all of my government classes and for the different competitions I had to participate in, for papers I’ve had to write. I read it on my own. I know that we haven’t covered one or two chapters in the book, but I have read the entire book because it’s just that interesting to me. For example, in the class, we never touched upon the subject of sexual harassment, which is down the line. I looked through the cases and read about the student-teacher, student-student violations of rights. I was able to use that information to write a paper for another class, to enter competitions. Reading those cases, I can kind of see that those things are going on around me in the school. I know that, for example, if something happens to me, I’m protected under such and such law. I use the book all the time. It’s a great resource. I’d recommend it to anyone, even adults. A lot of the laws that are expressed in the cases can be applied outside of the school walls.

Lessons learned

Dana: After taking this class, I feel more a part of my country. I know that voting is an important matter. I received my voter registration card not too long ago, and when I received it, the first person I showed it to in the school was Mr. Johnson. Because of this class, I’m more aware of my rights and what is and what is not acceptable in society–the rules that should and should not be broken, the loopholes. I know that if it came time for me to speak out against something that I feel is wrong and against a law, I wouldn’t be afraid to do that because I have some kind of ground to fall back on. I’m more aware of what’s going on around me. I’ve become more interested in the politics of this country and I honestly believe that had I not taken the class I wouldn’t be prepared to do that, maybe not until later on in college.

Green: We focused a lot on the rights and the responsibilities of students and how that related to the Constitution. A lot of times the rights of students are abridged because you have to protect the school as a whole. You have to be concerned about disrupting the peace, causing material or substantial disruption, creating danger for other students, having drugs or other illegal contraband within the school, and things like that. It’s sort of opened my eyes and allowed me to see what’s actually going on. I understand more clearly now that by taking an active role, I can influence things, and I’ve learned a lot about the justice system. It’s also given me a chance to look at law and I’ve even been considering law as a profession. So it’s really given me options for the future. It’s allowed me to understand what my rights are as a student, as an individual, [and as an] adult–how to participate and be active without going overboard, how not to infringe on others.

Kayeen: Before this class, I literally had no idea what my rights were. Everybody knows freedom of speech, freedom of religion. A lot of high school students can say it, but they haven’t comprehended it. Being in this class, reading the cases, and going through what freedom of speech actually means, why it’s not as broad for you as it is for someone who is out of school, reading cases about religion and the Civil Rights movement, gives you more of an understanding as to what your rights as an American are. It also gives you a sense of power because the fact that these children, who were no older than you, [identified] something that they felt was wrong constitutionally, brought suit, and went to the Supreme Court, [means] that [if] something happens to me, I can actually do something about it.

Latia: In this class, we learn our [rights] as students. Just because you’re a student doesn’t mean you have to do everything that adults say. If you go to school, and the teacher kicks you out of the class for some reason, you have a right to go and talk to a higher authority and fight your case in a non-violent way, in a civilized way. When I started this class, I knew we had rights, but I didn’t know there are cases that students took to courts. I feel like I know the history, and what I can do, so I feel I can speak out more to the higher authority in the school building. By showing me how to do [that] as a student, I know that when I step into the real world, I’ll be able to handle these things.

Otis: I would like to be a politician. Because of my skills, I would like to be a public servant. I would like to be a foreign diplomat [and] go to other countries and deal with America as a country, [its] relations, especially [to] countries like Cuba, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Israel. I just feel like I was set on earth to basically help one person, and that’s what I want to do. If I help more, I’m glad.

Troy: Just because we are in school and are students, we should have the same rights that we do outside the school building. I know we can’t get them all, because we are in like a state-run institution and we have to shed a few of the rights. But we should not lose all of our inalienable rights just because we’re in a school.

Zaneta: As a citizen, I realize that I have more rights than I ever thought I had. I have a voice and I can speak up. As a student, I don’t have as many rights as I thought I had because I thought I had the same rights outside as inside and that I could do whatever I wanted to because I’m 18. But it’s not the same. When we’re in school, I believe it’s called in loco parentis, meaning that they are like our parents. So I really learned a lot on both being a citizen outside of school and being a student inside of school.

Course value

Ashley: It’s teaching me to do things on my own and become more independent. It’s teaching me that to learn I have to go out and find out information–that I can’t expect the information to always be given to me, and that just because it’s not given to me that it’s not there.

Dana: In the very beginning of the course, I was a little skeptical. I was a little confused. I didn’t know how I would take to learning the different cases. I felt as if I wouldn’t be able to draw any connections between myself and what occurred. I felt that it would be boring. Right now I would say that it’s my best class. I see that with nearly every case we’ve discussed I was able to draw some kind of connection to it. I’m glad I had an opportunity to actually dive into the Constitution and decipher the different limits and laws and how they relate to me as a person and as a student. I’m no longer confused. I know exactly why I had to learn these cases. I’m just really overjoyed that I took this course. I’ve always been a shy person. When it comes to speaking I’m always the last person to actually step up to the podium, but I felt that the mock trial would give me an opportunity to voice my opinion, to let other people know that there’s a different side of me than this shy person. [Also] I heard that [constitutional law] deals with law and how it relates to students. I see a lot of events happening in my life as a student here at Banneker and I wanted to learn all about that. If the administration is doing something wrong, I want to know, “Is that something they can do?”

Kayeen: It’s really been amazing. We’ve covered so many topics. We’ve had teachers from American University and Georgetown University come in and teach us different things. We’ve been in contests. I myself won the moot court competition a couple of months back that was sponsored by American University. I was the only winner from this school, and one of four winners from the city, so that was a great experience in and of itself. I found that being able to understand cases and brief the cases and advocate them, I have a really good knack for that. I’m now very, very seriously considering getting into law. In a lot of the simulations we did, it gave me more of the hands-on experience of what it would be like if I was actually in this profession. It’s strengthened my drive to want to be in the law profession and maybe in politics. It’s made me want to be in a position where I can use skills I used in class to make a difference.

Otis: The first thing this class has done for me was to make me aware of my rights as a citizen and as a student. A lot of the rights I didn’t know I had. It also allowed me not to fight everything because I did see that some stuff I didn’t have the right to do. Taking this class has also helped my public speaking skills. For example, our class has been in two competitions, the moot court competition and the mock trial competition, and I competed in both, coming in third place in the moot court. Being on the second team in the D.C. area to win really helped the confidence level. You can do things. You are able as a student to speak and be heard.

Troy: My mother is a teacher. She’d tell me things that went on at her school and I’d tell her things that went on at my school. Now, we can go over [whether] the things that are going on in our respective schools are right or not. At first, I didn’t really want to pursue law because that was the career choice that was being pushed upon me by my grandfather and my father. My cousin is actually a law professor. Once we got into the class and I was able to do some of the competitions, like the moot court and the mock trial, I was told that I looked like I had a knack for the thing. I felt like I might be good in it, so I was able to pursue it a little more. I’ve always wanted to pursue a career in which I was able to be a speaker. This just kind of gave me a greater confidence in my role. Having an opportunity to speak out at several venues throughout the year has let me know that I do have this God-given ability to speak to people and hold [an] audience and convey points in a manner they can understand.

Series Directory

Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers


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: 1-57680-679-0