What Role do I Play in Making “a More Perfect Union”?
by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional SpecialistPreamble to the U.S. Constitution. This ambitious opening statement by the framers challenges all of us to see ourselves as part of “we the people” and that we have a role to create that “more perfect union” in our communities. As Erwin Chemerinsky, Dean of Berkeley Law School; Jesse H. Choper Distinguished Professor of Law at the University of California - Berkley Law School and Michael Stokes Paulsen, Distinguished University Chair and Professor at University of St. Thomas School of Law, explain in the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution:
Importantly, the Preamble declares who is enacting this Constitution—the people of “the United States.” The document is the collective enactment of all U.S. citizens. The Constitution is “owned” (so to speak) by the people, not by the government or any branch thereof. We the People are the stewards of the U.S. Constitution and remain ultimately responsible for its continued existence and its faithful interpretation.
In a diverse state such as Illinois, the lived experiences of our youngest citizens is varied. That is why dialogue across differences to promote understanding of our plural but shared story is foundational to the health of our constitutional republic. Sometimes, the first informed action a personally responsible citizen can take is to listen to understand.
Three educators participating in the Guardians of Democracy Microcredential Program with Volunteer Generation Fund brought their classrooms together in a virtual Town Hall to facilitate dialogue between high school students representing diverse regions of the state. Logan Ridenour from Dupo High School in Dupo, Gwynne Ryan from Maine West High School in Des Plaines and Clara Mattheessen from A-C Central High School in Ashland, Illinois brought their students together to discuss the essential questions, “What does a more perfect union look like?” and “What role do I play in creating a more perfect union?”
As Gwynne Ryan explained, “Having the ability to engage in civil discourse is an essential skill in building a productive democracy. This skill requires practice. It requires leaning into discomfort. It requires learning about the lived experiences of those different from yourself. We can not always teach those skills within the classroom. This activity allowed students to practice these essential skills.”
We asked these educators to share a bit more about their experience in exploring these essential questions in their unique communities and then sharing their results in this virtual town hall to help our youngest citizens understand their role as civic participants. Here are their responses.
Can you tell us a bit more about what you did to prepare students to participate in this virtual town hall?
Gwynne Ryan explained, “Joining in partnership with two other colleagues, we explored the questions of 'What makes a more perfect Union?' with students from across the State of Illinois. Our groups met two times to get to know each other a bit better. The first meeting we played getting to know you games. This was a fun, light and fun way to get to know each other. The classes individually completed a Question Formulation Technique to develop questions that would be combined to develop one shared interview. This interview would be then used in our second meeting to interview each other. During our second meeting, the students were able to use the interview questions to guide the discussion about, ‘What makes a more perfect Union.’ This project allowed us to reimagine the value of normalizing online meetings. We were able to capitalize on this new technology to engage with groups we otherwise would not be able to”.
How did this activity deepen students’ disciplinary content knowledge?
Clara Mattheessen shared, “This activity deepened not only disciplinary content knowledge but also deepened their own understanding of where they live and what was valued. Underlying the actual content was a better understanding of citizenship and how there are different types of citizens and how where we live could prioritize those differently. Students analyzed videos of different people from different parts of the country talking about what ‘a more perfect union’ meant to them. This also taught them how to interview individuals, create interview questions, and analyze empirical data. Throughout the school year students have analyzed different aspects of the country discussing farming policies, United Nations involvement, freedom of speech, and even how textbooks differ between different parts of the country. This activity led students to better understand all of those previously held conversations and allowed students to realize that the issues in our country aren’t just red and blue but differ across the state and political party.”
How did this project deepen students’ knowledge of themselves and their community?
Clara shared, “Students deepened their knowledge of themselves and their community by taking the time to ask their community about what it takes to make ‘a more perfect union’ and analyze data from their community. They also took time to reflect upon what they did through quick reflection questions about the unit. Students asked what do we need to do better for next time and how do we reflect/create a project that our community would benefit from.” Gwynne added, “This activity allowed my students to experience first hand some of the differences between the lives of students living in a different part of Illinois. This allowed my students to consider that their experiences and understanding of the world are not always shared experiences. I would like to see more of these conversations happening across the state as we work to repair and rebuild our nation.”
Clara also shared reflections from other participants in her building:
- The more perfect union assignment allowed some people to see that not only do many people disagree on issues but many people disagree on the meaning of words themselves. The More perfect union assignments showed that everybody wants generally the same thing but also showed how ignorant people can be of what those same words may mean to others. — Senior Student
- Completing the more perfect union unit really got me thinking about what this country needs to work on. We are divided right now and it is hard to think of us as a country if we are divided. The coronavirus and politics are really making this country more divided. I have seen value added to our community. Next time we need to have people know that politics aren't as important as our country in general. — Sophomore Student
- It draws students together to express their shared passion to improve America as citizens while discussing the different methods and philosophies to do so. Having the students ask community members ensures that varying perspectives can be gathered and compared while learning what similarities connect us all. The project has the student reflect and critically think about their own values and ideals of what America should look like; something many youth have not critically analyzed about themselves. Comparing differing methods show how people view and believe America to be differing things. This project opens students to many beliefs and principles regarding citizenship and nationalism. — Teacher
Clara explained, “After analyzing the data, students realized that the community believes that volunteering is the best way to create a more perfect union. What the kids would love to do is create a community or school-wide volunteer drive. Particularly with the middle school attached to our high school. They really wanted to get the middle school students involved in the community by getting them out there and bettering the community. The students would be in charge of registering the younger students and setting goals for the younger students to achieve to complete these activities; even creating prizes and a certificate for the middle school students to achieve if they had met all of the goal posts. The students really wanted to expand this program out to the full community after a successful roll out to the middle school.”
Logan shared, “Students thought about this question in terms of how it related to voting in elections. Students addressed the question through advocacy for/against pieces of legislation at the state and federal level. Students also discussed possible ways to use the idea of a more perfect union to address issues in their school.”
“This is the question that we all must address. This was not intended to be a project with a final conclusion, but a project to begin a long and necessary conversation.” explained Gwynne.
What advice would you give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in informed action through service learning?
Logan shared, “I would definitely suggest doing it. It does take some work at the start, especially if you’re collaborating with others on a service learning opportunity. The results are very rewarding for all that are involved. The students seem to really dig into these type of learning projects”
Clara encouraged, “I think the most important advice I can give teachers thinking about opportunities for engaging their students in service learning is that it doesn’t have to be anything big. What it takes is student inquiry and a group of kids willing to think about the world around them and try to solve issues that them and their peers face within the communities that they live in.”
Gwynne concluded, “Discuss the topics you think will come up in student discussions and brainstorm ways to ensure that students have the support they need.”