Most U.S. history and government textbooks present the Constitution as a kind of secular Ten Commandments: James Madison brought the document from the mountain and it was Good. The books may point out that not everyone agreed on the best plan for government, but through debate and compromise “Right” triumphed.
What makes this treatment of the Constitution so pernicious is its effect on students. Removed from a social context, cast as an inevitability, the document is elevated to an almost holy status, above analysis and critique. This Constitution-as-religious-icon scenario doesn’t allow much wiggle room for student reflection. Instead, the teacher’s task is to enlist students in memorizing Constitutional wisdom: What’s meant by “checks and balances”? What’s a writ of habeas corpus? I’m sure I wasn’t the only student forced to learn by heart and repeat on command: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union …” This is indoctrination, not education.
The Constitution Role Play asks students to think critically about a number of issues that confronted the original framers of the Constitution. But the role play adds a twist: instead of including only the bankers, lawyers, merchants, and plantation owners who attended the actual Constitutional Convention, the activity also invites poor farmers, workers, and enslaved African Americans. This more representative assembly gives students a chance to see the partisan nature of the actual document produced in 1787.
In the second lesson (The Constitutional Convention: Who Really Won?), with the Constitution Role Play as background, students are primed to wade into the actual document and analyze parts of it in a social context.
These lessons on the Constitutional Convention are among the most frequently downloaded from the Zinn Education Project website.
Here are tweets from classrooms in Naples, New York, Durham, North Carolina. and Elmhurst, Illinois using the lesson.
— Anneke Radin-Snaith (@AnnekeRadin) February 11, 2016
The People’s Constitutional Convention role play from @ZinnEdProject never disappoints! 1st period broke into applause after abolishing slavery and expanding democracy this morning, which led to a great discussion about why the oft-celebrated Framers did the opposite 🤔🤔🤔 pic.twitter.com/yftyMxPYYC
— Tracey Barrett (@traceyebarrett) September 6, 2018
Welcoming so many new faces to our #AmericanStudies Unconventional Constitutional Convention @YorkD205 w @KellyDeloriea Thank you @ZinnEdProject and Bill Bigelow for another successful debate. Democracy is not a spectator sport! #IgniteD205 #teachingoutsidethetextbook pic.twitter.com/09SyoSv0kM
— Lindsey DiTomasso (@laldtd) September 10, 2018