With state and national elections coming in a few weeks, we are being inundated by political ads. Even our youngest students are aware of some of the issues being discussed, and many may have questions that come up in class. This is a great opportunity for teachers to help students understand what an amendment is, how laws are made, and how citizens can make responsible choices when voting. Classes can also look at ways to learn about the issues (beyond the media blitz) and consider how voters make decisions.
In states where contentious amendments are on the ballot, campaigns can stir considerable passion. Deciding if a proposed amendment is desirable can be hard even for adults, and teachers may have a tall order discussing them in class. Here in Minnesota we have two proposed amendments on the November ballot, and similar ones are appearing in other states. One amendment would require that voters provide legal identification to vote. The second deals with establishing the definition of marriage to being between one man and one woman.
Heather Hawkins, who teaches U.S. Constitutional and legal history at Winona State University in Minnesota, feels that long before college, “kids have to know how laws are made, but we need to go further. We need to encourage them to look at how an amendment impacts the daily lives of real people.” We should explore how people’s lives will be altered by enacting an amendment, and who will actually be impacted before making a voting decision. Hawkins thinks students need to ask, “How will this apply to me, my family, and my friends’ families?”
Critical questions are at the core of any proposed amendment and can be great starting points for discussion. Depending on the age of your students, you may consider some or all of these questions—or versions of them:
- Why is this amendment needed?
- Will it accomplish its goal?
- What long-term change does it make?
- Does it infringe upon other rights bestowed by the Constitution?
- Can it be effectively and fairly implemented and sustained?
- Could the goal be accomplished through legislation instead?
- How will it affect my family and me?
- How will it affect others?
Should voters be required to present identification?
Voting is one of the most basic rights of citizenship and is the core of a democracy. You can start a discussion by finding out how the amendment ended up on the ballot, who proposed it, and why. Will the amendment achieve the goal? Hawkins says to look at real-world consequences, and real people who vote now. She suggests that students research who might be excluded from voting if the amendment passes. In addition to the core questions above, some questions are more specific to the issue of voter identification:
- What steps are needed to get an ID?
- Is the cost of securing an ID fair for all voters?
- Who does not presently have an ID?
- Are there groups of voters who would find it hard to obtain an ID?
- What percentage of people currently eligible to vote do not have an ID?
- How would an ID law affect the right of voters to use an absentee, early voter, or mail-in balloting system?
Should marriage be defined as between one man and one woman?
Several states are grappling with issues around same-sex marriage, an issue that inspires very strong feelings on both sides. This can be sticky to discuss in class, especially with younger kids, but again a good place to start is to find out why the amendment has been proposed. What problem will it solve? Hawkins suggests we ask kids to “look at the legal rights and privileges that are attached to marriage and then talk about how defining marriage as being between a man and a woman might limit access to those rights.” Students can easily see how many of these impact their own families—parental rights, co-ownership of property, inheritance, and more.
The core discussion questions above also apply here, but other questions arise that are specific to this amendment. Ask students:
- What civil rights and privileges does marriage grant?
- Should same-sex couples have these rights and privileges? Why or why not?
- Is there a civil recourse that could provide similar rights and privileges to same-sex couples?
- Should there be?
- What role, if any, does religion play in defining marriage, and how does that affect a voter?
Seeing that amendments and other laws have real consequences on people’s lives and on a student’s own family can put the campaign hype into context. You can even discuss with your class how some campaign bluster can cross the line into bullying in the adult world. Learning to talk about proposed changes to a law in a respectful way is a valuable lesson for all students.
“There are few rights more important than our right to vote,” Hawkins states, “and kids can learn to see how voting choices affect real people.”
Are there amendment issues on your November ballots? How do you discuss them in your classroom? What methods have you used to help students see how laws affect real people?
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Schoolhouse Rock videos for elementary students: Preamble (to the U.S. Constitution), I’m Just a Bill, and Three Ring Government.
The Constitution for Kids website has resources organized by grade levels K–12.
The consequences of amendments are not always clear to voters, and campaigns often distort them or gloss over them. One consequence to think about is the long-term cost to support any amendment. The Voter ID issues is a great example, how much does it cost to establish and maintain a separate system to meet the “probational vote” in the amendment? A voter without appropriate ID may vote, but their vote will be set apart and a review process for eligibility will be set up. We have seen that special votes and recounts are expensive and time consuming.
I am delighted to know that many teachers and schools are willing to let students discuss all amendment and other changes to the law. They will be voters before they realize it, and some of the issues are so coated with “legalese” that it is hard to understand. Seeing how it actually applies to “real people” is a great idea!
Thanks for this piece. I find it hard to redirect my 7th graders sometimes when they get started espousing opinions on politics and issues.
This thoughtful piece gives me some concrete questions to use that should help build a more thoughtful discussion. I really like the “how will it affect my family” part, and will encourage them to go further–my neighbor, my bus driver, workers in stores I shop at, and others.