Giving away freedoms

After a few days of getting-to-know-ya activities (that actually helped us get to know each other a bit in non-threatening, kind of fun ways), I decided it was time to learn stuff, and employed one of my favorite lessons ever, especially the way I did it this year.

We learned about the First Amendment. Like a dress-up chest of mom’s and dad’s old favorite clothes and accessories, we tried it on so many different ways, they may actually not forget.

When they entered the class that day, I handed them a piece of paper and told them their Bell Ringer was to write down all of the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment that they could recall. These are mostly freshmen and sophomores with a few juniors and a senior or two sprinkled in. I saw dread, I saw surprise, I saw total confusion. I heard, “the what?” I explained I only need to know what they, themselves, knew, that there was no reason to borrow info from a neighbor. They weren’t turning anything in; there was no grade. I just wanted to know how much they knew. I promised they’d know more by the end of class.

After a few minutes, I challenged them to tell me the ones they knew. When the most well-known was called out, Freedom of Speech, it rang bells for a few others. We got the next two on the board, Freedom of the Press and of Religion, before the well ran dry. This happened in both sections of this class. But in one class, one young man was onto something as he struggled with a concept – protest – but it took several others to toss words about before we came up with “gather,” and I helped them on to “assemble”. They didn’t get “petition” until I projected the 45 words on the screen for them to see.

The next step was to define the freedoms. As I’ve done in the past, I asked them to think about how they would explain each of the freedoms to a class of fifth graders. This took a little while, too, as they struggled to interpret what the freedoms really meant, too. I helped a little and we got them defined with a little purpose tossed in.

A new slide on my presentation asked which freedom they thought they could live without, which took us to the most interesting part of the lesson and the part that made it all stick.

Which one would you give up? This created discussion. If you give up speech, what would happen to your free press? If you give up the right to assemble, what happens to your practice of religion? That did it, and they began a lively discussion with each other that didn’t necessarily involve me. I had them vote. Which would they give up? The first class voted to toss press first. I exaggerated my offendedness (is that a word?). I am a journalism teacher! How will you get by without freedom of the press? What about being a watchdog for the government? The other class tossed the right to assemble first. We wondered at how that would affect their lives.

But we weren’t finished. When they realized they were going to have to toss another right, they began to worry a little. I knew some people had abstained from the first vote, but I couldn’t let that happen from here on out. With four freedoms remaining, and, as it happens, four corners of the room existing, the remedy to that was easy. I took four of the pieces of paper they’d used for scribbling down the rights they knew and I wrote big, the remaining rights, and had students tape them to the walls (or door or cabinets) in the four corners of the room. Now we’d vote with our feet.

What would you toss next? The students considered, and they moved to the area of the freedom they thought they could live without. I counted heads and the freedom with the bigger number was scratched from the board. But then I’d ask a few students why they voted the way they did. Sometimes that generated a brief discussion. Sometimes we realized a misunderstanding and a vote changed.

We did this until only one freedom remained. In one class it was Freedom of Religion. In the other it was Freedom of Speech. We had a minute or two to discuss our results and wonder about a world where we only had that one freedom and how not having the others would make things different.

I asked them if they thought they’d remember their five freedoms the following day, the following week. They were pretty sure they would.

For homework – and I told them I rarely assign homework – they were to survey 5-10 people to see how many of the freedoms they knew. Just jot down names and how many of the freedoms that person knew. We’d tally the next day. Almost all of them did this – or faked it pretty well. They were very interested in the results. They discovered lots of people knew none, several people knew one or knew those top three. One young man was alarmed when no one in his family knew any of them.

Did I grade anything? Nah. Was it fun and engaging? Yep. Did we learn stuff? You betcha.

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About teachjournalism
I am a high school teacher of journalism, technology and reading. I advise the school's newspaper and yearbook, both student-led publications. Documenting and sharing my experiences is a way of reflecting to improve my own work and and inviting commentary so that we might all benefit. I believe, as I tell my students each year, that we all learn from each other.

2 Responses to Giving away freedoms

  1. Joy Kirr says:

    I love all of this. I sometimes (SOMEtimes) wish I taught HS students… What I really love is the authentic homework you gave. I should do more of that! I have on my board the “Agenda” and the “Independent Practice” (aka Homework) = read for 20 or more minutes (or write!!). I need a better phrase, though, as sometimes I want them to finish something we did in class, and if I were to ask them to go home and ask people questions, it’s not really “independent practice…” Maybe something with the word “authentic?” I’m sure the kids will say something soon if I add something that’s not “really” practice! Thank you for sharing this lesson, Lisa!

    • Thank you, Joy. It was a fun day. Although I did expect it to work well, I still stood back, amazed, when they started talking to each other, asking, “but what about …?” They challenged each other’s thinking. It was awesome. And because I have already established that I’m not grading, but providing feedback, the natural discussion was the feedback, and I didn’t have to worry about how to twist it all into a number, into a point system. I didn’t have to worry about who participated in their minds but didn’t say much. I didn’t have to worry about taking the joy of learning away.

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