When the religious right co-opts the push to reinvigorate civics education, dubious legislation reveals the most powerful people in public schools.
David Goldes, Small Jacobs Ladder on Lined Paper, 2013. Courtesy Yossi Milo Gallery
Students have fifteen seconds to make a decision: will they discuss a handout on the US Constitution in pairs or in small groups? The fifth-graders huddle, whisper over desks in a Kansas classroom painted to look like a jungle.
“Sparkle when you’re done,” says teacher Pat Zimmerman. It’s September 2013, and she has just started her twentieth year at Perry-Lecompton Unified School District 343, a small network of brick rectangles between ethanol-bound cornstalks and the forested dam of man-made Perry Lake. These unfussy classroom buildings sit in the rural, northern fringes of the I-70 corridor between Topeka and Kansas City. As the twenty white students conclude private deliberations, they do jazz hands and make soft noises to “sparkle.” Half the class wants to work in pairs, half wants groups.
“Oh, we have a split vote,” Zimmerman says, affecting fascination for the teachable moment. “That happens sometimes in committee.” At this hitch in democratic process, Zimmerman sends female students to the front of the classroom to pick boy partners. The girls line up before a sleek, digital whiteboard and old-fashioned cubbies, above which flash drives marked with student initials dangle from hooks. They giggle, point, cup hands on ears and hint at their crushes.
“Ladies, come on!” says Zimmerman, who wears thick, straight black bangs and a utilitarian ensemble of white shirt, blue skirt, and comfortable sandals. “We’re strong women here. Make decisions.”
Soon co-ed pairs sit on beanbags, reading and discussing a Scholastic News cover story on the First Amendment called “The Right Stuff.” In addition to definitions for “censored” and “party” and a web address for petitioning the government, the spread features images of the 1963 March on Washington, a smiling Anderson Cooper, and a tween with green hair flashing a peace sign.
The classroom activity is Zimmerman’s response to “Celebrate Freedom Week,” an unorthodox new curricular mandate by the Kansas legislature—traditionally charged with funding, not shaping, public education—that all students, kindergarten through eighth grade, receive instruction on this country’s founding documents during the week of Constitution Day, September 17. Last year, Kansas became the fifth state, after Texas, Arkansas, Florida, and Oklahoma, to pass legislation embracing the initiative, pioneered in 2001 in Texas by then-Republican Representative Rick Green. While specifications differ by state, its purpose, according to Kansas House Bill 2261, is “to educate students about the sacrifices made for freedom in the founding of this country and the values on which this country was founded…”
When students return to their desks, a boy with a notebook of careful Snoopy sketches offers me a seat at “the beach,” bright Adirondack chairs beside a small aquarium and palm-tree wallpaper. Just to the left, an impressive mural of parrots, monkeys, and foliage—painted by Zimmerman herself—surrounds the teacher’s desk. The ceiling, from which green plants dangle, showcases animal paintings done as student research projects. Zimmerman, who once got in trouble with the fire marshal for adorning the walls with actual palm fronds, has learned to make the space indelibly hers while following the rules—physically approximating the intersection of academic freedom and institutional standards that every teacher must navigate in classroom content.
“What does the First Amendment protect?” Zimmerman asks, ready to list hallmark freedoms in alternating red and blue.
The first shout: “Religion!”
With her digital stylus, Zimmerman writes “freedom of religion” on the glowing board, which is synced to her laptop.
“In some countries, the government says, ‘You must all be—Catholic,’” she hypothesizes for discussion. “Who’s Catholic?” A few hands go up. “You’d be fine with that, wouldn’t ya? If you do not go to a Catholic church, do you want to be forced to go to a Catholic church?”
The tepid consensus: No.
“What if the government came in and said, ‘OK, all of you have to be Buddhist.’”
“No one knows what that means,” one girl submits.
Emboldened, a boy weighs in: “I don’t know what Catholic or Buddhist is.”
Zimmerman is unfazed.
“Or—‘If you are Christian, you will go to jail!’” she tries. This elicits the grumbles that signal insult and thereby comprehension.
Past the window on this sunny afternoon, the American flag slumps at half-staff, marking the Washington Navy Yard shooting two days prior. Like tropical beaches and 1787, the nation’s capital is a long way from Perry-Lecompton public schools, but its reach is evident here. In 2011, Zimmerman and fellow teachers started phasing in the Common Core State Standards Initiative: the contentious, Obama-incentivized curriculum adopted by all but five states and now facing a swell of repeals. Though derided by opponents on both sides of the aisle, Common Core is more flexible than the standardized-testing measures of the Bush era, according to Zimmerman, as it favors integrating multiple subjects into themed units. Common Core, set to hit full steam in most states by 2016, uses math and reading as springboards to other topics, a strategy Zimmerman already employs heavily in social studies. (During the upcoming American Colonies unit, students will study simple machines like windmills in science, sample meat puddings in health, and learn building measurements in math.)
The only National Board-certified teacher at her school, Zimmerman makes no bones about her professional excellence, the magnificence of her creative space (“Are all the classrooms this cool? No”), or her suspicion of didactic texts and the teachers beholden to them. Like most Kansas school districts, hers affords great liberty in instructional approaches and text selection, and thereby Zimmerman’s plucky individualism shines.
Deciding precisely what to teach, and when to teach it, largely has been left to those trained in such matters for more than 150 years. Enter Celebrate Freedom Week.
“We have a basic outline curriculum, and then how you get there is up to you,” she says. That state curriculum tasks fifth-grade teachers like Zimmerman with covering colonial and early Revolutionary War history; civics follows in eighth grade, with additional American history by way of language-arts reading materials during junior and senior year. The Kansas State Board of Education oversees these broad standards and their implementation, while state legislators allocate funding and enact professional contracts. But deciding precisely what to teach, and when to teach it, largely has been left to those trained in such matters for more than 150 years.
Enter Celebrate Freedom Week, by which state representatives effectively tell teachers what to do. Touted as a means for addressing America’s infamous civic ignorance, the Kansas incarnation of the law calls for lessons “concerning the original intent, meaning and importance” of the Declaration of Independence and US Constitution “in their historical contexts.” In particular, the bill’s authors state, “The religious references in the writings of the founding fathers shall not be censored when presented as part of such instruction.”
If this esoteric stipulation was an evangelical wink—some legal wiggle room for religious proselytizing while teaching the very subject that addresses separation of church and state—the Kansas State Department of Education seemingly winked back with its list of recommended resources for school districts developing Celebrate Freedom Week curricula. Cited sources include secular nonprofits, apolitical state organizations, and major academic publishers, but also, among others, the American Heritage Education Foundation (AHEF), whose teaching materials include The Miracle of America: The Influence of the Bible on the Founding History and Principles of the United States of America for a People of Every Belief. According to the AHEF website, this compendium “shows how the Bible and Judeo-Christian thought are arguably the nation’s most significant foundational root and its enduring source of strength.” Exemplifying the contemporary allegiance between free marketeers and the religious right, for whom one shared goal is the privatization of schools, AHEF was co-founded by Richard Gonzalez, the now-deceased top economic advisor to Exxon ancestor Humble Oil and Refining.
Meanwhile, Celebrate Freedom Week progenitor Green now operates Patriot Academy, a traveling political training camp at which current and former elected officials teach young people how to campaign and about systems of government “from a Biblical worldview.” Green himself hasn’t held elected office since 2002, when he lost a re-election bid after using his statehouse office for a health-supplement infomercial and advocating for a financial fraud convict who lent money to his father’s company.
Zimmerman, unmoved by any new effort to make her classroom less secular, is less concerned with Celebrate Freedom Week’s mission than with its practical application. The date-specific edict, she says, disrupts the careful order of classroom operations; she typically lays colonial-era groundwork during the fall to help ready students for a spring semester democracy unit she designed (it features a mock tax system wherein locker contents are property and hallways are highways).
“You get stuff handed to you that says you have to do this on this day or this week. It’s a matter of figuring out, how can I take that pause from what we’re doing and connect it some way and move on?” Zimmerman says. “You tie yourself in knots if you get mad or frustrated with it.” She understands pinning Celebrate Freedom Week to Constitution Day, also known as Citizenship Day, which since 2005 has carried a federal mandate that public schools somehow address the Constitution—commonly done with school-wide activities or extra-curricular projects. “But,” she adds about the classroom itself, “I don’t know anybody that teaches the Constitution at the beginning of the year.”
With help from students, Zimmerman continues outlining the First Amendment, listing each hallmark freedom on the board and voicing real-world applications: a local immigrant family that recently fled religious persecution in Russia; the mortal peril of journalists in modern-day China; one student’s grandfather sitting on the local school board.
“Our Founding Fathers took care of a lot of things in one amendment,” she says.
Several impressed students look around with wide eyes and slack jaws. A boy in glasses raises his hand and says, with the unemotional wonder of a biologist counting monarch butterflies on their September migration through Kansas, “It’s so much freedom.”
For years, members of the religious right have redrawn science standards to make way for natural creationism in biology class. Now, with the passage of Celebrate Freedom Week, they make way for historical creationism in social studies. A civics teacher selectively emphasizing, say, Judeo-Christian threads of American history isn’t perfectly parallel to a science teacher presenting “intelligent design” as alternative to evolution. History, though we hope it is rooted in fact, is the province of interpretation; biology is data-reliant and less vulnerable to human beliefs. But the trouble with Celebrate Freedom Week’s religious accent isn’t open acknowledgment of the theological influence on America’s framing. It’s the agenda of those behind the legislation to erode the separation of church and state.
The law is more didactic in Oklahoma, where third- through twelfth-graders must use “Creator” language in reciting the Declaration of Independence, barring excusal via parental request. Florida’s and Texas’s laws contain similar requirements. Oklahoma social studies coordinator Kelly Curtright told the Kansas City Star last year that Celebrate Freedom Week had not, in fact, “opened a Pandora’s box” of classroom evangelizing there. But Celebrate Freedom Week risks not only invitation to religious bias but to curricular interference by lawmakers who know far more about politics than pedagogics.
One of the Kansas bill’s most vocal objectors was MainStream Coalition, a nonpartisan, Kansas-based watchdog over separation of church and state. During House floor testimony in February 2013, Micheline Burger, MainStream Coalition’s former president, raised hell for two hours over the bill’s religious origins, its unsupported implication that Kansas public schools have failed to teach students about government history, and its preposterous conceit that putting lipstick on a week in September might address issues of social studies proficiency anyway.
“It is hard to explain to people what is wrong with legislation titled in such a positive way; to oppose it would seem to declare war on motherhood, apple pie, and the American way.”
“If the point of the bill is simply to emphasize teaching about the Constitution, the Declaration of Independence, and our form of government, then it is totally unnecessary; Kansas law already requires other bodies, not the Legislature, to make provision for the curriculum in the public schools. If these bodies, including the Kansas State Board of Education, are not doing their jobs, then let’s deal with that. But I have heard nothing to this effect,” Burger wrote of her testimony. “If, on the other hand, the objective of the bill is to promote religion in the public schools, then we have a very serious problem.”
Like the war protestor accused of hating America or the scientist accused of hating God, Burger found herself in the position of defending her own allegiance—in this case to American-history education—to ideological wolves in sheep’s clothing. “It is hard to explain to people what is wrong with legislation titled in such a positive way; to oppose it would seem to declare war on motherhood, apple pie, and the American way,” Burger wrote.
To some, though, the title is the first sign of mischief. Like a father with a camera telling his kids to smile like they mean it, the law says that you will celebrate how free you are. In naming Celebrate Freedom Week, Green may have successfully employed the linguistic strategies of those people who brought us “pro-life” and “freedom-haters,” but his political portfolio is hardly coded. He facilitates firearms training with his “Constitutional Defense Class,” whose promotional web copy promises, “even if you know nothing about the Constitution and you have no experience with a handgun, your Constitutional knowledge and your passion for American Exceptionalism, as well as your handgun skills, marksmanship and safety awareness will all dramatically improve.” He performs across the country with self-described “God’s comic” Brad Stine in a bookable “Comedy and the Constitution Tour.” On Sunday mornings after shows he is available to speak at church services. A status update on his Facebook page once warned that food-stamp recipients could become dependent like wild animals fed by tourists in national parks.
Since 2001, the year Green introduced the “Teach Freedom Act” in Texas, he has been a public representative for WallBuilders, a revisionist-history organization founded by fellow Texan David Barton, with whom he co-hosts a syndicated radio show. Barton, author of The Founders’ Bible, which casts America as a Christian nation and the Constitution as derivative of Christian doctrine, recently blamed natural disasters on America’s “wicked” policies and was tapped by Glenn Beck to run for the Texas Senate in 2014. Kansas Governor Sam Brownback is an open admirer of Barton, who endorsed his 2008 presidential run. Brownback has said Barton’s research “provides the philosophical underpinning for a lot of the Republican effort in the country today—bringing God back into the public square.” Barton’s research, however, is less lauded in other corners; his deliciously titled 2012 book The Jefferson Lies, which proclaims that Thomas Jefferson was no secularist, was pulled by publisher Thomas Nelson for containing, well, lies.
Barton and Green both are active in the ProFamily Legislative Network (PFLN), an offshoot of the WallBuilders group devoted to fighting, at the policy level, issues it terms “homosexual indoctrination” and “fetal pain,” as well as to promoting school vouchers, homeschooling, and charter schools. It was at PFLN’s annual conference that Kansas Representative Kelly Meigs was inspired to champion the Celebrate Freedom Week legislation. She joined Green and Barton on their radio show in July 2013 just after the Kansas law, co-sponsored by twenty-nine fellow Republicans, passed handily. She thanked Green for his help and lamented opposition from those who thought “we were mandating the teaching of certain things in the schools.” They had it backwards, she said.
“When I was debating it on the floor, that’s what I was trying to get across to people—that this was freedom. This wasn’t a mandate,” said Meigs, who in two terms has helped pass laws requiring photo identification for voters and illegalizing late-term abortions except in case of risk to the patient’s life. But for Meigs, a graduate of Springfield’s Evangel University, speaking on the talk show of two avowed crusaders for merging church and state, “freedom” may well mean the “freedom to infuse teachings with Christian views.”
Rob Boston, who for over twenty-five years has reported on inappropriate religious presence in schools for Americans United for Separation of Church and State, sees a longtime campaign to miseducate Americans about their own rights. “It’s to social studies and history what creationism is to biology,” Boston says from his Washington office. “It’s an attempt to rewrite the accepted history and substitute a religious-right version of events that really doesn’t have any support in the academy. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t have political support.”
Barton is notorious for finding such support. He lifts convenient quotes from America’s founding documents to create what Boston calls a “cut-and-paste revisionist history,” and politicians such as Green bring him through statehouse doors as an advisor. Barton, who has no training as a historian, has helped shape history curricula in California and Texas and has lobbied to remove the phrase “separation of church and state” from education standards, arguing that it doesn’t appear verbatim in the Constitution. In 2012, Mike Huckabee, the former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, joked that all Americans should be forced at gun point to listen to Barton’s teachings.
“It’s not about civics. It’s about ideology.”
“The creationists in biology are really good at isolating a specific piece of information, presenting it out of context. Real scientists come along and demolish them every time, but of course in politics facts can only take you so far,” Boston says. “Barton and Green’s shtick is very similar. It’s not about history. It’s not about civics. It’s about ideology.”
Boston says the law reliably prevails against such ideologies in public education. But foes of church-state separation often succeed insidiously. A 2007 national survey of more than nine hundred biology teachers suggested that 13 percent taught creationism or intelligent design, and more than half avoided taking a direct stance on the topic of evolution. Boston says Green, Barton, and their supporters want to create a similar dynamic, wherein “some teachers will be afraid to teach the real story of the development of the United States and its system of government.”
In early 2013, a variety of Kansas education bills already had created a climate of concern about the government’s power and intentions. Jana Shiver, chairwoman of the State Board of Education, wrote a letter to legislators asking that they not overstep their authority. “We respect the Legislature’s constitutional responsibility to provide for the suitable finance of education for Kansas students,” Shaver wrote—a nod to then-pending litigation against the state for underfunding schools (later, the State Supreme Court would set national precedent by ruling in favor of schools). “We ask that our legislators likewise respect the State Board’s constitutional responsibility for the general supervision of schools, which includes accrediting schools, providing for academic standards and the licensure of teachers.”
As the bill came down the pike, Micheline Burger tried to convince legislators that Celebrate Freedom Week was not only unnecessary, but also poorly conceived. “I was told that the US Constitution is based on the Bible and contains passages from the King James Bible, that the majority should prevail in what religion is promoted in the schools, and that the Drudge Report is a reliable source of factual information…. I was told, in no uncertain terms, that there is no such thing as separation of church and state,” Burger wrote. “It is ironic that members of the Education Committee expressed such strong concern about the lack of [student] understanding of the three branches of government, because it appears that some of their colleagues could use a refresher course in this area themselves.”
Legislators who need civics education passing laws about civics education: it’s the kind of irony over which cosmopolitan, armchair liberals love to shriek. To be sure, Celebrate Freedom Week and the forces behind it pull at the democratic seams of public education. But when considering the experience of the student and her direct learning, all education is local. As Kansas Department of Education science consultant Matt Krehbiel told a Lawrence newspaper in 2012, while leading the restoration of rigorous teaching standards several years after the state board made world headlines by approving a creationism-friendly definition of science, “…The standards themselves won’t make that difference. It’s the teachers in the classroom that make the difference.”
It’s Celebrate Freedom Week 2013 and, in a cinderblock-walled classroom at South Middle School in the hilly town of Lawrence, between Topeka and Kansas City, Tom Barker is celebrating his freedom to teach Latin American studies.
At the beginning of last period, he tells fidgety seventh-graders to text-message from personal gadgets the two major languages of Latin America. (Their answers, appearing in real time on a computer projector screen, in order of popularity: “Spanish,” “German,” “waffles.”) After this warm-up, students collect textbooks from a wall of particle-board cabinets and break into groups.
The classroom features a nineteenth-century Lawrence map, a contemporary world map, two globes, and a tiny plastic wisp of an American flag. Students recently enjoyed a flag-designing exercise, during which many focused on sports teams; one colored-pencil creation, referring to KU head basketball coach Bill Self, rings with unintentional profundity in a classroom where adolescents learn about the tensions between individual freedoms and state protections: “In Self we trust.” Tomorrow is, after all, Constitution Day, when Barker will add a handout on the Bill of Rights to his existing lesson plan—artfully complying with Celebrate Freedom Week while focusing on existing priorities in the complicated landscape of standards, tests, and the individual student needs he navigates daily. It may have the capacity to wreak havoc in the wrong hands, but in practice the curricular mandate reveals an earnest army of teachers doing good work.
If the ultimate goal for schools is student learning, the person who wields the most influence is the one standing at the front of the classroom.
This contrast, between potential problem and actual triumph, brings to light the lesser-told true story of American public education: it works. Diane Ravitch, the former assistant secretary of education and No Child Left Behind proponent who now rails against the charter-school movement and standardized testing, said as much to NPR’s Steve Inskeep last year. “Let me tell you what I think everyone needs to know,” Ravitch said, citing record graduation rates and test scores across demographics. “American public education is a huge success.” She pointed to lacking resources rather than inherent dysfunction as the source of problems.
Out-of-touch policy-makers may tinker on behalf of special interests, with consequences echoing throughout budgets and curricula. But if the ultimate goal for schools is student learning, the person who wields the most influence is the one standing at the front of the classroom. Anyone who loved astronomy in the sixth grade, when the science teacher poked constellations into a flashlight-lit bed sheet, but lost interest the following year, when the teacher read about planets from a creased textbook and then napped at his desk, knows this. Teachers are the most powerful people in public education.
Barker, a first-year teacher finishing his PhD in social studies education at the University of Kansas, delivers world studies to about one hundred seventh-graders at South, where demographics closely align with state averages. About half of the students qualify for free or reduced-cost lunches; about a third are non-white. He admits, after following the legislation through local news outlets and awaiting direction from administrators during the busy beginning of the school year, he gave the state order little attention until I looked him up. (“When you emailed me, I was like, ‘Well, crap, do I need to take this seriously or what?’ Because I was just going to ignore it.”) The large Lawrence district struggled to coordinate elementary and middle-school efforts for Celebrate Freedom Week by prescribed September dates. Eventually the state board clarified that a line in the bill allowed schools to observe it during the week of their choosing; the district chose to wait until the week of Veteran’s Day in November.
The clumsy dance of bureaucracy in public education is one that Barker, a ruddy, thirty-something California native trained to be a teacher of teachers, pokes fun at from the middle of the floor. “Mission statements,” Barker says, in a tone suggesting he has seen administrators’ mouths write checks their asses could not cash. “We do this to make it look like we’re doing something. ‘Oh, we have to have a mission statement.’ You’ll see some that say, like, ‘Have students who are globally mindful and prepared for a global economy.’ What does that mean? It sounds good on paper, but how do I do that?”
To find out how others are doing it, Barker surveyed more than four hundred Kansas social studies teachers as part of a thirty-five-state study of twelve thousand instructors—the largest of its kind in three decades. The resulting research, The Status of Social Studies: Views From the Field, published in October 2013, provides a snapshot of how teachers frame history and discuss religion. The results suggest few differences in self-reported content priorities among teachers in states as disparate in character as Oregon, Kansas, and Virginia.
Indeed, while the five states with Freedom Week legislation share a certain blush, to conclude that so-called “red states” are necessarily more fertile for religious-right hijinks in public education would be an oversimplification. The 2004 Dover, Pennsylvania, evolution dustup, in which the school district added a plug for intelligent design to its biology curriculum, happened in a red county of a then-blue state; in 2006, parents sued the local school district in blue California over a course promoting creationism.
Even more local than the district is the classroom. The broader landscape is “definitely gonna influence curriculum,” Barker says. “But if you want to know what kids are being shown, look to the philosophy of the teacher.” He points to a bookshelf containing one of his chosen classroom texts for teaching US history, a comic book based on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States—the stuff of scandal in some conservative corners of social studies, perhaps. While Barker admits his own slant, he says he stops short of preaching it. After watching videos of differing perspectives on the Keystone pipeline, which began moving Canadian oil through Kansas in 2011, students expressed ethical confusion and wanted to know what Barker believed. He wouldn’t share. “That’s not my job.”
Overall, Barker is unimpressed by the new law’s implications. “We need to revive civics ed,” he says. “But I don’t think just me teaching about civics and responsibility and giving my kids tests is necessarily going to change or fix that.”
American civics has been a running joke for decades—from its frequent depiction as the most insufferable class period (think droning teacher voice in The Wonder Years) to embarrassing national-assessment scores (in 2010, two-thirds of high-school seniors couldn’t demonstrate even basic understanding of constitutional principles, and only 7 percent of eighth-graders could distinguish among the three branches of government) to history-themed installments of The Tonight Show’s old “Jaywalking” segment (Leno: “Who sewed the first American flag?” Dude on street: “Who sold it?”).
In the last few years, though, a host of factions have called for the reconstruction of civics education. In 2009, former Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, who describes the current state of civics ed as a “crisis,” founded iCivics, a slick online platform offering cutting-edge classroom resources. In 2012, the Obama administration released a report calling for “Reinvigorating and Reimagining” civics education. To ensure that Common Core’s basic-skills focus isn’t a coffin nail for its field, in 2013 the National Council for the Social Studies released a recommended classroom standards framework, the result of a multiyear, twenty-one-state collaboration that included Kansas educators. Groups such as the Center for Civic Education, the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools, and even an organization founded by actor Richard Dreyfuss lobby for democratic literacy. Meanwhile, by tapping legislative power, extreme agendas like Green’s and Barton’s melt into the curricular alloy that teaches young people what it means to be an American.
Perhaps no Kansas school district more acutely faces the task of citizen-rearing than Garden City, a meatpacking hub of about thirty thousand in Finney County, western Kansas. At most of the district’s sixteen public schools, at least half the students are Hispanic—in some cases, close to 90 percent, with comparable poverty rates. Finney County is one of five in the state with “minority-majorities.”
The most destitute members of the “99 percent” may have been too busy, sick, or exhausted to join the Occupy Wall Street movement.
School administrator Martha Darter appears unaware of Celebrate Freedom Week’s religious undercurrents, but she hints at the redundancy of its purported mission in a school district that has been assimilating children of immigrant Mexican, Somali, and Burmese factory workers for decades. “We’ve always done Constitution Day,” says Darter, who describes a commitment to let students share customs, languages, and experiences from mother countries even as they study America and sing patriotic songs in English. “We’ve had such a diverse population for so many years. But we are living in America.”
According to the National Assessment of Educational Progress, poor, minority, and immigrant students score lower in civics than their peers. The social repercussions of this disparity are far-reaching. Harvard University education professor Meira Levinson observes a “civic empowerment gap” in which disenfranchised groups vote and participate less and have a poorer sense of their own political efficacy than the rich. The most destitute members of the “99 percent” may have been too busy, sick, or exhausted to join the Occupy Wall Street movement, and too illiterate or media-averse to follow it. Ignorance of rights and powers most harms those in the severest need of revolution. At this demoralized American moment, at stake in the fight for civics education is the only public institution through which Americans gain understanding of their own inalienable powers.
On Kansas Day 2014 in Kansas City, Kansas, in a trailer whipped by polar wind, most of the seventh-graders speak with Mexican-American accents; though it’s a frigid day in late January, many wear short-sleeved shirts.
“It’s Kansas’s anniversary,” announces teacher Marsha Sudduth, who has a short mop of thick, white hair and speaks with a powerful Oklahoma drawl in spite of the fact that this is her thirteenth year at Central Middle School. Students wear the unisex school uniform of white, collared shirts and black pants—instituted to curb violence by the gangs who marked the outside of this trailer with graffiti. Ninety-six percent of Central students live in low-income households, more than doubling the school eligibility requirement for federal Title 1 funding. Beyond the schoolyard are railroad tracks, factories, bars, peeling houses with concave roofs; in here, laminated descriptions of the Bill of Rights, Native American dream catchers, timelines for abolition and the civil-rights movement, images of wheat stalks.
On this date in 1861, Kansas joined the Union by way of the Wyandotte Constitution, pivotal for the nation in declaring Kansas a free state. The document was drafted in this northeastern outpost along the Missouri River called Wyandotte County, now among the poorest in the state. But today’s lesson isn’t about history. Students unfold paper atlases while Sudduth fires up an old analog projector and readies films of typed and handwritten instructions for plotting a road trip among state landmarks.
“I’m gonna take you on an imaginary field trip,” she says. “Here’s the magic dust I’m throwing on you. I’m going to go out and rent all the dream cars that everyone wanted.”
“Not on a teacher’s salary,” a girl says.
“You got me,” Sudduth says. “What is your dream car? What’s the car you wanna drive?”
Camaro, Ferrari, Hummer.
A boy says, “A pink Lambo, so I could ride like dis.”
For the sake of easy figuring in this exercise inspired by standardized testing’s emphasis on math and reading, everyone will travel at sixty miles per hour. “I have a governor on the gas pedal,” Sudduth says. “It only lets you go so fast.”
When the bell rings, students stream from “the trailers,” as Sudduth’s area is known, to a brick, three-level building that opened in 1915 as one of the first junior-high schools west of the Missouri River. Sudduth follows to attend the daily meeting of seventh-grade teachers. In the sharp cold, she unlocks the main building doors by punching in a code. Security here is serious business; the main entrance has a metal detector and a friendly, armed officer.
At the meeting of ten in a basement room, Sudduth notes that it’s Kansas Day, and the reading teacher asks if she might suggest a relevant online film or resource to show in her class—a gesture in kind, perhaps, for all the reading comprehension that social studies teachers have been asked to integrate into their lessons. Another teacher shares that a twelve-year-old female student has been kicked out of her home. “So a little understanding, please,” she says.
Back in the trailers, Sudduth reflects on what civics education means for this student population: survival. She aims to connect lesson plans to real-world skills and contemporary community resources such as health clinics, abuse hotlines, public-assistance programs, and other available support mechanisms that might help students and their families navigate. Her gaze goes distant as she recalls a delinquent student from her front row whose mother turned to the school for help when he beat her; Sudduth and others connected her with area social services, but a month later the boy was shot dead in front of the elementary school next door.
Second-period students are further along in the mapping exercise and break into groups. Sudduth introduces a new kid, who sits on the stained gray carpet with two other girls, peeling plastic binders, notebooks, and atlases; the crescent of a red-purple bruise fades below one of their eyes. Next to them sits a trio of boys, one of whom has wound masking tape around the stems of his reading glasses to adjust their fit. Spanish slips in and out of discussions about highways. One kid with a round face and a shock of orange in his hair recalls stopping in Wichita on a trip to visit family in Mexico; if his mom’s employer transfers her from a Kansas City factory to one in Atlanta, he’ll be moving soon.
Within district curriculum, Sudduth’s task is to spend half the year on world geography and half on Kansas history, from indigenous peoples to Eisenhower. Direct civics content includes a comparison of the Wyandotte Constitution to the US Constitution, and lessons on branches of government. But her personal goal, she says, is to make those lessons relevant to human lives. In her classroom, civics education is civic engagement; the Bill of Rights is not just read but put to work.
“If I want to further their education—everyone’s education, not just a specific subgroup of kids—then I need them to know that their neighborhood should help represent them,” she says. “In order to do that, you’ve gotta know what’s out there that can help you to own it. To be a part of it, not destroy it.” While applied in different ways, civics education seemed to be thriving in the hands of every Kansas teacher I spoke with, from Wichita to Topeka and points in between, and in this proponents of Celebrate Freedom Week’s purported intent may take heart. Opponents of the legislation itself, though, might find some comfort in the tangled nature of the very bureaucracy that spawned it: top-down mandates have a way of dissolving in an atmosphere of silliness, sometimes disintegrating entirely before they reach places like Sudduth’s classroom, the places furthest from the top. Legislators don’t teach students; teachers do.
Sudduth shakes her head and squints with apparent honesty. Celebrate Freedom Week? She’s never heard of it.
Celebrate Freedom Week 2014 runs September 15-19 in Kansas and Texas; September 22-26 in Arkansas and Florida; and November 10-14 in Oklahoma.
Sarah Smarsh has written for Harper’s, The Huffington Post, and Kansas City’s The Pitch, and her essays and criticism have appeared or are forthcoming in The Common, The Morning News, and Columbia Magazine. She has taught nonfiction writing at Columbia University and Washburn University and is developing a civic journalism platform in Kansas.