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Constitution in the classroom
Two Central Oregon attorneys give students lessons on the Constitution and the freedom it protects
Attorney Laura Cooper works with Crooked River Elementary fifth-graders on a Constitution-related activity. The session focused on the freedoms of the First Amendment.
October 13, 2011
During a recent morning assembly, Cecil Sly Elementary School principal Jim Bates noticed a student among the crowd of children thumbing through a small, blue booklet.
It wasn’t a fiction novel, or a homework assignment. In fact, the reading content in all likelihood was considerably more advanced.
This grade school student was reading the U.S. Constitution.
For the third consecutive year, Prineville resident and Bend-area attorney Laura Cooper visited multiple classrooms throughout the Crook County School District as part of the Constitution in the Classroom program.
“I got recruited by one of my friends who is another lawyer in Bend who is a member of the American Constitution Society (ACS),” Cooper said.
Crook County District Attorney Daina Vitolins also presented lessons in elementary school classrooms as well as Crook County High School and will visit Crook County Middle School early next week.
The relatively new ACS organization sponsors Constitution in the Classroom programs in schools throughout the country. This year, Cooper said the program has reached more than 10,000 students nationwide, and locally the program has gained an especially strong foothold. After visiting Cecil Sly and Crooked River Elementary as well as the middle school and high school, the program will have reached about 1,100 students — the highest amount for a single school district in the nation. Cooper hoped to add Ochoco Elementary this year as well, which would push the number even higher.
Earlier this week, Cooper was awestruck by how information about the Constitution and the freedoms it protects can resonate with young children. She visited two combined fifth-grade classes to give a presentation where she detailed the history behind the document and stressed its importance before launching into a more focused lesson on the First Amendment.
During the lesson, Cooper relayed a story about when her family briefly housed a Chinese exchange student. Upon returning to China, the student planned to open a Facebook account to keep in contact with their new American friends. It turned out that the Chinese government blocks Facebook for its citizens.
“These students were outraged. It was suddenly a concrete example,” Cooper recalls. “It’s one things to be thinking about it in general terms of free speech, but when it is something that these students would think is an absolute right, they are horrified to think that someone in another country couldn’t have that.”
Crooked River fifth-grade teacher Sandy Serrano found herself fielding questions from curious children about free speech after the Constitution in the Classroom presentation.
“I think it is wonderful that she (Cooper) is willing to come and explain that to the children,” Serrano said. “She put it in a perspective of ‘now,’ instead of when it was written.”
This year, the volunteers provided the program to students fourth grade and up, but Cooper hopes to expand the program going forward, possibly including third and second graders.
“You have to tailor what you teach to each grade,” she noted.
But so far, the response to the program has encouraged her to continue growing it.
“I have been thrilled with the response of the teachers who really want the students to have the opportunity to hear another perspective and learn about the Constitution from people who deal with it regularly,” she said. “I have been really pleasantly surprised at the interest of the students. They are really engaged and interested.”
Bates is equally encouraged by the program.
“We know they (Cooper and Vitolins) are very busy,” he said, “but it is good to have the kids hear another voice about a really important topic.”
And assuming the program continues next year, and keeps growing and reaching more local students, Cooper hopes to hand out more Constitution booklets.
“Ideally, I’d like every student we reach to get one,” she said.
Perhaps next year, Bates would see even more kids in the bleachers reading little blue books.
“There is interest,” Bates said. “There is follow-through. It does make a difference.”