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For California eighth graders, taking the United States Constitution test has been a rite of passage since before I was in eighth grade myself and that was more than forty years ago. When I began my teaching career in Illinois (I've been back in California for fifteen years), I discovered that there was an eighth grade Constitution test there, too. I'd like to say there were some standards (small s; teachers reading this know what I'm saying) and consistency to these tests but there weren't.

In the end, time was and is spent grasping at facts ("What fraction was used to count slaves?"), political science ("What is 'limited government'?"), structure ("What are the three branches of the federal government and what is the essential power of each?"), historical debate ("Why did the Antifederalists oppose the Constitution?"), the nature of compromise ("Why is the House of Representatives based on population but the Senate is based on the equality of the States?") and so on. Then a test was and is given. Students find out their scores and spend many minutes with wajjagets. Then everybody moves on.

This year's test is scheduled for this Thursday, November twenty-first.
The hundred fiftieth anniversary of the Gettysburg Address is Tuesday, November ninteenth.

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I began teaching in my school district thirteen years ago and Constitution Test time has always been filled with anxiety because the district, in a moment of wisdom, decided to make "passing the Constitution" a requirement for promotion from eighth grade to ninth grade.

Cue eighth grader: "How many times can we retake the test if we don't pass?"

I tell my students that I refuse to talk about that. I tell them that I want them all to pass the test the one and only one time they take it. I tell them that I will prepare them for the test, right down to telling them what questions are on it and what the answers are to those questions. Bullshit on keeping that information from them and perpetuating some bizarre game of "Gotcha!" between teachers and students over tests.

I think my students...ah, crap, I know my students don't know what to make of me because I mean what I say to them and follow through. I haven't taken the district preparatory materials out of their boxes because I'm going to do things my way. When it comes to United States history and the modern interpretation of things like equality, liberty, justice and freedom, I am a zealot in my classroom. If some stupid test is going to get in the way of their maturing into open-eyed, open-minded voters, then screw the test.

(Hey you; let's pause a moment here. Recite the following in one breath and without the sing-song cadences. Just say it out-loud: I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States and to the republic for which it stands. One nation, indivisible? Settled and cut the crap about secession. Liberty and justice for all? Work on it, goddam it.)

Anyway, this Tuesday's anniversary of the Gettysburg Address is at an inconvenient time. The kids are stressed, especially the ones who refuse to believe me when I say, "This is on the test," and they bomb their preparatory quizzes because nope, they didn't study, let along study what I told them to study.

Sigh. My FP is trying to decide between now and Tuesday whether I can use that day's class periods to teach about the Address. It's not just about the Constitution test. It's also about how rich in history and meaning the Address is and whether I can do any justice to it in just one day for fifty minutes. Oh, I can and will come back to it in April or May when it's eighth grade Civil War time.

You know, just writing this has clarified an idea that I'm going to follow-up. Tuesday's lesson will be about the phrase "...government of the people, by the people and for the people..." I can use the third sentence of the Declaration of Independence ("That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men (the people), deriving their just power from the consent of the governed.") and the first three words of the Constitution ("We the people...). I can rant about how government is an expression of ourselves even if we don't trust it, just like our ancestors knew they needed it but didn't trust it because they didn't trust themselves, and that government should serve us by protecting out rights to what sustains us and motivates us, just like the Declaration and the Preamble says it should.

Damn straight. A couple of those things are on the test, too.

Originally posted to algebrateacher on Sat Nov 16, 2013 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by WYFP?.

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