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Engaging High School Students

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High School students' default word for describing their classes, especially civics, is often "boring." How do you teach the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the three branches of government without having them doze off or surreptitiously texting their friends?

I found that one way to get their attention is to point out that the New York Police Department, on a weekly basis, illegally stops and frisks some of my students and over 9000 other, mostly minority teenagers. This gets them both angry and talking about their "rights." Some knew that it's their IV Amendment rights but others didn't.

I knew how to get their attention. This came in handy on the second day of school when my principal "asked" me to teach an American history course about anything. I quickly assembled a curriculum that focused on the Constitution and began with stop-and-frisk and the IV Amendment.

I was confident that the content could be made lively and engaging but I wanted to teach in a non-traditional fashion; I didn't want to stand in front of the class and simply lecture. I was fairly new to teaching but I still remembered a report I had read and wrote a column about, four years before, when I worked for the Daily News in New York. The report, "Breaking Ranks: Changing an American Institution," was highly critical of high schools and particularly of teaching:

"High schools continue to go about their business in ways that sometimes bear startling resemblance to the flawed practices of the past. Students pursue their education largely in traditional classroom settings, taught by teachers who stand before row upon row of desks. Mostly, these teachers lecture at students, whose main participation in class is limited to terse answers to fact-seeking questions." (p.4)

I knew that I needed a strong open; I started the first class in a dramatic fashion. After the students had settled in their seats but before I had even said, "good morning," the principal burst into the room and rudely, loudly, and with a profane tone yelled at me:

"Get up against the wall and spread your arms and legs."

I hesitated and started to protest, "But..."

He cut me off crudely, "Shuddup! You a wise guy, you don't get it?"

He pushed me toward the front wall and then patted me down. When he stepped back I tried to ask, "Why..." And he cut me off again.

He said, "I'm watching you and if I see you do anything, anything the least bit out of line I'll be on you so fast. And I'll be back soon because you're a wise guy. Got it?"

I hung my head but didn't answer. He said louder and more menacingly,

"GOT IT?"

I responded in a humiliated tone, "yeah." He turned and left.

I didn't know if the class was laughing at this little drama or whether they were engaged by it. I lifted up my head and was relieved to find that every boy in the class not only had his arm up but was waving it. Even some of the girls had their hands up. I made a quick decision to let all of them tell their stories. The details were sadly similar and the demeaning attitude of the police was palpable.

I handed out a copy of the IV Amendment and asked for a student volunteer to read it. I asked them what were the crucial words in the amendment? We quickly settled on "secure...against unreasonable searches and seizures." We had just started discussing whether a "stop-and-frisk" amounted to a search and seizure when the class ended.

Over the weekend I thought about how to break the class up into smaller groups and how to include a project in the course. As a law school graduate, I knew that the U.S. Supreme Court had ruled that evidence of a crime, such as marijuana, seized in the course of an illegal search could be suppressed and not used in a trial. I decided to break up the class into three groups: defense, prosecution, and a five-judge judiciary panel and stage a suppression hearing.

When I announced this to the class they were enthusiastic. I handed out a scenario of a student being stopped-and-frisked with evidence that tended to justify the actions of both the police and a ruling of an illegal search. We would spend part of class in the three teams, working together to prepare for the hearing.

In each class I would also lecture to convey necessary information and to start a discussion. The students wanted to know how they could get the police to stop harassing them and that led seamlessly into a discussion of the three branches of government and the three levels of government that make up most of our democracy.

I handed out a chart that showed the nine boxes that make up the three branches and levels. We discussed the functions of each branch and where the NYPD fit in the hierarchy. Some students, but not all, were aware that Mayor Rudy Giuliani was in charge of the police and that he almost certainly had approved the stop-and-frisk policy.

Over the course of the next two weeks, I handed out newspaper articles about different branches of government challenging the mayor. I was actually surprised about what a vivid example this was of the workings of our separation of powers. Four men who had been stopped repeatedly had filed a law suit in a federal court, the U.S. Justice Department was investigating the policy, Eliot Spitzer then the state attorney general had completed a study that found widespread violations of the IV Amendment, and the City Council was holding hearings.

The course ended with the suppression of evidence hearing. I was surprised when some students thanked me for the course. But I can't help but think how alienated they must be today. When I taught the course in 2000-01 the NYPD stopped-and-frisked 50,000 New Yorkers a year. Now, under Mayor Michael Bloomberg, the police stop almost 500,000 citizens and most are having their Constitutional rights violated.