It All About?
An Introduction to the First Amendment
(upper elementary/middle school)
Studies, Language Arts
lesson gives students a broad overview of First Amendment principles
as a starting point for other lessons (for middle and high school
students) that treat the subject with greater depth.
A goal here,
as with all the lessons, is to make the First Amendment personal,
to help students understand that America’s first freedoms belong
to them — as they belong to everyone.
Some of the
ideas contained in this lesson will be suitable for all students;
others are geared for more able students or for those who want to
pursue independent study. Please feel free to make selections from
these offerings to suit your students’ needs and interests. You
may find that “First Moments” and/or Parts A, B, C and D can stand
alone as shorter classroom activities.
- The First
Amendment to the U.S. Constitution provides individuals with important
personal freedoms. Throughout history, people — some well known
and some not — have exercised their right to those freedoms in
also have First Amendment freedoms. The ability to express oneself
and the right to be heard are essential components of freedom.
- The First
Amendment teaches us to respect the viewpoints of others and to
allow others to express their views, even though we may disagree
with the ideas being expressed.
want to familiarize yourself with the “First
Principles,”. The list of First Principles was developed for older
students and is good background information for teachers who want
to be able to explain in practical, everyday terms just what the First
Read the explanations
for the principles listed below. They have special relevance to
the activities in this lesson.
- The First
Amendment affirms the freedom of the individual.
- Free expression
is the foundation — the cornerstone — of democracy.
- Other people
have rights, too.
many good ways to help students learn to respect the beliefs and ideas
of others. You might visit the Southern
Poverty Law Center’s Web site for classroom activities, some specifically
geared to understanding and respecting differences among peoples.
For a brief
introduction to one of the freedoms protected by the First Amendment,
present the following case study to your students:
the early 1970s, children in Wisconsin were required to attend school
until they were 16. But members of the Amish religion did not want
their children to attend school after grade 8. Instead, the Amish
wanted children to stay in their communities, learning the jobs
they would have as adults. When one 15-year-old Amish girl didn’t
return to school after finishing grade 8, state officials tried
to force her parents to send her to school.
Ask: Can they
with students generally about what freedom of religion means. Explain
that the First Amendment to the Constitution protects us from having
the government (federal, state or local) interfere with the way
we practice our religion. Sometimes the courts decide there is a
“compelling state interest” that justifies the regulation of some
religious practices, but for the most part, individuals are free
to follow their own religious beliefs and practices. In the Wisconsin
case, the Supreme Court ruled that the Amish
family could not be forced to send their daughter to two years of
secondary school in violation of their religious beliefs.
Part A: Brainstorming
Present this hypothetical situation to the class:
Imagine you are a member of a group of people with an important
message. You want as many people as possible to hear about it. The
message could be about a coming event — a student-run car wash to
raise money for your school’s soccer team, for instance — or it
could be about an important social issue, such as stopping gun violence,
helping homeless people or even fighting a proposed youth curfew
in your town.
about money; imagine you have enough to cover printing, mailing
and maybe even placing your message on TV or the radio. Brainstorm
for a few minutes about ways to communicate. Try to think of as
many different approaches as you can to get your message out to
as many people as possible. Be creative!
students to brainstorm, as a group, for about five minutes, about
various techniques they might use to get their message out. Post
these rules for brainstorming:
- Say anything that comes to mind.
- Piggybacking on the ideas of others
- Don’t evaluate or criticize what others
- When you can’t think of anything else,
wait a minute and try again.
How many ways
of publicizing their message did students name? List them on the
to encourage a wide range of thinking about forms of expression.
If your students haven’t thought of these approaches, you might
messages or advertisements in newspapers and magazines.
on radio or television.
distributed on car windows, posted along highways, taped onto
bumper stickers, buttons.
messages, e-mail or text messages.
standing on street corners or in public places and talking about
the message, marching or demonstrating or wearing sandwich boards.
bulletin boards, billboards
- Facebook page
- Community newsletter
on the sides of milk cartons.
up the brainstorming activity with these points:
B: The First Amendment
- We have many, many ways of making our
viewpoints known. In the United States, our freedom of speech
is protected by the First Amendment to the Constitution.
- Just as it protects our freedom of
religion (as discussed in the Wisconsin case) and our freedom
of speech, the First Amendment offers other freedoms: freedom
of the press, freedom to gather in groups and associate with others
of our choosing (assembly), and the right to ask the government
to correct what we believe is wrong (petition for redress of grievances).
- Just as we tried to convey in the brainstorming
activity, it’s a good idea to respect the right of other people
to hold their viewpoints. We should listen to what they have to
say in all our activities and throughout our everyday lives. Very
often we do not agree with other people’s ideas; sometimes we
find what they have to say distasteful or disagreeable or just
plain wrong. But people are entitled to hold these ideas. We (and
especially representatives of our government) do not have the
right to control or suppress ideas and beliefs we find offensive.
First Amendment Explained contains the text of the First Amendment
to the U.S. Constitution, followed by some broad explanations of what
the words mean. Print this page out and distribute it, or direct your
students to the link.
also may want to browse the First Amendment Center web site for general information on the First Amendment
and for stories about specific First Amendment issues currently
being addressed by our nation’s courts and in our communities.
may help to point out to students that some important words in the
First Amendment are “Congress shall make no law…” The people
who founded our country believed passionately in individual freedom
— in the rights of citizens to be protected from a government that
was too controlling. Our government can’t tell us what to read,
what to think, where to pray or even whether to pray.
students to name some specific examples of how they, their family
members or people whom they know have exercised their First Amendment
rights, as described in “The First Amendment Explained.”
Amendment Rights in Everyday Life is a worksheet that will give
students additional practice identifying examples of people using
their First Amendment rights.
1. Press 2. Speech 3. Assembly 4. Speech
5. Religion 6. Religion 7. Petition 8. Press 9. Press.
also may want to have a discussion with students about symbolic
speech: Wearing armbands as a symbol of support for political prisoners
(example #4) is an example.
can find examples in the community, in school, in print (from newspapers
and magazines) on TV or the Internet of people exercising their First Amendment rights.
Students can create a classroom bulletin board or other display
showing the many ways we see First Amendment rights in action. Students
also can bring in examples of the many forms of expression they
listed in the brainstorming activity (Part A, above).
C: First Amendment Heroes
First Amendment freedoms are perhaps the most powerful guarantee we
have that our views can be heard, even if they are unpopular. Indeed,
exercise of First Amendment rights by citizens with unpopular (minority)
views often has brought about great social change.
students probably will define heroes as people who are brave, who
have shown themselves, through their actions, to be courageous.
You may want to have a general discussion of qualities of people
they consider heroes. In the following exercise, they’ll read short
stories about “First Amendment heroes,” people who were not afraid
to speak their minds or act on principles they believed were important.
Story of Cesar Chavez
Story of Rosa Parks
Story of Thomas Waring
of Martin Luther King Jr.
The Story of Ida B.
The Story of Bridget
The Story of Maya Lin
The Story of Sequoyah
the class into small groups. Each group should take one story. One
student should read the story aloud to the other members of the
group or all should have a chance to read it silently. As a group,
students should discuss what First Amendment right the person was
exercising. Explain to students that the subjects of their stories
may well be exercising more than one First Amendment right — and,
of course, that there often is overlap among these rights. You may
want to talk briefly about artistic expression as a form of speech
(if you think students who read Maya Lin’s story might have trouble
making this connection).
are some questions to help stimulate student discussion:
- What First Amendment right or rights
did your First Amendment hero use?
- Did this person do something that was
unpopular at the time? How did people react?
- Did the person’s views come to be shared
by a larger number of Americans? By a majority of Americans?
- Do you think that exercising his or
her First Amendment rights caused this person — or his or her
family — to change? In what ways?
a spokesperson from each group summarize the story and explain what
First Amendment right it demonstrated.
your information, here are some First Amendment rights the heroes’
Religion, speech, assembly
Luther King Jr.:
D: How To Be a First Amendment Hero
section brings the First Amendment back to the personal level, reminding
students that they, too, can exercise their rights in a number of
ways. Once again, you may want to do a brainstorming activity. Following
the examples of the people profiled in Part C, ask students to list
ways in which they can become First Amendment heroes. Some ideas
to help them get started:
- Speak out when you see injustices.
- Be tolerant of the ideas of others;
allow others to speak their minds.
- Use words, not violence, to fight against
ideas and actions with which you disagree.
- Have confidence in your ideas; don’t
be afraid to express them.
might post students’ recommendations in your classroom on a poster
or display titled “How To Be a First Amendment Hero.” Students might
add to the display pictures of or stories about current-day people
who are First Amendment heroes because they are speaking out against
injustices they see.
Interested students might prepare more
polished presentations depicting the stories of First Amendment
heroes studied in this lesson. The dramatizations could then
be videotaped for use in other classes.
Students might conduct a poll of adults
in the community (in school and at home) to see how many can
list the rights protected by the First Amendment. If students
find that many adults cannot identify the rights, they might
write letters to the editor of the local newspaper or create posters to display at school describing
what they have found.
Students might do research on press
freedom in other countries. For example, they might find out
more about Wei Jingsheng, a Chinese journalist who was sentenced
to 14 years in prison for writing and speaking about democracy
and human rights. Or they might learn about Pius Njawe, the
editor of a newspaper in Cameroon who served a six-month prison
sentence for allegedly insulting his country’s president in
editorials and satirical cartoons. Where are these people now?
Students might spend a few weeks looking in newspapers and magazines
and on the Internet for similar stories. For example, the International
Press Institute names press
freedom “heroes” of the past 60 years. Pius Njawe of Cameroon
Here are some additional topics for
further exploration you might assign your students:
Learn about the Bill of Rights, the first 10 amendments to
the U.S. Constitution. Why did the framers of the Constitution
think a Bill of Rights was necessary? What are the 10 amendments
included in the Bill of Rights? Pick one of the 10 (including
the First Amendment) and look for examples — throughout history
and including the present — that show how that amendment affects
Who is the author of the Bill of Rights? (James Madison.)
Find out how many amendments originally were proposed for
the Bill of Rights. (Madison drafted 17; of those, Congress
passed 12 amendments and 10 of those were approved by the
states. The two that were not approved dealt with congressional
size and compensation.)
Analyze this phrase: There is a “wall of separation between
church and state.” Who first said that? What does it mean?
(Thomas Jefferson; it characterizes the First Amendment principle
that government may not act as if it is establishing or even
favoring any one religion and may not interfere with an individual’s
practice [free exercise] of his or her religion.)
Now that you’ve studied the rights
protected by the First Amendment, think of a way to remember
them. Write a poem, rap song, ballad or advertising jingle that
will tell someone else all about the rights we have under the
First Amendment. Or, working with a partner, create a slogan
for a bumper sticker or button that expresses something about
the First Amendment.
On the Web
relate First Amendment struggles, triumphs"
Read about Daniel Ellsberg, Mary Beth Tinker, Alton T. Lemon and
the NAACP suit against segregation in Virginia.
Visit the National Archives and Records Administration site for activities, lesson plans and other information on celebrating September 12, including a study of the U.S. Constitution in your classroom.
Documents Related to Martin Luther King, Jr., and Memphis Sanitation
National Archives and Records Administration lesson plan for use of primary documents.
Lin: Ancient & Modern
More information on the artist, including her biography, vision and a gallery of her projects.
Cesar E. Chavez Foundation
More on Chavez’ life and work, including articles, interviews, speeches and a photo gallery.
Site includes information on Sequoyah, the Trail of Tears and Cherokee language.
Ida B. Wells
Information on Ida B. Wells’ life and writings, including video lectures.
A Library of Congress guide to Rosa Parks resource in the collection and online.
About the First Amendment: Selected Readings for Elementary and Middle School Students
This list offers suggestions of books – both fiction and non-fiction – that will deepen your students’ understanding of the First Amendment.
K-4, Standard 4 — Understands how democratic values came to be and
how they have been exemplified by people, events and symbols.
States History, Standard 29: Understands the struggle for racial
and gender equality and for the extension of civil liberties.
9: Understands the importance of Americans sharing and supporting
certain values, beliefs, and principles of American constitutional
Arts, Standard 5: Uses the general skills and strategies of the
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