You are viewing the print version of this article. Click here to view the full version.
Columbia Missourian

FROM READERS: Teaching children their constitutional rights and responsibilities

By Beth Winton/Missourian Reader
January 15, 2013 | 6:00 a.m. CST

Beth Winton is an Extended Education Experience teacher at Jefferson Junior High School and Lange Middle School.

Missouri State Treasurer Clint Zweifel spoke to my class of 8th-9th grade gifted students at Jefferson Junior High to discuss the “fiscal cliff,” the large and looming tax increases and spending cuts that were put in place by Congress to encourage an agreement. I invited him to speak to my class as the culminating activity for a unit I teach called Rights and Responsibilities. I have been teaching this unit for many years, but this year provided new and interesting dynamics.

During the Rights and Responsibilities unit, students become familiar with the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. They discuss the differences in rights and responsibilities between minors and adults. They explore the concepts of each person’s responsibility to society and their view on the government’s responsibility to society. Students read and discuss the Patriot Act, the law that expanded the government’s capabilities in investigating and preventing terrorist attacks passed after 9/11, and consider whether this was a necessary expansion of government power or an intrusion into personal liberties.

This year presented unique dimension to the discussions about government’s responsibilities toward society in light of the presidential election, the increasing budget deficit and national debt crises, and the looming fiscal cliff. In class, I presented the students with the information about the history of the budget deficits/debt, the increasing federal debt (which was only $7 trillion when I began teaching this unit many years ago and is now more than $16 trillion), and the fiscal cliff which was the headline topic at the time we were discussing these issues. Additionally, we discussed the type and amount of government services being provided and whether or not they were either necessary and/or affordable.

We discussed the continuum of perspectives on government’s responsibility; from very low central government influence to a command economy with total governmental influence. We watched clips of the presidential debates to tease out the candidates’ views on government’s responsibility toward society and, subsequently, how to pay for it.

My job is not to teach my students what to think, but to teach them to analyze a complex issue, gather evidence for both sides, and take and support their position. I always try to include outside experts to provide perspective on the subject. Treasurer Zweifel graciously agreed to share his time with my class to discuss the financial situation and the looming fiscal cliff. He presented his view of the issue, posed questions to the class, and was very informative and engaging. I really appreciate the time and energy he spent to enrich the discussions we were already having in class.

I am very interested in hearing the students’ thoughts as they navigate a difficult subject. I believe my students will become some of the difference makers of the future. 8th-9th grade students are trying to make sense of the world around them and are beginning to think about their future and in what direction it might take them. It is important to openly discuss the critical issues in the world, and the financial condition of our country is one which will directly affect their future opportunities, their ability to get a job when they get out of school, and the level of taxation and government services that will be in place at that time.

This unit is aseffective as it is personal, timely, and important. I always look forward to teaching it. I hope the economic situation is better the next time.

This story is part of a section of the Missourian called From Readers, which is dedicated to your voices and your stories. We hope you'll consider sharing. Here's how. Supervising editor is Joy Mayer.