Academic journal article Social Education

Lessons in Liberty: First Amendment Schools in Year One

Academic journal article Social Education

Lessons in Liberty: First Amendment Schools in Year One

Article excerpt

BonnieJean Avilez had something she needed to say.

A foreign language teacher at Nursery Road Elementary School in Columbia, South Carolina, BonnieJean was meeting with other community members to reflect on the school's first year as a First Amendment School. "It's always been important for our work to be meaningful," she said. "But the work we're doing in this project is dripping with meaning; it's so crucial if we want to foster change in our children, and I don't see enough other schools doing that."

Jane Nesbitt, a second grade teacher, spoke next. "This project has woken me up--it has made me so much more aware of the rights and responsibilities we have, and what's best is that it's the children who have done that for me."

And so it went for the next thirty minutes, as administrators, teachers and parents spoke of the changes they have seen in themselves and their children. After just one year as a First Amendment School, Nursery Road had discovered that educating for democratic citizenship is much more than an academic endeavor; it's about making their school culture more open, democratic and free.

They're not alone.

On March 16, 2001, the 250th anniversary of James Madison's birth, the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD) and the First Amendment Center launched First Amendment Schools: Educating for Freedom and Responsibility, a national school reform initiative designed to help all schools--K-12, public and private--model and apply First Amendment principles throughout their communities. A year later, eleven schools were selected as First Amendment Project Schools--schools committed to becoming models of democratic freedom.

The initiative was launched with high hopes--and great expectations. At the time, First Amendment advocate Nat Hentoff echoed the excitement of many when he wrote:

   Given the chance, students and
   educators both can learn to value
   and exercise the First Amendment
   in the classroom.... I spent six
   years at Boston Latin School,
   which was founded in 1635, and
   where teachers had to be called
   'masters,' and most acted that way.
   Any proposals from a student
   would have been regarded by the
   principal and faculty as requiring
   an insertion in college recommendations
   that the student was
   a troublemaker. But then such
   revolutionary ideas would never
   have occurred to any of us. The
   First Amendment Schools project
   may create a revolution. (1)

The good news is that most parents, students and educators who hear about First Amendment Schools (FAS) are inspired by the vision. At the same time, many adults are pessimistic about the implementation. Is it possible to create and sustain models of democratic freedom in a system of education that is largely undemocratic and unfree?

If the first year reports from the inaugural eleven project schools are any measure, the answer is a resounding "yes." Of course, each project school still has a long way to go-and much work to do. But early results suggest that "educating for freedom and responsibility" may well be a trend for the future.

Guiding Principles of First Amendment Schools

What are "First Amendment Schools?" They are places that model and apply the democratic principles they are charged with teaching. They are schools that carry out this mission in different ways, depending on the age of the students, the size of the school, the needs of the local community, and whether the school is public or private.

What unites First Amendment Schools is not one view of democratic education or the First Amendment, but rather a shared commitment to the following four principles:

1. CREATE LABORATORIES OF DEMOCRATIC FREEDOM: All members of the school community have substantial opportunities to practice democracy and have a meaningful voice in shaping the life of the school. …

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