In the Classroom
“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” – The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
Help tomorrow’s citizens find their voice. Teach the First Amendment. The lesson plans, school activities and other resources below are designed to make it easier to teach our democratic republic's first freedom — the First Amendment.
Overview: Why teach the First Amendment?
The most basic liberties guaranteed to Americans — embodied in the 45 words of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution — assure Americans a government that is responsible to its citizens and responsive to their wishes. These 45 words are as alive and important today as they were more than 200 years ago. These liberties are neither liberal nor conservative, Democratic nor Republican — they are the basis for our representative democratic form of government.
We know from studies beginning in 1997 by the nonpartisan First Amendment Center, and from studies commissioned by the Knight Foundation and others, that few adult Americans or high school students can name the individual five freedoms that make up the First Amendment.
The First Amendment isn’t an artifact of legal history buried in the past. It is a living part of the everyday lives of every one of us. Especially in education, First Amendment issues offer almost limitless applications and opportunities.
Teachable aspects of the First Amendment include:
- How our core freedoms of speech, press, religion, assembly and petition came to be guaranteed is a fascinating saga of American history – involving towering figures, particularly James Madison and Thomas Jefferson. It is a saga that began even before U.S. history and continues to evolve today.
- Students should know that the Bill of Rights, including the First Amendment, did not spring whole into existence with no debate by our Founding Fathers. Rather, it arose through great contention and controversy, illustrating the early — and continuing — workings of U.S. government and our legal system.
- We have the freedom to speak, write, worship, assemble, and ask the government for change, but how do we as citizens use those freedoms? What does it mean to exercise freedom responsibly? The First Amendment offers teachers a way into matters of civility and respect for others in society.
- Current affairs. Examples of the First Amendment in action and in the news are inexhaustible. They can form the basis for class debates. From student protests, to issues of religious freedom in schools and in society at large, to press censorship and freedom of information, teachable First Amendment moments are everywhere.
- Literature and arts. Language arts, journalism, the visual arts — all offer instances in which First Amendment freedoms can conflict with attempts to suppress or restrict free expression.
In this section of the website, 1 for All has gathered a host of resources and ideas to help teachers teach the First Amendment. As more become available, they will be added.
The primers, lesson plans and resources below will draw young people into an exploration of how their freedoms began and how they operate in today’s world. Students will discuss just how far individual rights extend, examining rights in the school environment and public places. The primers and lessons may be used in history and government, civics, language arts and journalism, art, and debate classes. They may be used in sections or in their entirety. Many of these materials indicate an overall goal, offer suggestions on how to teach the lesson and list additional resources and enrichment activities.
PRIMERS AND LESSON PLANS
1 for All First Amendment Lesson Plans:
- What If There Were No First Amendment?
- Free Speech on College Campuses
- First Amendment Lesson Plan: Newsgathering and Privacy
- Religion in Public Schools
- Freedom of assembly in the 1960s civil rights and antiwar movements
- Petitioning the Government
First Amendment Primers from the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center. These interactive guides include:
- Is Your Speech Protected by the First Amendment?
- Free Expression on Social Media
- Quick Guide to Spotting Fake News
- Classroom Walkouts and School Protests
- Protest Primer
- Leaks and the Media
- Quick Guide to Libel Law
- Lesson Plans
A guide for middle school and high school teachers published by the First Amendment Center and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.
A guide for principals on the First Amendment and student media.
Ten-lesson curriculum designed to help teachers educate students about religious liberty in a pluralistic society.
This site offers lesson plans on news, journalism ethics, law/First Amendment, and news literacy.
First Amendment-related lesson plans include The First Amendment: What's Fair in a Free Country?
Offers lesson plans and teaching guides to strengthen students’ understanding of First Amendment rights.
American Bar Association
The ABA’s Division for Public Education provides teaching resources.
NewsHour Extra stories written for students from PBS Kids and lesson plans based on the top domestic issues facing our country will help students improve their analytical skills and understand the importance of civics.
Get students involved!
Teaching the First Amendment is enhanced and enriched immeasurably by “doing” the First Amendment. Activities and projects can bring home the importance of First Amendment freedoms in ways that go beyond lessons.
Here are project ideas for getting your students excited about the First Amendment:
- News Story (online or print): Have your students go out into the community and find stories related to any of the five freedoms of the First Amendment. They can interview sources ranging from your city’s mayor to your school’s principal to a fellow student. There are several journalistic styles in which stories can be written: news, feature, opinion, etc. Keep the 5 W’s and H (who, what, when, where, why and how) in mind for news stories and include the most important information at the beginning of the story (inverted-pyramid style). Feature stories can be written in a narrative style and focus more on the human angle of the story. Opinion articles should back up all assertions with facts.
- Photo Essay w/ Story: A photo essay is composed of a series of photos that together help to tell a more complete story than words alone could. Students should work to build trust with the subject of their photos, while maintaining a professional relationship to preserve objectivity. It’s important to include only the best, most telling photos. Photo essays should be concise; include exactly the number of photos necessary to tell the story or make the point. Don’t include every photo that was taken!
- Poster: A poster can be made by hand or digitally using photo-editing or design software, such as Photoshop or InDesign. To create a poster digitally, students should begin by creating a new document with the desired dimensions. Then comes the fun part. Students can get creative; remind them that they are trying to draw attention to their poster to effectively promote First Amendment awareness. For more information on how to get started: Photoshop and InDesign.
- Print Ads: Print ads can be used in publications to promote First Amendment awareness and knowledge of the five freedoms. Common software used to create print ads includes Photoshop and InDesign. Begin by creating a new document with the desired dimensions. Ads can be made in color or black and white. For more information on how to get started: Photoshop and InDesign.
- Web Ads: Web ads are similar to print ads, but they are created with web viewing in mind. They have the same goal, though: promotion of a product or idea. In this case, web ads should promote First Amendment awareness and knowledge of the five freedoms. Web ads are generally small files so that they don’t slow the loading time of a webpage. Most web ads are created in Photoshop. For more information on how to get started: Photoshop and InDesign.
- Educational Video: An educational video should strive to inform its viewers about the First Amendment. It could focus on one freedom or all five. Videos can be shot with any type of camera; students could even use their smartphones. Several video-editing programs are available. Popular programs include Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro or Adobe Premiere Pro.
- Blog: Online blogs are composed of individual entries that are usually focused on a central theme or topic. The possibilities are endless for a First Amendment blog. Your students could work together on one blog or they could maintain separate blogs. There are several free, user-friendly blogging platforms available, including WordPress, Tumblr and Blogger.
- Website: There are plenty of free resources your students can use to help them start up their own website, such as WordPress, Wix or Google Sites. For example, WordPress comes with several built-in design formats and other tools so students won’t have to build their sites from scratch. It’s as easy as signing up, claiming a web address and getting started. Think simple with the website, but don’t be afraid to get creative. Slideshows, videos, polls and other multimedia or interactive features are easy to create and can really spice up the site.
- Short Film/Documentary: In addition to educational videos (above), short films and documentaries are two more ways students could promote and explore the five freedoms of the First Amendment using video as the medium. Work can be shot with any type of camera; students could even use their smartphones. There are several video-editing programs available. Popular programs include Avid Media Composer, Final Cut Pro and Adobe Premiere Pro.
- Interactive Digital Book: Interactive digital books are a good way for students to learn about and use emerging technologies while also exploring the First Amendment. Searchlights and Sunglasses is a good example of a digital book. Built with HTML5, it uses parallax scrolling, which allows it to have the look of different interactive layers moving at various speeds as the viewer scrolls down. A simpler application for creating digital books is iBooks Author, which is available for Macs and iPads. This user-friendly app offers templates to help create attractive and functional digital books.
OTHER ACTIVITY IDEAS
- Have students conduct a First Amendment survey and report results – how many students in your school can name the five freedoms?
- Have students conduct a news-literacy survey and report results – we cannot protect our rights unless we are informed citizens. How many students at your school know how to tell news from noise, what’s fact versus fiction, what’s credible and what’s questionable? News-literacy resources are available at SchoolJournalism.org.
- Help students create a First Amendment page on the school or other website.
- Publish information in the school newspaper about the First Amendment and news literacy.
- Dedicate an entire school newspaper issue to the First Amendment and news literacy.
- Get a story about the First Amendment published in a local newspaper or other media outlet.
- Ask a local or state government official to issue a proclamation that a particular day is “First Amendment Day” at your school or in your community.
- When planning events for the entire school, get students involved. Students know what First Amendment issues interest them.
- Raise awareness of the First Amendment by having students wear red, white and blue on a designated day.
- Prepare exhibits about the First Amendment.
- Sponsor a reading of banned children’s books.
- Hold public officials accountable. Ask where they stand on the First Amendment and the free flow of information.
- Stand up for others. We all love our own freedom of speech, but it’s important to support the rights of others to express their own opinions.
Much more information can be found online about the software listed above. Search for more tutorials and information about the software and equipment available at your school using your preferred search engine. YouTube is also a good place to find tutorials for beginners, as well as intermediate and advanced users.
A comprehensive research compilation covering all aspects of First Amendment law.
From the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.
Significant historical events, court cases, and ideas that have shaped our current system of constitutional First Amendment jurisprudence, compiled by the Newseum Institute’s First Amendment Center.
Provides training to help journalism educators teach the basics, standards, and importance of journalism. Also bestows a variety of scholastic journalism-related awards.
An independent, nonpartisan, and nonprofit organization dedicated to increasing public understanding of, and appreciation for, the Constitution, its history, and its contemporary relevance. As a program of national outreach, the center provides the Interactive Constitution resource.
Learn more about the U.S. Constitution and your rights as a citizen.