The Constitutional Sources Project launches a new initiative to present the nation’s founding document in a kid-friendly format. Executive Director Julie Silverbrook says, “These are the laws that operate on you. It’s important that you understand them.”
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I’m Harmony Hunter. My guest, Julie Silverbrook, has devoted her career to the Constitution. She’s Executive Director of the Constitutional Sources Project, an organization that unpacks the document's meaning in history and places it alongside the records, letters and laws that influenced it.
Not satisfied to stop at illuminating the Constitution for adults, Julie’s group has launched a new effort to help young people understand our nation’s founding document. Julie joins us today to talk about a new project, The Constitution for Kids. Julie, thank you for being here today.
Julie Silverbrook: Thank you for having me.
Harmony: Well, tell me about before we talk about Constitution for Kids, tell me a little bit about the Constitutional Sources Project.
Julie: Sure. It was started in 2005 by a group of civic-minded attorneys who wanted to make the U. S. Constitution's history freely available to citizens both in this country and abroad. So it started with the idea of creating a freely accessible digital library of primary source materials related to the creation, ratification, and amendment of the U.S. Constitution.
What started as a digital library, and has continued as a digital library in many ways at Consource.org, has also developed into programming seeking to educate people about the Constitution and its history. We do programming for adults, for lawyers, judges, law students, college students and we are now making very serious inroads in the primary and secondary school market. And that’s where the Constitution for Kids in particular comes in in terms of making these materials accessible for primary school students in particular.
Harmony: So it’s not just the Constitution and the amendments. It’s all the other documents surrounding it. Tell me about how those influencing documents are so important to illuminating what the Constitution is talking about.
Julie: I think the documents that are sort of most frequently visited on our website would include James Madison’s notes on the Constitutional Convention, and that sort of shows how the Constitution came into being, you know, during the debates in Philadelphia in 1787.
We have materials from the ratification debates which shows how people at the time understood the document and the ratification is of course what gives the Constitution legal effect. Before that coming out of convention, it was really just a proposal and the people had to ratify it.
We’re expanding a collection now on early state Constitutions and these are sort of precedents that the framers of the 1787 Federal Constitution looked to in creating the Constitution we have today and so we’re really looking both at specifically how the document was formed and understood and later amended, but also looking at American Constitutionalism more broadly which requires us to look at State Constitutions as well.
Harmony: I’ve read the Constitution. It’s short. I think it’s fairly readable. What am I missing if I don’t see all of these other documents that talk about what was happening during the time period, what was on the minds of the people who wrote it and what changes might be different in today’s society versus the society that it was written for? If you think you’ve read and understood the Constitution, what might you be missing?
Julie: So I think reading the Constitution through a contemporary lens you read the document using vocabulary that’s common today using, you know, context that we are experiencing now versus the vocabulary and the context that they were using back in 1787 and 1791, etc. And so comparing what the people who framed the document, how they understood the document, what they understood it to mean versus what we understand it to mean today.
Harmony: Can you think of an example of that?
Julie: You know I think that there’s some controversy today over how the second amendment was interpreted. I think similarly there were divisions back in the founding period about whether or not it’s a sort of militia group right or an individual right. I think today, you know, whether or not you agree with gun control or not I think we all tend to interpret it as an individual right.
Harmony: We should say, of course, the second amendment is the right to keep and bear arms.
Julie: That’s right.
Harmony: So we might be interpreting that through today’s lens as an individual right, you were saying, versus when it was written it might have meant…they might have been having in mind more of a militia right?
Julie: I think you can read the history to support that conclusion. I think there is support for both views. Actually if you look at the founding period there was some division in terms of how the right to keep and bear arms was interpreted at the time.
Sort of a broader reason for looking at the history is, this is our shared history as a nation. We don’t have, you know, we all have different, you know, faith-based traditions, and so what unifies us is this Constitutional tradition. I think unifying the nation around this history, this history belongs to us, it’s a part of us, an understanding that is so important. I mean, it helps us stay connected to the Constitution which is a long-surviving document which has had relatively few changes to it: only 27 amendments which is pretty extraordinary when you consider that it just had its 226th birthday.
Harmony: So you started a new project. You’re rolling out the Constitution for Kids. What is that? How does that do what you’re already doing, but spin it for kids?
Julie: It’s really a teaching tool for educators. We do a lot of work with wonderful groups that focus on civic education and Constitutional literacy. We’re all meeting together and realized that primary school students tend to get less resources than secondary school students. Part of that is the way the curriculum is divided.
I think the other part of it is the challenge of breaking down really complex subjects for young elementary school students. So my civic education team came up with this idea of creating for elementary school students a Constitution for Kids, where we provide background information generally about each article and section of the Constitution.
We provide both the original text and then sort of a simple translation using words and terms that an elementary school student would understand. And then we link them to primary source documents that sort of explain more about how that clause came into being, how it was understood at the time, how that understanding might have changed over time.
So we think it’s a really powerful tool and an educator can use it for, you know, I have open here on my iPad now Article 1, Section 9. You know if you wanted to talk about what Congress is prohibited from doing, which is in that article and section, you could do a lesson using the Constitution for Kids and it essentially sets up the lesson plan for you.
You go over some background, you have the students engaged directly with the text, talk about what it might mean. There are terms of art in there that I think certainly students wouldn’t know and I think some non-lawyers might not know as well such as the privilege of their writ of habeas corpus. It’s not something that a 4th grader or a 5th grader is going to know. But, by breaking it down and translating it for them into terms that they do know, then they learn what the writ of habeas corpus means.
Harmony: It seems like a very flexible curriculum because while you’ve made it simple enough for a 4th or 5th grader in looking at this online I can see how deep the resources go. You can really keep clicking and keep reading and this could go…I could really see this being used in a college course if you really want to study some of the influences and some of the history behind the Amendments.
Julie: Yeah, so sort of how this was conceptualized on the Consource.org website we have a tool called the Constitutional Index which breaks the constitution down by section and clause and each clause is hyperlinked to relevant primary source documents in our website. And I think that works really well for adults, sophisticated researchers, etc., but it can be overwhelming for young students in particular.
So the Constitution for Kids is kind of like the Constitutional Index for kids. What the Constitutional Index does on our website we’ve adapted that for use by younger students, and we’ve provided a lot more background material because typically, you know, students aren’t going to get all of that until later in their educational careers.
Harmony: Why was there a need to develop this? What did you see in the curriculum now for elementary school students that you thought was lacking?
Julie: I think it’s important to learn about the Constitution from a very, very early age. That’s how I became so committed to teaching others about the Constitution. I had a 6th grade teacher who was very committed to having students read and understand the Constitution. And that had such a lasting impact on me both in terms of my civic knowledge and my civic engagement.
We know that knowledge can equal engagement, and engagement is so hugely important. So I think helping students to really understand these concepts will make them more sophisticated voters later in life. So I think it is important to start early. And again, this comes back to these sort of shared values that we have as a nation and you should start to sort of inculcate these values at a young age.
Harmony: And we shouldn’t put all the onus on the kids, either. There’s probably a lot of adults who are a little bit rusty about the text of the Constitution much less the subtext.
Julie: Sure. Sure. And that’s what we do. A lot of public programs for adults as well and where we talk typically about a contemporary Constitutional issue and we talk about sort of the history behind it and then sort of the modern implications of that history.
Harmony: You’ve devoted your career and your education and your life to the Constitution. Why is it so important to you that Americans really have a grasp of this document and what it really means when we look at it in context?
Julie: Sure. Again, I think it’s going to come back to that shared value. It’s the document that binds a very large country together with diverse interests and it is this sort of shared values that, this common ground that we have and the Constitution is actually quite a sophisticated document.
I think it’s important, particularly when you see the Constitution used in the political debate to understand, “Is it being used correctly, you know, what’s sort of the correct way of interpreting the Constitution?" And it's important in terms of keeping the government in check. These are the laws that operate on you. It’s important that you understand them, particularly if you feel that the government is encroaching on your rights. It is important to know what those limits are and what your rights are.
Harmony: For somebody who spends her days ensconced in the Constitution do you have a favorite part, do you have a favorite clause, favorite Amendment?
Julie: I always get this questions and I always give the same answer. I hate to play favorites. I think I started like many sort of my way in was through the First Amendment to freedom of speech, press, religion, etc. and I found that really engaging and compelling, but I think through my work with Consource I’ve become very much so interested in the structural provisions in the Constitution which are also hugely influential and consequential. But I should say whatever interests you about the Constitution and whatever pulls you in, that’s wonderful.
There’s so much history there and it’s changing; it’s both past history and living history. We’re living Constitutional history right now. We’re seeing changes to the voting rights act, we’re seeing, you know, changes to things like Affirmative Action and marriage rights. So these modern contemporary issues have historical analogs in comparing and contrasting those things is so meaningful.
So however you find your way to love the Constitution, you know, I think that’s great. I don’t want to say that I have a favorite part, but I think it changes as you get to explore it. Each time I read the Constitution I find something new and interesting about it that draws me in and attracts scholarly interest of some kind.
Harmony: What are those websites where you can find both the Constitutional Sources Project and the Constitution for Kids?
Julie: It's www.consource.org and if you’re looking for the Constitution for Kids on our home page you click the Primary Source link and in Primary Source, which is a partnership we have with Verizon Thinkfinity, you can find a copy of the Constitution for Kids. You can also email firstname.lastname@example.org for a copy of it.
Harmony: Sounds like a great resource and just so much to explore there. Julie, thank you so much for being here today and I hope everybody gets a chance, educators and regular citizens alike, gets a chance to visit that site and learn a little bit more about the Constitution.
Julie: Thank you for having me.