Constitution in the Classroom:
BU Law students bring constitutional law course to local high school

constitution in the classroom

Last fall, Theresa Perkins (‘12) designed and executed an afterschool course in constitutional law at the Community Charter School of Cambridge (CCSC). Now, she’s getting ready to offer the program for a second round—and to hand the baton to another BU Law student once she graduates in May.

Perkins worked with a group of law student volunteers to conduct “Constitution in the Classroom,” bringing together between 15 and 25 CCSC high school students for a total of four weekly lessons about constitutional law and the workings of government.

It all started when the BU Law chapter of the American Constitution Society (ACS)—which sponsors the nationwide Constitution in the Classroom program—was seeking a student to carry out the program on behalf of BU. Perkins, already serving as the Community Service Chair for the Public Interest Project (PIP) and the ABA Law Student Division First Circuit Lieutenant Governor of Public Interest, immediately took up the opportunity. It was in the fall of 2010, and Perkins was in her second year of law school.

“Although I have limited teaching experience, I appreciate the importance of community involvement in education and educational support programs,” she wrote, adding that she attributes her own interest in law to her high school experiences.

Perkins designed BU’s Constitution in the Classroom course—which was originally proposed for Roxbury Prep in early 2011 but was cancelled because of weather emergencies—as an optional after-school program. The course covered a variety of topics ranging from bills and how they become laws to the branches of the federal government. The course also reviewed sections of the first, fourth and eighth amendments.

The information means little beyond the fact that it might show up on a test. It mattered at a time when men wore powdered wigs, slavery existed in the U.S. or women could not vote. Not now.

“Constitutional law impacts them too, and my hope is that having a better understanding of the law and legal arguments that shape the debate on these issues will encourage them to stay educated and speak out about the issues they care about,” she said.

But Perkins says that, while high school students are familiar with the basics of constitutional law, rarely are they actually able to apply that knowledge to their daily lives.

“The information means little beyond the fact that it might show up on a test,” she wrote. “It mattered at a time when men wore powdered wigs, slavery existed in the U.S. or women could not vote. Not now.”

Perkins’ objective was to make constitutional law relevant for the students, presenting contemporary issues “so that the students could discuss and debate topics they know and care about.”

The course, according to Perkins, was interactive. She recounts their first Constitution in the Classroom class last fall, in which the CCSC students learned about the roles of committees, subcommittees and special interest groups in making a bill a law. For this particular lesson, each student was assigned a different role—from a representative to a Supreme Court justice. The bill they were confronted with proposed a national driving age of 18 years.

“We walked through the entire process, including committee hearings, floor speeches, voting and a trip to the President’s desk,” said Perkins, noting that the students ultimately vetoed the bill. “It gave students a sense of the players involved in the process, the difficulty of passing legislation and the many reasons why a congressperson might vote for or against the bill.”

Brence Pernell, a humanities teacher at CCSC, says he’s impressed with how effectively the program taught the students the basic principles of constitutional law. “I was incredibly proud of the critical thinking, the professionalism and legal insight displayed during these afterschool sessions,” he told Perkins. “The curriculum taught by the law students most certainly inspired a deeper awareness of individual rights according to the Constitution…”

While Perkins and the volunteer teachers plan to return to just CCSC this spring, they are working on expanding the program to other schools in upcoming years. By then, Perkins will be long-graduated, but luckily she’s already found someone to take over: Scott Kane Stukel (‘14), who, still in his first year, volunteered with Perkins last semester and has agreed to take the reins once Perkins graduates in May.

Stukel—who’s also the founder and president of the BU School of Law’s American Civil Liberties Union and a member of the PIP—says that educating high school students with constitutional law is of utmost importance in this day and age.

“How can we expect our students to embrace this covenant of our shared history if they don’t understand the principles of our most fundamental document?,” he wrote. “The 21st century has, thus far, not been kind to our Constitution. If we don’t educate our children as to their liberties and responsibilities to our shared government, it will get worse. We’ve lost a decade but, through the youth, we have a century to gain.”

And at the end of the day, both Perkins and Stukel say that they, as J.D. candidates, will have learned just as much as the high school students.

“Sitting down with some of the students and probing them about their intuitions about the nature and rationale of [‘cruel and unusual punishment’] was really enlightening,” said Stukel. “Honestly, the course often feels like an educational experience for the instructors rather than the students.”

And Perkins likened the job of a lawyer to teaching. “Lawyers need similar skills to work with clients,” she said. “Lawyers advise and counsel; so do teachers.”

Reported by Alia Wong

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