Yesterday morning, the fifth-graders at Graham Road Elementary School in Falls Church puzzled over exactly what the founding fathers meant when they vowed to form a more perfect union, establish justice and ensure domestic tranquility.
" 'We the people,' who does that include?" librarian Sharon Alexander asked the class.
"Us kids," said 10-year-old Richard Baca, "and pets."
And when Alexander asked the children what's needed to promote the general welfare, hands popped up across the room. "Electricity," one student said. "Shelter," a classmate added. "Love," suggested Emily Barker, 10.
The discussion at Graham Road was echoed at schools across the country yesterday as teachers -- following a new law fathered by Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-W.Va.) -- taught mandatory lessons on the U.S. Constitution. The mandate, tucked into a massive appropriations bill passed last year, requires that every school that receives federal funds, including universities, celebrate the anniversary of the charter's Sept. 17, 1787, signing.
So even as George Washington University law school students listened to a colloquium on Constitutional law, children at Coles Elementary School in Prince William County acted out a skit about one of the United States' most important documents.
Students at Robert Frost Middle School in Rockville answered Constitution trivia questions, winning American flags, "We the People" pins and even gift certificates to Best Buy and Starbucks. And the seniors in Cathy Ruffing's Advanced Placement government class at Fairfax County's Centreville High School debated whether the Constitution Day federal mandate is, in fact, constitutional. (Ruffing said they split down the middle.)
While several educators said the new law caught them off guard, they said the Constitution is worthy of an extra lesson.
"It's sort of how we feel about Black History Month. Every day we should be thinking about the Constitution, but these special events give us the impetus to do that," said Molly Bensinger-Lacy, principal of Graham Road.
Byrd, who recently chided an audience for spending more time watching "Desperate Housewives" than reading the Constitution, said he's appalled at polls that show Americans know little about the charter.
One poll, he said, found that far more teenagers knew the names of the Three Stooges than the first three words of the Constitution.
"This is our basic document. It guarantees our freedoms," Byrd said in a telephone interview. "I think the American people revere it, but they don't know a lot about it. I'm trying to inspire students and teachers . . . to study it, to read it."
Stephanie van Hover, an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Virginia, said the law, coming on the heels of the federal No Child Left Behind Act, is the latest example of the federal government's increasing influence over public schools.
But unlike the No Child act, no restrictions will be imposed on schools that don't follow the law, and U.S. Department of Education officials said there are no plans to police schools. In addition, the law allows schools flexibility in the kinds of programs offered to students.
Carol Starr, acting social studies program supervisor for Montgomery County schools, said one of the biggest challenges for teachers was slipping a lesson into an already-packed curriculum.
Starr said teachers in elementary grades talked to children about rules and responsibilities, and older students discussed weightier issues, such as the separation of powers or Supreme Court nominee John G. Roberts Jr.'s confirmation hearings. Some psychology students debated the meaning of justice and the balance of individual rights with the common good.
Joey Jones, principal ofRobert Frost, said the focus on the Constitution has led students to think about how it affects their lives. He said he has heard children talking about whether the Pledge of Allegiance passes constitutional muster and whether their lockers can be searched.
"I tend to focus not just on the rights but on the responsibilities," Jones said. "A student will say, 'I have freedom of speech.' I say, 'You absolutely do, but you also have responsibility for what you say.' "
Emily Barker, the Graham Road fifth-grader, said she knew a little about the Constitution before yesterday, but now she understands it better.
"It kind of nails the nation all down," she said. "It makes sure we don't fight, and it makes sure we've all got everyone's back."
By the end of the class, Emily and her classmates came up with a "kid-friendly" version of the preamble, declaring that "everybody including kids, pets and adults, to make the U.S.A. a better place," is entitled to "electricity, shelter, food, water, schools and love."
Librarian Sharon Alexander reviews Graham Road Elementary students' "kid-friendly" constitution preamble.