Celebrate the Constitution with the Bill of Rights Institute

SEPTEMBER 17 IS CONSTITUTION DAY. For every citizen who honors and upholds that document’s principles, this is a great day to celebrate and a great opportunity to educate our fellow citizens about what it means to be an American.

A last-minute provision to the “Consolidated Appropriations Act of 2005” transformed Constitution Day from a rarely recognized date into a major opportunity to educate Americans about individual liberty, limited government, and the responsibilities of citizenship. This federal law requires schools—from kindergarten through university—that receive any federal funding to teach students about the United States Constitution on September 17. This requirement creates a demand for information that is easily accessible, accurate, and engaging to students as well as a general audience.

Most people believe knowledge of the Constitution is a key component of national identity, according to a recently released poll by the Bradley Project on National Identity. Eighty-six percent of respondents believe that there is a unique American identity based on freedom and opportunity secured by the Constitution including freedom of speech, religious liberty, and private property. Respondents younger than 35 years old were more likely to hold that there is no unique American identity.

In response to the opportunity offered by Constitution Day and the importance of increasing knowledge about the Constitution, especially among young Americans, the Bill of Rights Institute has developed a wide range of Web-based activities and education programs that focus on the Constitution, the Founders, and what it means to be an American. Web-based activities include an interactive Constitution Day Quiz, Constitution Jeopardy, and a Constitution Crossword Puzzle to test knowledge of our Founding document. A flash animated game, “Madison’s Notes are Missing,” transports players back in time to interview 12 Constitutional Convention delegates, including George Mason and Alexander Hamilton, about key issues discussed at the Convention in Philadelphia.

In addition to the constitutional principles, the Bill of Rights Institute spotlights the character and lives of the Founders with Founders Online. This Web feature offers opportunities to meet the Founders with downloadable portraits, short audio biographies, and thought-provoking quotations from the great Americans who shaped our Constitution including well-known figures such as James Madison (the Father the Constitution), and lesser-known figures such as South Carolina’s Charles Pinckney (Constitution Charlie).

The Bill of Rights Institute invites citizens to download and print the 12-page Celebrate the Constitution booklet. With topics ranging from First Amendment freedoms to American heroes, the booklet offers educational ideas to engage Americans of all ages. All of these Web-based resources can be found at www.BillofRightsInstitute.org/ConstitutionDay.

Since its founding in 1999, the Bill of Rights Institute has focused on increasing young Americans’ knowledge of the Constitution, the Founders, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Working with a network of constitutional scholars and outstanding classroom teachers, the Bill of Rights Institute is reaching one-third of high school and middle school classes in American history, civics, and American government. More than 35,000 teachers from all 50 states have registered to receive our printed instructional material and electronic eLessons. In addition, over 14,000 teachers have attended our Constitutional Seminars conducted in 45 states and the District of Columbia to increase their own background knowledge of America’s founding principles.

Recently, the Bill of Rights Institute launched a variety of student programs to engage young people directly with these important ideas. The Institute’s student programs include a Web site, www.DoYouHavetheRight.org, that features changing monthly themes, and an online study guide to the Constitution for students to explore. Constitutional Academies conducted in Washington, D.C., for high school students who want to deepen their understanding of America’s Founding principles, are offered for college credit. For students who enjoy the challenge of competition, the Bill of Rights Institute organizes a Constitution Bee patterned after the National Spelling Bee.

The Institute’s largest student program, the “Being an American” essay contest, challenges high school students to reflect on the civic values that most define our American character. In the past two years, over 17,000 students from 19 states and the District of Columbia responded by writing essays citing documents such as the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights; referencing great Americans including George Washington, Thomas Edison, and William Lloyd Garrison; and focusing on responsibility, respect, courage, perseverance, and love of liberty. The contest will be available to students in all 50 states beginning in September and can be found at www.BeingAnAmerican.org.

This school year, 90 prizes will be awarded to “Being an American” essay contest winners and their teachers totaling nearly $200,000. Also, the top 27 essayists and their teachers will be brought to Washington, D.C., where they will participate in an awards gala and an educational program on America’s Founding principles from March 29 to 31, 2009.

Ms. Hughes is President of the Bill of Rights Institute. She can be reached at vhughes@BillofRightsInstitute.org.