Teacher resources and professional development across the curriculum

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In this article, Maria Gallo, director of legal studies and a teacher at Harry S. Truman High School in the Bronx, New York, presents three lessons on the First Amendment: The Establishment of Religion, The Free Exercise of Religion, and Putting It All Together: A Round Table Discussion. The lessons include extensive documentation on Supreme Court cases that are relevant to the lessons.

Controversial Issues in Practice
By Maria Gallo

Law-related education is a perfect vehicle for teaching controversial issues.

Among my students, I have found that the subject of religion and the state can provoke some very heated classroom discussion, of the kind that spills into the hall and on to the next class when the class ends. The intensity that students bring to the issue offers an excellent opportunity to train them to deal logically and rationally with subjects about which they feel passionately. I require them to learn to listen, seek out the facts, discuss, and debate. A vital goal is accomplished when the issue sparks a proper dialogue--not random rhetoric or generalizations, but talk that is logical, coherent, rational, and factual, even if passionate. And the ultimate success is when the dialogue is not of the teacher's creation, and the teacher can purposely refrain from the discussion and simply watch.

The lessons outlined below deal with different aspects of church-state relations affected by the First Amendment. The lessons help students at various levels to improve their critical-thinking skills, and to learn more about the Constitution and the role of the judiciary in government. They also show students how, as active citizens, they can shape future trends.

The lessons have been used with a high school senior honors government class as a unit on the Establishment and Free Exercise Clause of the First Amendment. Our school has approximately 3,000 students, 97 percent of whom have minority backgrounds. The students are presently tracked into non-regents, regents, and honors level classes. A large number are immigrants from the Caribbean. I'm happy to say that we have a very diverse population in every way imaginable. The lessons are rooted in an eighth-grade lesson I developed for a law-infused curriculum, which I enhanced and expanded into a unit for my seniors. I have used these lessons with lower-functioning students as well as average students.

There is no magic formula for guaranteeing success for lessons on controversial issues. There are some fundamental prerequisites: knowledge of the unique classroom dynamics created by the intellects and personalities of students; use of materials and tasks to allow for the expansion of student skills and knowledge; a trusting atmosphere which invites inquisitiveness founded on respect for and sensitivity to the right of students to express themselves without ridicule, and encourages students to learn to separate differences of opinion from personal attacks; willingness to change classroom arrangements; and, most important, adaptability and flexibility on the part of the teacher. This adaptability and flexibility needs to be shown in the teaching of these, as well as other lessons. The lessons can be tailored to the needs of particular classes. The time allocated to each must be determined by the teacher vis-à-vis the students' abilities, curriculum constraints, etc., but each lesson is created to go on for several days.

The lessons require prior knowledge among students of the role of the Supreme Court and its procedures for judging cases, as well as how cases are briefed in Court proceedings. Students should also have had experience with the cooperative learning arrangements used, so that the teacher can focus on providing a structure and set of guidelines to keep students on track, and act as a moderator/observer rather than spend time trying to organize students.

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