“Creating a new age of learning,” says Great Valley High School and its 1,400 students in the Pennsylvania borough of Malvern, about 25 miles west of Philadelphia.
It may also be contributing to the birth of a new era of conversation.
According to all accounts, political polarization in the United States is increasing, having begun in schools during the pandemic over what steps were required — or not — to protect children from COVID-19 and now spreading to issues such as Critical Race Theory and gender identity. According to a RAND Corporation survey, nearly 75% of school leaders across the country are concerned that political polarization will interfere with their ability to teach.
That isn’t always the case at Great Valley High School, particularly in Kim Barben’s Advanced Placement United States Government class.
“We as a society have become so polarized by partisan politics that it really hinders what we can do as a nation,” said Barben, who is in her 20th year of teaching, the last two of which she has taught AP Government at Great Valley. “It’s critical for the kids to understand that once the politics are removed, you go to the Constitution.” That is the foundation of our government.”
Barben and hundreds of other teachers across the country have the opportunity to demonstrate to students that not everything is as it seems, thanks to the National Constitution Center and its Interactive Constitution initiative. They learn how to disagree without being disagreeable.
It’s a process that Barben’s students have found both interesting and beneficial. According to Dami Babalola, the class demonstrates how the Constitution continues to shape government policy. According to Safwaan Ahmer, the class uses specific passages from the Constitution to keep debates focused on words rather than disagreements. And Emily De Rezende says she enjoys the class because it encourages students to work together to find solutions.
“So much of the news is like, you’re either on one side or the other,” said De Rezende. “Then you come into this class, which isn’t really about today’s politics. It’s more about examining the ideals of our founding documents and applying the highest moral standard to those words.”
That is precisely the reaction the National Constitution Center hoped for when it launched the Interactive Constitution in 2015. However, its spread, like so many other aspects of the COVID-19 pandemic, was unplanned.
That means you can read what conservative Supreme Court Associate Justice Amy Coney Barrett thinks about The Suspension Clause and where she disagrees with former Acting Solicitor General of the United States Neil Katyal, who worked in the Obama administration and is now an MSNBC contributor. What is perhaps more striking in these polarized times is where Barrett and Katyal actually agree.
The program was expanded to schools in 2019 by the Bezos Family Foundation, the Charles Koch Institute, and the Laura and Gary Lauder Family Venture Philanthropy Fund. However, the program really took off when students began to use virtual learning early in the pandemic.
Kerry Sautner, the center’s chief learning officer, witnessed it bloom during a virtual discussion about the First Amendment with students from the United States and 20 other countries. Some international students were perplexed by the concept of free speech, while Americans discovered that not every country provides the same liberties as their own.
The students quickly began sharing their lessons and videos of classes featuring Constitutional scholars with the adults in their lives, expanding the program’s reach even further.
Sarah Ruger, vice president of free expression at the Charles Koch Institute, a program funder, expressed hope that the program’s success can be replicated in more classrooms across the country.