Social Sundays: Bill of Rights Day a Celebration

"Now, Therefore, I, Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States of America, do hereby designate December 15, 1941, as Bill of Rights Day.  And I call upon the officials of the Government, and upon the people of the United States, to observe the day by displaying the flag of the United States on public buildings and by meeting together for such prayers and such ceremonies as may seem to them appropriate."

Bill of Rights Day (December 15th) is largely forgotten as we prepare for the holiday break.  Still, it is difficult to argue that the Bill of Rights is not one of the most important parts of our Constitution.  Every year issues of free speech, freedom of religion, the second amendment and more are in the news.   
To get you started, here are some fun facts about the Bill of Rights:

  • The Bill of Rights was introduced by James Madison.  He had wanted it in the original constitution, but in order to get the constitution ratified, the delegates of the Constitutional Convention decided to debate the amendment issues later.
  • Some of the Bill of Rights original ideas such as the right to a trial by a jury of your peers came from the Magna Carta (1215).
  • The Bill had originally had 12 amendments but two of the amendments were ultimately not ratified.  One of the amendments addressed the number of constituents per representative in the House.  The other amendment laid out specifications for the pay of a Congressman.  Congressman’s compensation amendment was ratified in 1992 and became the 27th amendment to the Constitution.
  • John Adams and Thomas Jefferson were early supporters of the Bill of Rights.
  • Three of the states (Massachusetts, Connecticut, and Georgia) did not ratify the Bill of Rights until 1939.
  • The Bill of Rights can be viewed at the National Archives building in Washington DC.  

I love to celebrate the Bill of Rights with my students.  Here are some of my favorite activities:
  • Bill of Rights gallery walk.  We divide into groups of 2.  Each group examines one of the 10 amendments and creates a poster to represent the amendment.  We use the posters as the displays in the gallery walk for students to learn about the 10 amendments.  We usually have at least 2 displays for each amendment which provides different perspectives.  As an added challenge, I ask students to see if they can find an example of the amendment being relevant today and to include it as part of their display. (If you are unfamiliar with gallery walks, you can read tips for gallery walks here).
  • Taking up the first amendment through the news.  The first amendment tends to be the one amendment students are most knowledgeable of and most passionate about.  In government we have spent multiple days on just the first amendment.  If we had time, we could spend an entire semester.  Students almost always can name freedom of speech, religion and press and sometimes need a reminder of freedom to assemble and freedom to petition. Some years we have started with a series of news stories that encompass first amendment issues from a student wearing a t-shirt with a swastika on it to school or protests. 
  • The first amendment and banned books: We have examined the list of banned books and debated at what point censorship is okay. Students have very strong opinions on censorship and who should choose what information students have access to, so there is usually thoughtful debate.
  • Putting the amendments on trial: Other times I have pulled specific cases that the ACLU is arguing related to the first amendment, I give students different roles in the case.  We hold a mock trial and then discuss the issue.  
  • If we didn't have the right: Another great activity is looking at countries that do not have freedom of speech or religion and having students make the argument visually, orally, or in written form for why the first amendment is important. 
  • Using primary sources:  A more compact activity for the first amendment for middle schoolers comes from the National Archives.  Students search historical primary sources to find examples of the amendments.
  • Freedom of religion today: for World History, this activity from Teaching Tolerance is a great way to incorporate Bill of Rights day into your classroom.  Students take up the specific case of the building of an Islam center. 

Whether you celebrate the Bill of Rights on December 15th or another time, you can try one of the above activities.  Need more ideas?  Grab  another fun activities and resources from my teacher-author friends:

Bill of Rights Poster set great to remind students all year round.

Bill of Rights skit activity that explores if the Bill of Rights did not exist.

Bill of Rights: Do you have the right activity which explores what rights are covered in the Bill of Rights through analysis of scenarios.

Social Sundays is a bi-weekly post sharing tips, ideas, resources, and products for teaching social studies.  If you have questions or think there is something I should share, you can leave me a message in the comments below or at the store in the question and answer section.  



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