New Jersey Teachers Discuss History and Civics with Supreme Court Justice

Every year, hundreds of American history teachers participating in Teaching American History (TAH) projects across the country gather in our nation’s capital to experience our history, politics, and culture firsthand. For many of these educators, this travel-study experience is their first journey to Washington, D.C., and, as such, marks an important milestone in their careers. For a group of 18 teachers from Ridgewood, New Jersey, however, a summer trip in 2013 also represented their first engaged discussion with experts in government and politics who are in elected and appointed offices of the federal government. The capstone event of the Ridgewood TAH project included a private audience with Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer.

Breyer:  Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses a range of topics with the Ridgewood TAH project teachers.  (Photo courtesy of John Domville of Ridgewood High School)

Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer discusses a range of topics with the Ridgewood TAH project teachers. (Photo courtesy of John Domville of Ridgewood High School)

In preparation for this event, the participating teachers read and discussed The U.S. Supreme Court: A Very Short Introduction by Pulitzer Prize winner and New York Times journalist Linda Greenhouse. In addition, under the guidance of the project’s three master educators, the TAH teachers developed a list of discussion topics to share with Justice Breyer. A number of the selected topics were relevant to Justice Breyer’s vast experience and expertise in legal theory and administrative and constitutional law; others were more pertinent to the teachers’ classroom work and efforts to improve civic engagement in their schools and communities, such as the roles of civic education in public life and the federal government in K-12 education, and the impact of Supreme Court decisions in American life, among others.

As a result of their experience at the Supreme Court, the teachers have developed lessons on equality (14th Amendment) and the interpretation of language in the U.S. Constitution (Federalist Paper #56). All of the lessons integrate one or more of the Common Core State Standards and use the Understanding by Design instructional framework.

The Ridgewood teachers commemorate their professional development experience with a photo in front of the U.S. Supreme Court.  (Photo courtesy of Ivy Urdang)

The Ridgewood teachers commemorate their professional development experience with a photo in front of the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo courtesy of Ivy Urdang)

The Ridgewood TAH grant, Profiles and Perspectives of American History, was awarded in 2010 to a consortium of 14 northern New Jersey districts for the purpose of K-12 American history professional development. The main historical content partners are The Hermitage, Columbia University, George Washington University, Princeton University, Rutgers University, and the Gilder Lehrman Institute of History Education. To date, more than 40 teachers have taken part in the professional development offerings. Teacher and student enthusiasm for American history has notably increased, and participants have reported an increase in the use of historical thinking skills and primary sources in the classroom, with the most evident impact occurring at the middle school level. Also, there have been more than 7,300 visits to the Ridgewood TAH project Website to access lesson plans and other resources. As part of its sustainability plans, the project will organize a Model Congress event for all high schools in the fifth district of New Jersey.

OII’s Teaching American History program is the largest federal history education program in the country. Created in 2001, it supports professional development opportunities for K-12 teachers of American history. The goal of the TAH program is to raise student achievement by improving teachers’ knowledge of and appreciation for traditional U.S. history. Grants are awarded on a competitive basis to local educational agencies to develop and disseminate innovative models of professional development in partnership with organizations that offer content expertise. Between 2001 and 2010, more than 1153 TAH projects have been funded.

Margarita Meléndez is an education program specialist in the Teacher Quality Programs division of the Office of Innovation and Improvement.

3 Comments

  1. Will new TAH Grants be funded? I given that this program is unique and so needed, I can’t imagine why it would be discontinued.

  2. A wonderful experience to be a part of…meeting with Stephen Breyer was fascinating! A day in the life of a S.C. Justice,too cool!

  3. I want to encourage teachers to allow more instructional time on the U.S. Supreme Court and the role of local, state, and federal courts. Students should read editorials about the landmark decisions, debate the arguments for and against the literal interpretation of the Constitution, and understand the work of the nine justices. The U.S. Supreme Court influences our role as citizens and the vision for our country. Consider having students write a weekly blog or article about Supreme Court decisions and issues throughout the year or for a month.

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