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History Nerd Fest 2013 – Mary Beth Tinker and your 1st Amendment rights


It was the best of the times. It was the worst of times.

The last session of the weekend. Good? Because I’m tired. Bad? Because . . . duh, no more hanging out with, and learning from, other social studies nerds.

But I am looking forward to this session. The focus is on First Amendment rights, Mary Beth Tinker, and citizenship in the 21st century educational world. Mary Beth is one of the Tinkers in Tinker vs. Des Moines, the landmark Supreme Court case that outlines the First Amendment rights of students.

She’s here. (How cool is that?) And she’s talking about how her case is being defined and how it should be defined in the current world of social media and technology. (how cool would it be to be able to say “my Supreme Court case?) Need a more in-depth review of the case? Head to Oyez site.

Mary Beth is working with the Newseum and the Student Press Law Center to educate kids about their rights. And perhaps more importantly, educators. The question they are focusing on?

What is the schoolhouse gate in the 21st century?

They began by asking what kids think about the First Amendment and the Five Freedoms. basically the First Amendment applies to everyone on American soil but the problem happens when we try and define what stuff like “press” and “petition” mean in 2013.

What a great way to start awesome conversation. Simply find or create provocative sentences / photos and have kids discuss them. For example:

  • You can’t censor some speech without threatening all speech
  • For a newspaper to leak this information is nothing more than endangering the nation.
  • Sometimes, it’s not okay for people to protest governmental decisions.

Then ask students – why do people disagree? How should the Amendment be interpreted? Who decides?

This sort of conversation is perfect for a class focused on historical thinking. There are no easy answers. There are nuances and gray areas. And this ticks kids off – they just want the “right” answer.

But this is the perfect time to introduce stories about kids making decisions and about actual Supreme Court case. And to review the idea of checks and balances. There has to be a person who is willing to exercise these freedoms and test the First Amendment.

Mary Beth shared stories about how her father took action to racially integrate the swimming pool. He didn’t win. And lost the church he pastored. He moved his family to Des Moines where his wife worked to find ways to integrate businesses there. She was surrounded by “strong people” who wanted to make the world around them better.

She experienced Freedom Summer when her parents traveled to Mississippi to help African Americans register to vote. Their house was shot at. Later she and her brother began to learn more about the Vietnam War and wanted to share their feelings about the war. They and others decided to wear the black armbands.

The Des Moines school district heard about their plan and made a rule against wearing armbands. The group try to talk with the school board and worked to get the rule rescinded. They choose to wear them anyway – the war wasn’t right and they were willing to be suspended, to question the rule.

(At this point during the session, a guy stood up and said he was a Marine in 1966 during this case. He said he joined the military to protect the rights and freedoms of people like Mary Beth and while he may not have agreed with her at the time, it was important for her to be able do what she did. How cool is that? I love social studies!)

Some great questions to ask kids that focus specifically on the Tinker case but which can be used to lead into more recent cases:

  • What First Amendment right is at issue in the case?
  • How would you defend the Tinkers?
  • Would you defend the school officials?
  • What do you think the outcome was?

Great stories about young people who were willing to take a stand can be incredibly powerful. And if you’re working to tie your instruction to standards, the Taking Action piece of the NCSS College, Career, Civil Life standards seems like a perfect fit.

There are some great questions that can develop:

  • When and what can students text? At school sponsored events?
  • What hashtags are allowed?
  • Anonymous and off-campus Twitter accounts that refer to specific students during school? Twitter “burn books” that tag students by name?

We’re having some great conversations about different cases, especially about online bullying and symbolic freedom of speech involving t-shirts.

Mary Beth is taking her story and lessons around the country on the Tinker Tour. If you’re anywhere close to one of her stops, you need to go. Awesome stuff.

mary beth photos

The Newseum folks have some great resources. Here are several in PDF format.

They also have some nice stuff on their website.

Other resources:

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