Iowa educators discuss Constitution’s intentions at campus conference

BY HOLLY HINES | JULY 15, 2009 7:15 AM

The delegates to the Constitutional Convention approved the Constitution on Sept. 17, 1787. Today, teachers from all over the state will gather on campus to figure out what they meant.

Between 25 and 30 middle-school and high-school educators are set to take part in Iowa’s first “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution Teacher Institute,” which aims to teach students how to interpret and apply the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

The UI campus — the home of Iowa’s center for the program — is one of the only locations this year to host a state-inclusive institute. The event caters almost exclusively to Iowa educators, and it will cover more information than most others nationwide, said institute Director Gregory Hamot, a UI professor in teaching and learning.

One goal is to hash out the frequently ambiguous Constitution, which kids often see as too complex and daunting, Hamot said.

“It’s not like the rules of a board game,” he said. “Our Constitution was left intentionally vague, because founders didn’t know what the future would hold.”

Officials at the California-based center for the “We the People” curriculum chose Iowa as a host based on its institute proposal. This design includes lectures from professors traveling to Iowa from Indiana and Missouri.

Iowa’s institute will be one of the only ones to cover the full curriculum this year.

Though this is the first year Iowa has hosted the constitutional institute, the federally funded program has been active in the state since 1987, Hamot said.

The goals extend beyond a weeklong conference. Officials aim to distribute 125 curricula to Iowa school districts annually. That means providing free textbooks and instruction. This year Iowa exceeded its goal by 112 percent, Hamot said.

Part of the curriculum includes annual mock congressional hearings held at state and national levels, in which middle- and high-school students put their constitutional knowledge to use.

The winning team earns a chance to compete at the Capitol in Washington, D.C.

As the institute comes to a close, teachers will take part in their own mock congressional hearing at the Pappajohn Business Building on July 22.

Local professors and officials will judge the hearing, including Johnson County Supervisor Terrence Neuzil. Neuzil — who majored in political science and American history at the UI — will question participants about issues American democracy may face in the future.

“It will be an opportunity for teachers to be challenged,” he said.

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