Sandra Day O'Connor: Always Supreme
Demystify America's governing system through a legendary role model and intriguing websites.
By Linda Fitzsimmons Pierce
As educators, we want our pupils to understand how our country's government operates. In addition, we want them to know that being an American citizen is an incredible privilege. Fortunately, there is one highly-motivated woman out there who is determined to help us. Sandra Day O'Connor is working to help us revitalize and better inform our nation's learners as to how our government works, and how they can be responsible citizens.
Interactive Civics Lessons
Our first female Supreme Court Justice, Sandra Day O’Connor, retired after 25 years of serving on the court to take care of her husband, John, who had Alzheimer’s Disease. Since his death, she has used her political passion to teach the next generation the value of being an American citizen. To accomplish this, she created a website that is loaded with games and curriculum.
As the November 6th election closes in, Sandra's website is the perfect vehicle for introducing pupils to the process of running for president, minus the propaganda and advertisements. Try the first game on the site with your class. It is designed for learners to be able to run their own campaign for president, including choosing their party, selecting their current issues of concern, debating with other candidates, and working their way toward the Oval Office. Don’t be put off by the registering process. There is no fee unless you’d like to donate money.
Trace the Rise of Women in Government
In order to provide your pupils with a greater appreciation of Justice O'Connor and her efforts to politically educate their generation, take some time to trace her career path. Learning about the status of a career woman 60 years ago is an education in itself. Either have them research her early attempts at a career in law, or share her experiences as she faced an onslaught of no’s when pursuing her first job as a lawyer.
How Much Do You Know?
Justice O’Connor created the website because she believes that if America's citizens don’t understand how the government works, they can turn sour and critical. She points out that as citizens, we need to know how to be a part of our government, and how to express ourselves; not just by voting. Have your class test their civics knowledge with the questions that follow.
In the process of becoming an American citizen, applicants must pass the civics test. They must correctly answer six out of ten questions that are randomly selected from a list of 100 possibilities. These are a few of the questions on that test. Check with your class to see if any of them know the answers.
- Q: What do we call the first ten amendments to the Constitution?
- A: The Bill of Rights
- Q: Name two rights in the Declaration of Independence.
- A: Life and the pursuit of happiness
- Q: What stops one branch of government from becoming too powerful?
- A: The system of checks and balances
- Q: Under our Constitution, some powers belong to the federal government. What is one power of the federal government?
- A: To make treaties
Who Interprets the Constitution?
Explain the three branches of government to your class. Tell them how the Judicial Branch has the ultimate decision regarding some of the most important matters of our country. Our justices resolve legal disputes and interpret laws passed by Congress based on the Constitution. Explain that the Judicial Branch of our government is the only branch that explains the reasons for its decisions.
Have them conduct research to find names and credentials of the nine Supreme Court Justices. An interesting fact that will likely interest your students, is that more people in the U.S. can name a judge on American Idol than a chief justice of the United States.
Reaching Students K through 12
Here are a few other samples of the well-designed videos, games, and lesson plans available on iCivics.org:
- In a six-minute video, your class will be informed on the roles of lawyers and judges from civil and criminal trials, to the Court of Appeals to the Supreme Court.
- Many adults are puzzled by the workings of the electoral college. Among other lessons, fill your pupils in on how the system works with lesson plans with three-day and five-day approaches. This site is packed with other ways to grab learners' attention. It even allows them to vote in the nationwide Pearson Foundation student election.
- Argument Wars: In this game, scholars have the opportunity to try their hand at arguing a Supreme Court case in front of a judge.
Discuss These Important Supreme Court Decisions:
- Marbury v. Madison - 1803: The first time a law passed by Congress was declared unconstitutional
- Dred Scott v. Sanford - 1857: Declared that a slave was not a citizen, and that Congress could not outlaw slavery in U.S. territories
- Plessy v. Ferguson - 1896: Stated that racial segregation was legal
- Brown v. Board of Education - 1954: Made racial segregation in schools illegal
- Miranda v. Arizona - 1966: Declared that criminal suspects must be informed of their rights before being questioned by the police.
- Roe v. Wade - 1973: Legalized abortion
- Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger - 2003: Ruled that colleges can, under certain conditions, consider race and ethnicity in admissions.
Invite a discussion of what makes a situation fair or unfair, sometimes, the nuances are quite complex. Opinions are plentiful. Hmmmmm….sounds like a decision that a judge might have to make.
With the onset of Internet use, the question of free speech has become a hot topic. Your class investigates the role that the Fifth Amendment has played in various technology outlets, such as Internet filters meant to protect inappropriate exposure for children. They then write opinions that support one side in the cited cases.
Since this resource is designed to get pupils thinking about the role of the Supreme Court, they will watch a 22-minute video that touches on subjects such as civil rights, immigration, and state rights, just to name a few. Afterward, learners discuss and analyze the information.