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Bringing the First Amendment into the Classroom

Teacher Andrew Lindsay leads a discussion on freedom in his eighth-grade American history class.
Photos by Christine Arrasmith, NPR News /
Teacher Andrew Lindsay leads a discussion on freedom in his eighth-grade American history class.
Victoria Guzman says she appreciates Lindsay for allowing student voices to be heard.
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Victoria Guzman says she appreciates Lindsay for allowing student voices to be heard.
Classmates Steve Davenport, left, and Markeita Hudson.
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Classmates Steve Davenport, left, and Markeita Hudson.

To some students of Andrew Lindsay's eighth-grade American history class, freedom can come down to something as basic as what they're allowed to wear to school.

On a recent day, Lindsay's class at suburban Detroit's South Middle School was discussing a 1969 case of Iowa students who were suspended from school for wearing armbands to protest U.S. involvement in the Vietnam War.

In the latest segment of Morning Edition's "Citizen Student" series on civics education, NPR's Neva Grant reports that the discussion in Lindsay's class soon turned to their own school's restrictions on wearing short skirts and skimpy tops.

Markeita Hudson quickly makes the connection. "My (rights) are being taken away from me because the principals want to have a dress code," she says. "So it was the same back then. They had a dress code. They couldn't wear (the armbands).

"That's like us wearing a short, short skirt," she says.

Hudson says she's been paying more attention to the news lately and she now knows there are places, such as Afghanistan, where the dress code is even more strict. "I'm lucky to be where I am, where I can express myself freely, because they wish they could be free and I have what they yearn for," she says.

Grant reports that a study by the Freedom Forum's First Amendment center found that most Americans don't think schools are doing a very good job teaching First Amendment freedoms. The study suggests that schools prefer to teach about freedom rather than let students experiment with it.

Lindsay says in his social studies classes, he tries to give students more of a voice than they're accustomed to. He and his students write their own constitution. They elect a class president, a congress and a court, which can even put him on trial.

"Our classroom is a democracy," Lindsay says. "It needs to be a democracy so we can teach our kids to be democratic citizens. When they leave school, if all they've had is dictators for teachers, they don't know how to function in a democratic society."

Most of Lindsay's students seem to appreciate his style of teaching, Grant reports.

"In Mr. Lindsay's class, you are heard," Victoria Guzman says. "He lets us debate our point with him."

Classmate Steve Davenport agrees. "He'll ask us a question or he'll say, 'What do you guys think?'...Most teachers don't do that."

Lindsay says he doesn't try to build a democratic classroom just to be buddies with his students. He tries to teach them that being able to speak up and challenge the teacher isn't just a privilege -- it's a responsibility.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.