The Bill of Rights Institute’s free Being an American: Exploring the Ideals That Unite Us curriculum has been one of the organization’s most popular online resources for teaching middle school civics since the Institute was founded in 1999. This month, the curriculum has gotten a significant update, designed to make it easier to scaffold for lower grades and ESL students. The material in Being an American uses primary source analysis, writing assignments, discussion prompts, and other activities to help students “connect the dots” by focusing on the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, civic values, American heroes, and exploring the meaning of citizenship to all of them.
The Being an American update is part of a trend at the Institute. In the last two years, the nonprofit U.S. history and civics organization has invested in developing several new free resources, including a monumental project called Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness, the first ever open educational digital resource for teaching AP U.S. history. Developed as a joint project with OpenStax at Rice University and approved by the College Board in the spring of 2021, the resource is designed to meet the course needs of a yearlong U.S. History or AP U.S. History class. The history of the United States is presented through a series of narratives, primary sources, and point-counterpoint debates that invite students to participate in the ongoing conversation about the American experiment. The content is coupled with rigorous assessments that help students develop historical thinking skills and reasoning processes.
This spring the Institute also published The Plainest Demands of Justice, a new curriculum for teaching African American history. Six chronological primary source sets covering the colonial era to the present day allow students to consider how the efforts of law- and policymakers, the courts, and “We the People” – individuals and groups – have worked to ensure a society faithful to the ideals of the Declaration of Independence. A culminating assessment has students choose a topic to research and present to make connections to how the work to ensure a society aligned with Founding principles continues in the present day.
Kentucky’s 5th grade social studies teachers looking to supplement their curricula with historical narratives will find 139 compelling life stories of individuals from throughout U.S. history in the Bill of Rights Institute’s American Portraits curriculum. Many of the Institute’s resources are grounded in founding principles and virtues and American Portraits is a perfect example. The series takes a look at individual figures from U.S. history and asks questions that are central to understanding their lives and actions. Each narrative is connected to a virtue, prompting students to explore the character of the primary actors of the stories.
All of these materials are hosted on a newly redesigned web platform featuring a robust search engine. The site also gives teachers the ability to create their own unique playlists and easily share lessons and content with students and colleagues via their school’s learning management system.
Included in the over 4,000 materials on the BRI website are over 70 “Homework Help” videos covering everything from landmark Supreme Court cases to topics from the AP U.S. History curriculum and significant themes and short biographies from throughout American history. These and hundreds of other videos analyzing historical images and primary source documents as well as in-depth interviews with prominent scholars and historians make up a dynamic video library also available on the Bill of Rights Institute’s YouTube channel.
In addition to curriculum and professional development programs for teachers, the Bill of Rights Institute offers several programs for middle and high school students, including an online current events debate platform on its Think the Vote page and Constitutional Academy, a weeklong summer program for high school students in Washington, DC.
The newest student program at BRI is also the most ambitious. In June, the MyImpact Challenge civics contest awarded $40,000 in prizes to 14 middle and high school students and four teachers for their community service projects. The ultimate goal of this program is to spearhead a national civics fair in the model of a STEM science fair that celebrates young people who are exploring the meaning of citizenship by creating change in their communities.
Other forthcoming projects include new curricula that compare the French and American Revolutions, explore memorials and monuments, and address “Slavery and the American Founding.” BRI also plans to update existing curricula on topics including immigration, and media and American democracy.
The best way to stay up to date with the latest programs and resources from the Bill of Rights Institute is to subscribe to one of their free biweekly newsletters.
Christopher Janson is the Manager of Outreach and Communications for the Bill of Rights Institute in Arlington, Virginia.