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Serriere Uses Course-Development Grant to Hold Student Democratic Forum

by Joe Savrock (November 2008)

Note: Last year Stephanie Cayot Serriere, assistant professor of social studies education, won a $1,000 course-development grant from Penn State’s Laboratory for Public Scholarship and Democracy to foster activities leading up to this year’s Constitution Day celebration. She was one of five Penn State faculty members, each at a different Penn State campus, selected for the award.

Serriere embedded her project, titled “A Constitution Day 2008 Community Forum: Using the Structured Academic Controversy Model to Discuss Downloading Creative Material from the Internet,” into her curriculum during this year’s Constitution Day celebration on September 17. On that day, students at five Penn State campuses shared scholarship and course projects fostering constitutional understanding and democratic capacity with their communities. Following is Serriere’s account of her classroom’s activities. A still life slide show is available online.

Stephanie Serriere
Stephanie Serriere

In the weeks preceding Constitution Day, the SSED 430W (Social Studies in the Elementary Classroom) students learned about Structured Academic Controversy (SAC)—a type of debate designed to improve participants’ critical thinking skills, discussion skills, and mastery of the topic. They learned that SAC is a way not only of hearing differing opinions in a democracy, but of coming to the best possible consensus when needed. The students also reviewed the Napster case and how it relates to First Amendment Rights.

On Constitution Day, the forum included three State College High School teachers and their 45-plus junior-level students as well as 23 SSED 430W students. In addition, doctoral candidate Ted Timmerman presented on the history of the U.S. Constitution and Constitution Day. Each student received a pocket-sized replica of the Constitution.

I sought to bring the Constitution to the students’ current life by asking, “So, where do you get your music?” “Limewire!” several of them shouted from the back. “Itunes,” some others said. I explained that like Limewire, NAPSTER operated as an online trading place for people who wanted to swap music with each other—which could be a breach of our Constitution’s statute of fair use.

The students deliberated their imposed “pro-con” side of the Napster decision. My students served as group leaders in the debate.

After the debate, a leader from each group presented the consensus of his or her group. Matt Jackson, associate professor of communications, then spoke to the forum about our legal rights and responsibilities regarding downloading music and artistic materials from the Internet. By this time, the students were full of questions, wondering whether their everyday music downloading/sharing practices are illegal or not.

Afterwards, in blogs, my students reflected on what they learned from this experience:

“I learned that the Constitution is a lot more relevant to people's everyday life then we give it credit for. Before starting this project, I did not know that the Constitution even talked about copyright and "fair use" and I just assumed that it was up to national law. “
– SSED 430W student, PSU senior

“I think the SCHS learned how to have a discussion that involved reviewing the facts, talking about the points that they wanted to make, and listening to the other side's argument as well. I think they also learned more about the details of the fair use law which is something that is obviously a part of their lives.”
– SSED 430W student, PSU senior

“I learned that the more we as citizens understand our Constitution, the more empowered we are. As Ted Timmerman explained the background of the documents ratification, I was impressed by how the men who wrote it, made a document that could still continue to affect citizens in the 21st century. I realized that I myself, still have a lot to learn about civics. And that by actively seeking to learn about this country more, I can become a better teacher and citizen. I learned that high school students are articulate, thoughtful, and eager to learn when they are interested in a topic. I was impressed by many of their thoughts in the sharing today.”
– SSED 430W student, PSU senior