KC welcomes big screen Civics lesson

Posted on Wed, Nov. 06, 2013 on www.kansascity.com

The Kansas City Star

The long-beleaguered state of American civics education is attempting a comeback with the surround-sound force of a five-stories-tall movie screen.

Hear this: We the people of the United States — especially the young generation — must be the stewards of a bold but imperfect democracy born in a brash act of treason.

It seems so audacious now, say moviemakers Aimee Larrabee and John Altman, to think they could boil the essential question of who we are as Americans into a 40-minute, giant-screen historical drama.

But constitutional scholars and schoolteachers frightened by the collective erosion in America’s democracy IQ joined in their mission.

And protectors of the rights and freedoms of all people are cheering them on.

Their movie, “We the People,” more than 10 years in the making, premieres in Kansas City beginning today with a three-week run on Union Station’s Extreme Screen.

The nonprofit organization Remnant Trust is displaying collections of historic publications alongside the showings, including early printings of the Constitution; Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense”; the 1789 journal of the U.S. Senate publishing the Bill of Rights; and works by Thomas Hobbes, Frederick Douglass and many more.

The movie aims to be just a launching point, connecting classroom teachers and students to free civics and history lesson plans linked online to images from the film that spark students’ fascination.

In the past, Larrabee had made short celebratory films for Kansas City and Detroit in IMAX large-screen format, along with numerous other projects. She worked with Altman, a first cousin of the late director Robert Altman, on a PBS documentary, “The Last Stand of the Tallgrass Prairie.”

When they saw audiences in those cities “put their disagreements at the door and see themselves on the giant screen,” Larrabee said, they wondered, “What if we could do this for the whole country?”

They used Smithsonian contacts to assemble a team of 14 constitutional scholars from around the country, and Larrabee and Altman spent two days listening as the scholars haggled over the essential elements of a script.

“We wanted it to be accurate,” Larrabee said. “We wanted it to be inspiring, engaging and nonpartisan. … We wanted to celebrate the essence of who we are.”

They were also wandering into a larger mission.

Statistics and surveys of Americans’ civic awareness are increasingly alarming.

Only one in three Americans can name all three branches of government, according to surveys by the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics at the University of Pennsylvania in the past decade. And one in three couldn’t name any.

More than a third thought each branch was intended to have significant power, but that the president has the final say.

Nearly a third thought a U.S. Supreme Court ruling could be appealed.

Schools are having trouble breaking the fall. Teachers in the high-accountability era of No Child Left Behind have been under pressure to drill students in reading and math, with less urgency to teach civics and history.

Both Missouri and Kansas, under budget pressures, at times in the past decade stopped testing students in history or social studies.

They both have limited amounts of testing now and are two of just 21 states that tested social studies in 2012, down from 34 in 2001.

Even the National Assessment of Educational Progress’ Nation’s Report Card exams, because of a budget shortfall, have cut back all tests in U.S. history, civics and geography in 2014 except for samples of students in the eighth grade.

The condition of civics education “is dreadful,” said Ted McConnell of the Campaign for the Civic Mission of Schools.

“We are failing to impart the necessary civic knowledge and civic skills we all need to be informed citizens.”

What people do see of their government — the polarized stalemates of Capitol Hill playing in the media — breed distrust and disenfranchisement, he said.

What if “We the People” could reach into classrooms?

The notion first rose with Larrabee in casual conversation a decade ago with her daughter’s social studies teacher, Deb Brown, at Indian Hills Middle School in Shawnee Mission.

The movie sets up a tantalizing menu for lessons.

It begins by trying to get beyond “the men in the powdered wigs” and enliven the great ideological conflicts and the ultimate act of treason Colonial delegates engaged in to break from British rule.

The drama follows the political struggle toward the Founding Fathers’ guiding light — the radical idea of establishing a nation formed under its Constitution that puts all power and responsibility in “We the people.”

It then frames the burgeoning nation’s hard path through the following centuries with the question: “Who are we?” Slavery, the removal of American Indians, the flood of immigration, equality for women and civil rights all tested the nation’s collective conscience.

Democracy is hard, and its practice inherently imperfect. But this is who we are, and it is inspiring in the end, said Brown, now the director of social studies curriculum for Shawnee Mission and part of the team that is creating the “We the People” online lessons.

The work always comes back to the big question, Brown said. “What part of the ‘We’ are you?”

Democracy needs informed, critical thinkers to carry on, said Millie Aulbur, director of citizenship education for the Missouri Bar.

The “We the People” project joins other major efforts in civic education that Aulbur believes are helping turn the tide toward a more informed citizenry.

The new Common Core State Standards coming into practice in most states include more blending of history and literature in classrooms. The return of state exams is also encouraging, Aulbur said. The education world is raising the premium on interactive, real-world, team projects to build creative and collaborative thinking skills.

That’s how we the people created the Constitution, says the movie, and that’s how we will preserve it.

“We the People”

The film will be showing for three weeks at Union Station. Today’s premiere is sold out, but tickets are available for later shows. Go to UnionStation.org or call 816-460-2020 for ticketing information. Learn more about the project at WeThePeopleMovie.com.


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