Visitor from Outer Space
Authors: Lesson plan adapted from many sources by Jennifer Bloom, Learning Law and Democracy Foundation
Students are asked to evaluate and rank rights protected by the Bill of Rights in a hypothetical invasion by a visitor from outer space. Students complete the ranking individually and then work in small groups to come to consensus. Students apply prior knowledge about the meaning and importance of the rights and are inspired to learn more about these rights. Lesson can be used as an introductory or review activity.
Students deepen understanding of the meaning of the Bill of Rights
Students explore the importance of the rights in their personal lives
Students practice advocacy, discussion, and consensus building skills
Time Needed: One class period
- VISITOR FROM OUTER SPACE Student Handout
- Visitor from Outer Space Chart
- VISITOR FROM OUTER SPACE Signs
1. Organize students into groups of four or five. Have students read the opening paragraphs of the student handout and then briefly review with students the meaning of each listed right. Explain those that are unfamiliar. Check for understanding, making sure that students understand the Bill of Rights protects them from violations by government organizations and people acting on the government’s behalf. Private actors (companies, parents, individuals) are not regulated by the Bill of Rights but might be regulated by other laws.
2. Workings individually, ask students to rank the rights.
3. In small groups, ask students to compare their rankings. Have each group discuss the rights and select the five rights they wish to keep. Remind them that they have limited time and if they fail to choose, the Visitor from Outer Space will choose for them.
4. Have students select the five rights they want to preserve. (If time permits, have groups that have finished share their decisions with other groups and attempt to build consensus. It is impossible and not necessary for everyone to agree.)
5. Ask each group to share their selected rights, including the rankings. Use the chart to record results so that students can see results. Ask students to support their choices and ideas with reasoned arguments. Ask about the consequences of keeping or losing particular rights. Compare groups’ decisions and reasoning. Students may argue that some of the rights include others in an attempt to keep them all. (This is acceptable if they can make a good argument.) During the discussion you can ask students to reflect on what each right means today. Ask if the new rulers would have the same interpretation. For example, would the aliens understand the right to privacy in the same way we do?
6. Since all of the groups in the room will rarely agree, it can be constructive to have students talk to each other about their reasons. For example, why might two groups have voted to keep the right to bear arms and three give it up? Prompt students to state their reasons so that the other groups understand them.
7. Ask students how they would feel about aliens limiting their rights. Point out how the colonists felt just before the Revolutionary War when Great Britain tried to control them after years of “non – interference.” Discuss with students when it is important to “fight” for your rights. Be sure they consider both the potential costs and benefits.
8. Debrief students on the activity. ( A visiting lawyer can contribute to this lesson in several ways. He/she can lead a class discussion about the consequences that would result from having only the rights selected by the students. The lawyer could also react to the class decisions and express her or his choice of five rights. The lawyer can also help in interpreting the meaning of specific rights and comment on the list of responsibilities created by students.)
Rights explanations, often needing further discussion (from V.O.I.C.E., a publication of the Constitutional Rights Foundation Chicago):
Right to keep and bear arms – Many fifth graders choose not to keep this right. You may need to play devil’s advocate and/or explain some of the history behind this right. Ask students: Why might the founders have considered this an important right? What controversies exist today over the meaning of this right? Does this right make people more or less safe?
Right to protection from cruel and unusual punishment – Students often become confused over this right, thinking that it applies to punishment by their peers or parents. It is important to link this to due process, explaining that the accused must be proven guilty beyond a reasonable doubt in a criminal trial, then sentenced appropriately.
Right to freedom of press – Students may find the importance of this amendment difficult to understand. Help them to understand the alternative, in which the government controls the release and form of news. People would read only what the government wanted them to read. Alternatively, they may argue that this right is implicit in a right to free speech.
Right to a jury trial – Review the definition of a jury – a group of people who have sworn to be fair and have been questioned by both the prosecution and the defense who also believe they will be fair. Help them to understand alternatives to jury trials and the reasons why the founders might have been leery of trials by judges.
Right to freedom of religion – Students frequently keep this right. Remind them that it means the government should remain neutral – neither encouraging nor discouraging religion. Even though many people came to America for religious freedom, they weren’t always tolerant of other religions.
Right to peacefully assemble – This right is frequently dismissed. Like the right to freedom of the press, students may argue this right is included in the right to freedom of speech. As with all the others, historical context and consideration of alternatives may help students to understand why this right was included in the Bill of Rights. Remind them that if you can’t get together, you’d have to say whatever you want in private.
Protection from self-incrimination – Students are likely to need an explanation of the term self-incrimination; they may have a difficult time understanding why people should not be forced to admit to their wrongdoing. You may wish to have them imagine themselves being accused of a crime they did not commit and feeling forced to confess.
Adapted from Responsibilities and Rights in Schools, 1978, by Donald P. Vetter and Linda Ford of the Carroll County Public Schools, Westminster, MD 21157.