Tips on Teaching the Citizenship in the Nation Merit Badge

Did you hear that Congress passed the Free Ice Cream on Fridays bill? Unfortunately, the president vetoed it because he’s lactose intolerant.

OK, that didn’t really happen — except during a Citizenship in the Nation workshop offered at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. To illustrate how the three branches of government interact, counselors there often bring three Scouts up on stage for a three-way tug-of-war that illustrates the push and pull of constitutional checks and balances.

But first, they tell Scouts a story from U.S. history in which the three branches really did struggle over an important issue, such as the enforcement of the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s.

“We always start with historic examples through storytelling,” says Jenna Kehres, the center’s senior manager of programs.

Then it’s on to the silliness.

“I like the fun ones, because then you can get the kids to actually think about the constitutionality of certain issues,” says Brian Krisch, senior museum educator. And when the Scout representing the Supreme Court strikes down a popular measure — say, a law banning mandatory school attendance — you get to explain the concept of lifetime appointments.

So what have Kehres and Krisch learned about teaching Citizenship in the Nation? Here are three key lessons.

Photo by Roger Morgan

Dig a Little Deeper

Many Scouts come to this badge with a decent base of knowledge from classes in school. Krisch recommends counselors get a sense of what Scouts know, and then go just a little deeper.

“I always feel like we’ve done the right amount if they’re not glazing over and if some of the chaperones are learning something new,” he says.

It’s also nice if the counselors learn something new. One year, when Krisch was talking about the Sedition Act of 1798, a Scout pointed out that the act didn’t mention the vice president.

“It never occurred to me that it didn’t punish people for badmouthing the vice president,” he says.

Talk Government, not Politics

In our highly partisan age, it can be easy to get sidetracked with political arguments. When that happens, Kehres points out that the badge focuses on what government cando, not what people think it shoulddo. She likes to highlight that distinction while teaching Scouts how to engage in respectful dialogue.

“By giving them those two tools — the knowledge of the Constitution and the ability to have a civil conversation around issues — we are prepping them to go out into the world and have their political conversations,” she says.

Photo by W. Garth Dowling

Use Your Resources

Both Kehres and Krisch recommend calling on local experts to help make the badge come to life. When their program shifted to a virtual model this spring due to COVID-19, they recruited a park ranger from Independence Hall to talk with the participants. He did a Zoom call from right beside the Liberty Bell and even put his iPhone near the crack in the bell to give Scouts an up-close look.

Who knows? Perhaps one of those Scouts will be so inspired by the experience that she’ll become president someday. Let’s just hope she’s not lactose intolerant.

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