Not your normal civics class: Shrine students debate Constitution

Shrine's zero-hour Constitutional Studies class, a college-style lecture course taught by Mike DeBruyn, is the result of a special grant program offered by the Center for Constitutional Studies. Photo by Mike Debruyn

Shrine’s zero-hour Constitutional Studies class, a college-style lecture course taught by Mike DeBruyn, is the result of a special grant program offered by the Center for Constitutional Studies.
Photo by Mike Debruyn

Royal Oak — What does it take to get teenagers to voluntarily roll out of bed at six in the morning, get dressed and shuffle off the school?

For many students, the idea of waking up early for a mandatory class seems like an unbearable struggle — so what amazing benefit awaits those who willingly sign up for this madness?

Turns out, it’s a Constitutional Studies class.

For four years now, Royal Oak Shrine High School teacher Mike DeBruyn has been teaching Constitutional Studies, a zero-hour lecture course on the origins of the U.S. Constitution during the fall semester.

“We’ve been doing this class for four years, and the students get a much more detailed appreciation of the content of the Constitution,” DeBruyn said. “When I was in high school, you take a peep at the Constitution, and you never look at it again. Here, they’re forced to immerse themselves in the content of the Constitution, they learn a lot about what’s in the document and why it’s in there.”

The students earn half a history credit toward their graduation requirement, but aren’t allowed to have a free period to make up for the zero-hour class — meaning students are voluntarily taking on an extra class to gain a better grasp on the document that’s held the country together for 228 years.

The class offers a more in-depth look at the Constitution than the average high school civics course, DeBruyn said, giving students their first taste of a college-style lecture course.

For juniors who take the course — the class is available to sophomores, juniors and seniors — the top six students are eligible for scholarships toward the next semester at Shrine.

Students are assigned readings by DeBruyn, but grades are primarily determined by the three exams during the semester, putting pressure on students to keep up with the readings, even though they aren’t being monitored week-to-week.

The top student earns a $5,000 scholarship, and the next five top students earn $1,000 scholarships. The program is a result of a special grant offered by the Center for Constitutional Studies, established by Shrine alumni to allow Shrine students to experience the unique, college-like learning opportunity.

“Since the course is focused on the Constitution, we approach it like a college-type course,” DeBruyn said. “Shrine starts school at 8 a.m., so we meet at 7 a.m. for 45-minutes classes, twice a week for 12 weeks.”

The course is divided into three parts. The first part looks at the Magna Carta, the English constitution that was a basis for the American constitution. Then, students read about American revolutionary principles, including primary-source documents and The Federalist Papers, outlining the need for the Constitution.

The last part of the course discusses how the Constitution has been interpreted throughout American history, including discussion and debates on current “hot button” issues such as gun control, search and seizure of property, abortion and the use of executive power.

“The students really get into the heart of the issues we still deal with today,” DeBruyn said. “Should we change the Constitution via the formal amendment process or through judicial activism? How do we balance the conflict between state and federal rights? How do we interpret the elastic clause, which says Congress can make any law to enact their powers?

“What about things that weren’t specified in the Constitution? Something as simple as the U.S. Air Force; the Constitution says Congress can establish an Army and a Navy, but said nothing about an Air Force. So is that implied, and if so, what else is implied?”

The classes are small, roughly 13 to 18 students, allowing students to engage in debate and cite primary sources to support their arguments.

DeBruyn said the primary reason students take the course is because they are starting to take an interest in the world around them and the issues on which they will be voting in the near future.

“They really appreciate how complicated our modern life really is,” DeBruyn said. “These students are coming up on 18; they’re starting to become voters. So they look at things we talk about today: courts, civil rights, protections and oversight, and realize these are the same things the writers of the Constitution were debating back in the 1780s.”