ELL at EHS
In order to form a more perfect union, students at Edwardsville High School are seriously exercising their right to assemble with energy and determination.
And their minds are in pretty good shape in terms of understanding the relevance of the U.S. Constitution.
"Some of my friends say politics and the Constitution doesn't concern them, and I say, 'it's your life, it's your future,'" said Ashley Wright, member of EHS's ELL Club (Earn It, Learn It or Lose It), a Constitution study group.
Every other week around 20 students meet in English teacher Carol Wilkerson's classroom to learn the Constitution as interpreted by the U.S. Supreme Court.
Students -- freshmen through seniors -- come prepared to talk about court decisions. Whether or not they agree with jurists' interpretation, the students attempt to understand their thought processes. They talk about "what ifs" -- and the exchanges can get feisty when hot topics such as religion or abortion are discussed.
They talk about current events that relate to their discussions and are sometimes amazed at media spin, media shortcuts and lack of knowledge by TV talking heads.
"The media has a habit of not telling us the whole story," said one student.
By studying court decisions they come to understand the law. Some discussions are more thought provoking than others, but at some point, their mentor/moderator-Wilkerson-moves them on to the next decision.
"The kids' energy energizes me," Wilkerson said. "They have so many questions and are so interested in the concepts and cases we discuss."
A lawyer herself, Wilkerson practiced law in the Atlanta area for 20 years. When she and her husband moved to Edwardsville for his employment she went to SIUE to become certified to teach English. She has an undergraduate degree in English from Duke University and a law degree from the University of Georgia.
"I enjoyed practicing law but I absolutely love my second career," Wilkerson said.
"As a lawyer, I love the fact that they (ELL members) are learning about our Constitution through studying how the Supreme Court has actually interpreted it," she said. "As a teacher, I am excited about the critical thinking they are engaged in as they grapple with these advanced concepts."
Member Dorothy Stamer and others talked about how the club is a valuable bridge for them becoming informed adults.
"It's amazing," Stamer said. "It makes you want to learn as much as you can. You feel so good. I know more than some adults."
They say they're having a great time learning what the law says and they are determined to battle ignorance.
"If you don't understand what your rights are you won't know when they're taken away," said one student.
They recognize that an uninformed public can destroy a nation.
"If future generations are ignorant of the truth…how much longer are we going to be around," said one member.
"Countries have fallen out of ignorance," said another.
They understand the price of freedom.
"We fight for our freedom," said Andrea Stegeman. "Isn't it our job to keep, protect (the Constitution)? People have died for it."
They understand the price of ignorance.
"You can get in wars if you don't understand history," said another student.
The club at EHS is an offshoot of a movement founded about four years ago by Edwardsville attorney Tad Armstrong.
At present, there are five adult ELL clubs that meet regularly in Edwardsville, Glen Carbon, Granite City, Highland and Alton.
Armstrong has been frustrated at the general lack of interest by the public in understanding the rule of law.
"The shame is that too many of our fellow citizens are fundamentally ignorant of who we even claim to be as a nation and even more so about what our laws are and how the legal system works," he has said.
But Armstrong has done something about it in forming the ELL Constitution clubs. Earlier this month, after four years of study and 300 Court decision digested, the first class was graduated in a ceremony at St. John's United Methodist Church in Edwardsville.
"This was a truly remarkable major event for this area," Armstrong said.
The ceremony was well attended, including various members of the EHS ELL club who performed a skit.
Other legal heavy weights in attendance included Illinois Supreme Court Justice Lloyd Karmeier, Fifth District Appellate Court Justices Melissa Chapman and Thomas Welch, U.S. District Court Judge David Herndon and U.S. Magistrate Clifford Proud.
Membership to ELL is free and open to the public. To learn more about ELL, contact Armstrong at email@example.com.