I start out each year in my 8th grade American History class with a unit on the U.S. Constitution. Theoretically, this is my driest material of the entire year. I'm pretty sure nobody - students OR teacher get up in the morning and say, "Whoopie! We're looking at the JUDICIAL Branch today!!"

By the time we get to the Bill of Rights, however, the tone in the classroom tends to shift a bit. Things get a little more personal and relevant when we're talking about what a student's rights are, what the cops are and are not allowed to do and how do you successfully balance conflicting rights.

So it was really timely that the day after one of my classes and I discussed the First Amendment, I caught this radio story on NPR.

Seriously, click here to hear it. 

Unless you struggle with high blood pressure, in which case, click here for something more relaxing.

The gist of the story is this. Members of a small, family-run church travel around the country, trying to spread their message that the United States is being punished for its collective acceptance of sinful behavior. One of the places they protest is at the funerals of soldiers and marines killed in the line of duty. They are as provocative and offensive as possible, which is very.

Hugely, monstrously offensive.

But not violently or illegally offensive.

So, the question is, do they have a right to be - pardon the expression - total douche-canoes, when it causes such discomfort and grief to military families in their greatest time of suffering?

Our 8th graders are in in the middle of standardized testing this week, so I had a little bit of flexible time Wednesday morning while I was proctoring their exam. I downloaded the NPR story and threw together a quick PowerPoint with pictures of the protestors. (Perhaps the saddest thing about this whole situation is that I found pictures of the protesters by doing a web search of a dead marine's name.)

When I met with my American History class later in the day, I played the PowerPoint for them. There was, to put it mildly, a spirited and passionate classroom discussion afterwards. I was pleased.

But not as pleased as I was in class yesterday, when I found out that there had been a very, VERY spirited online discussion that evening that apparently involved most of the members of the class, many of their friends and even a few active-duty servicemen who are relatives of one of my students.

And - at the risk of being self-serving here - I can't help thinking: how can you assess learning like this by filling in little circles on a scantron sheet?