Lesson 1: The Constitution in Today's America
This lesson will teach students about the development and role of the Constitution of the United States. Students will learn about the relationship between the Constitution and a democratic government. In the activities and lesson extensions, they will explore decisions made in the Constitution, including the creation of government institutions, and the purpose of the amendment process. Students also will write an essay in which they analyze how the Constitution helped to fulfill the promise of the United States.
It is essential that students attain the ability to understand both individual and group perspectives in order to analyze the historic issues as well as their context in contemporary life. Students will learn that participation in government embraces the idea that an individual can engage in his or her community and with his or her nation in order to serve the common good. Students will learn the fundamental values of American democracy and the role the Constitution played in its formation and stability.
Write the question below on the board. Explain that the lesson activities are geared to help students explore and then respond to this question later during the Lesson Wrap-up.
Skills Supporting Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and History/Social Studies:
- Identify key ideas and inferences along with text support
- Determine the central idea
- Provide a summary
- Analyze examples
- Determine meaning of words
- Trace and evaluate arguments
- Comprehend complex nonfiction texts
- Write conclusions to support arguments
- Participate in group discussions
- Pose and respond to questions
- Review ideas from more than one perspective
45 minutes for main activities; 15 minutes for Lesson Extension 1; 15 minutes for Lesson Extension 2; 10 minutes for Lesson Extension 3
- U.S. Constitution Fact Sheet Reproducible
- U.S. Constitution Fact Sheet 2 Reproducible
- The Constitution Comes to Life Reproducible
- Voting Timeline Reproducible
- Internet access
- copy of the U.S. Constitution: www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.html or www.constitution.org/constit_.htm
- copy of the Bill of Rights: www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html
- copy of the Articles of Confederation: teachingamericanhistory.org/library/document/articles-of-confederation/
Activity Directions (Part 1):
• Make sure students have the text of the Constitution, in print or through online access (see Materials for document links). Introduce the Constitution and explain that a preamble is an introduction, and then have students read the one-sentence preamble silently. Afterward, have a volunteer read aloud the preamble. Review its key words and phrases, and the meaning of each. Ask students why the Constitution starts with this one-sentence introduction. Using this primary source text from the Constitution, help students understand that the United States government establishes order, promotes the common good, and protects the rights of the individual.
• Continue an introductory discussion about the Constitution by pointing out that different governments can be organized in different ways and have different levels of power over the individual. Engage students in analyzing the fundamentals of American democracy as outlined in the Constitution by focusing on the role of due process protections for the individual and their impact on the level of power and authority within government. For example, explain the role of due process within the context of trial by jury, as follows:
• Complete this introduction by distributing U.S. Constitution Fact Sheet, U.S. Constitution Fact Sheet 2, and Voting Timeline Reproducibles, all of which students will use during the lesson, either in the main or suggested Lesson Extension activities. Also make sure that students have a copy of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to turn to as resources throughout this lesson (see Materials for the document links). Let students know that the fact sheets are reminder tip sheets to be used alongside the Constitution’s actual text.
• Explain the key events in the nation’s history prior to 1787. Point out that in 1781, a document called the Articles of Confederation guided the country. The articles provided the states with a lot of power, but left the central government with very little. As outlined in the Articles of Confederation, the central government could not collect taxes and did not wield enough power to make the states work together as a union. Thus, in 1787, a Constitutional Convention was called to create a new governing document. The result was a document that addresses specific needs, creates government institutions, and provides protection for its citizens. Have students review U.S. Constitution Fact Sheet 2 about this process of argument and compromise.
• Lesson Extension Alert: To engage students further in a paired activity that compares text in the Articles of Confederation with text in the Constitution, see Lesson Extension 1.
• Next, have students experience the task at hand and ask that they assume the role of “delegate.” Working in pairs, have students keep in mind what they learned from the U.S. Constitution Fact Sheet 2 Reproducible and ask them to speculate about the difficulties they think the delegates might have faced. Ask partners to identify what topics they think the delegates may have argued about in terms of the ideas set forth in each of these documents. For each difficulty, ask partners also to cite ways in which the Constitution addresses the issue, using their lesson resources, including the primary source texts to support their arguments.
On the board, create a two-column chart with a left column that notes “difficulties” and a right column that notes an aspect of the Constitution that provides a “solution” or “solutions” to the issue. Write an example on the board, as shown below. Reconvene the class and ask each pair to share the examples they discovered. Have partners add new examples to those already written on the chart on the board:
Solution: the legislative branch of government, which has representation from each state
• Students can look at the U.S. Constitution Fact Sheet to learn a few interesting facts about the delegates and the creation of this document.
• Lesson Extension Alert: To engage students in a group activity about the process of ratifying elements within the Constitution, see Lesson Extension 2.
Activity Directions (Part 2):
• Tell students the delegates also worked to solve the problem of how the government should be organized so that it served the needs of the country. To learn how the delegates worked this out, have students briefly review the first three articles and sections in order to identify the branch of government provided for in each. Allow volunteers to name the branch connected with each article (Article I, legislative; Article II, executive; Article III, judicial).
• Point out to the class that, in addition to the branches of government, the Constitution created some organizations directly within the document (such as the Supreme Court), while it empowered Congress to create other organizations (such as the U.S. Mint: see Article I, Section 8). www.law.cornell.edu/constitution/articlei
Open a brief discussion by asking students the following question:
• Next, distribute to the class The Constitution Comes to Life Reproducible. Tell students that, in this activity, they are going to explore further how the Constitution created—and continues to create—vital government organizations. Instruct students to use a copy of the Constitution to fill in Part I of the reproducible. Students should fill in the chart on their own and then review their responses with partners from the previous activity. For questions or disagreements, visit with student pairs and help them refer to the text of the Constitution to clarify the status of each institution.
• To conclude this lesson, point out that the framers of the Constitution also worked out a clear process for amending the Constitution. As a living document, they knew that the Constitution would need to grow and change through amendments that would meet the times and the needs of society. (Later, in Lesson 5, students will explore and experience the amendment process in full.)
• Lesson Extension Alert: To further discuss the process delegates created for amending the Constitution (using Constitution Fact Sheet 2 ) and historical events and amendments related to voting rights (using the Voting Timeline Reproducible), see Lesson Extension 3.
Wrap-up With the Essential Question
Return to the Essential Question that was written on the board at the beginning of the lesson.
Open a discussion in which students respond to this question, based on their class experience. Encourage students to support their responses with text and details from the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.
Ask students to read the instructions for Part II of The Constitution Comes to Life Reproducible. They will write a one-page essay that responds to a remark Chief Justice Warren Burger made on the 200th birthday of the Constitution and speculates about a possible course for the United States had the Constitution not been ratified or had certain government institutions not been created. When the assignment is due, ask for volunteers to read their essays aloud to the class.
(1) Have students work with partners to compare specific texts from the Articles to specific texts in the Constitution. Have one student select and read aloud a short section from the Articles; that student’s partner should look for a related section in the Constitution. Partners should discuss the paired texts in terms of shared themes, meaning, difference, influence, and impact. Reconvene the class and ask student pairs to identify sections from the documents they discussed along with the comparisons and contrasts they discovered.
(2) Break the students up into small groups. Give each group the task of ratifying a specific provision of the Constitution. Have group members formulate their arguments and elect one student to represent the group with a short oral presentation as to why that provision should be ratified. Afterward, take a class vote and discuss whether the argument was persuasive.
(3) Continue with a discussion of the amendment process, covered in some tips on the Constitution Fact Sheet 2 Reproducible. Open a discussion by asking the following questions:
Why is this kind of flexibility important to a new country?
Then have students look at the Voting Timeline Reproducible. It identifies several times during the course of history when thinking about who can vote changed—with several of those changes resulting in amendments to the Constitution. Ask volunteers to identify when those changes occurred and what caused them. Point out how long it has been since a voting change has occurred (1971). Then ask students the following question: