Lesson 5: What Makes an Amendment?
Students will learn about the process of amending the Constitution. They will review the details of the amendment process and discuss its pros and cons. In class activities, assignments, and the Lesson Extensions, student partners and groups will create persuasive presentations that they will share with the class to gain support for an amendment.
Students will also learn about the political process and how it relates to the powers of the government, in that civic participation is necessary in a democratic society and strengthens a constitutional government. Students will develop the ability to make reasoned and informed decisions about their own personal freedoms in balance with the stability of the common good, understand the influence of the past and its historical significance, and grasp the issues of the present.
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
- Trace and evaluate arguments
- Participate in group discussions
- Follow rules for discussions, set goals and deadlines, and define role
- Pose and respond to questions
- Review ideas from more than one perspective
- Distinguish claims through reason and evidence
- Present claims and findings
- Adapt speech to fit the context of a task
45 minutes for the main activities; 15 minutes for Lesson Extension 1; 30 minutes for preparation of Lesson Extension 2 (in-class or out-of-class assignment) and 15 minutes for oral class presentation
- Amazing Amendments Reproducible
- Internet access
- copy of the U.S. Constitution: archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution.html
- copy of the Bill of Rights: archives.gov/exhibits/charters/bill_of_rights_transcript.html
- copy of the Constitutional Amendment Process: www.archives.gov/federal-register/constitution
Activity Directions (Part 1):
• Remind students that Article V of the Constitution allows for the document to be amended. Provide the text in print or online (see Materials for document link) for students to use as reference. Write the word “amendment” on the board and ask students to define it. Guide discussion toward the definition as “a change or addition to a constitution.” Help students understand that as a living document, the Constitution may change just as people change over time. (If your classroom has online access, take a few moments to show students the website for the constitutional amendment process; see Materials for the document link.) Open a brief discussion on this concept by asking the following question:
• Then distribute the Amazing Amendments Reproducible. Direct students to the chart at the top of the handout. Point out that Article V explains the two ways to make amendments to the Constitution. Read Article V aloud and then walk the class through the steps presented in the chart, as supported by the text in Article V, as follows:
- The first way is through Congress. Two-thirds of Congress (made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate) can propose, or ask for, an amendment.
- The second way is through the states. Two-thirds of the state legislatures can call for an official meeting to propose an amendment.
- When the meeting is called, the amendment is then presented.
- Once an amendment receives the required number of votes in Congress or from the states, it must then be ratified (approved) by three-fourths of all state legislatures or three-fourths of special state conventions. That means that 38 states would have to accept the amendment once it is proposed in order for it to be added to the Constitution.
- The legislative branch (Congress)
- 50 states x three-fourths majority = 38 states needed
- Get two-thirds of all state legislatures to ask for a meeting to propose the amendment, call a special convention and propose the amendment, and get three-fourths of all state legislatures or special state conventions to ratify the amendment.
• Conclude this part of the lesson with an open discussion based on one or more of the following questions:
Does it seem fair?
How does it create checks and balances within the government’s legislative process?
Activity Directions (Part 2):
• Divide students into two groups, Group A and Group B. Have Group A discuss how they would resolve a point of disagreement or a contentious issue. Ask them to consider how they would approach this issue. Would they present evidence? How would they argue their point of view? Before the groups begin their discussions, explain that taking the best approach to resolving differences and supporting a belief is just what legislators do when they propose amendments and work on a strategy to support their proposals.
• Have students in Group B write the words “persuasion,” “compromise,” “consensus building,” and “negotiation” on large pieces of paper that look similar to Olympic scorecards. Have Group B listen to and observe Group A’s discussion. As Group B listens and observes Group A, have members of Group B hold up the appropriate sign identifying or best representing the process they observe within Group A’s discussion as it progresses.
• After 10 to 15 minutes, have the groups switch places. Ask students to discuss this experience and what they learned about building consensus within a group. In particular, have them address the following questions:
When was it important to speak, and when was it important to listen?
• Lesson Extension Alert: To have student pairs further explore the ideas that have been proposed as amendments to the Constitution, see Lesson Extension 2.
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.
• To demonstrate the complex, difficult amendment process, have students work in groups to get their own amendments ratified. Explain to students that they will be working in groups of three to develop their own amendments, which the class will vote on. You may allow class time for group meetings; during those meetings, groups can assign members tasks that may be completed out of class. Have every group member participate and divide up the work to be completed at home.
• Tell students that as they develop their amendments they should answer the following questions that you write on the board. Students should copy them onto the backs of their completed Amazing Amendments Reproducibles:
What secondary source material or evidence can you supply that demonstrates its necessity or importance?
Who will support the amendment? Why?
How will the amendment be relevant in the future? Will it be able to last 200 or more years like the Bill of Rights?
What has changed about the United States since the original Constitution was written that makes this amendment relevant?
• Encourage students to develop creative proposals to gain support for their amendments. They can create posters, slogans, songs, etc. to support their amendments, as long as the amendment is beneficial to the United States and its people. You can add some time to the due date for this assignment to give students ample time to develop their amendments and campaign in their support.
• During the class period when the assignment is due, have each group present its amendment to the class. Encourage students to ask the group questions about their amendments. Instruct students to write down their thoughts about each amendment as it is presented. Once all groups have made their presentations, hand out a ballot with each amendment listed. Have students vote on the amendments and turn in their ballots without showing anyone else.
• Have students add up the number of voters and determine how many votes will be needed to constitute a three-fourths majority. Inform students that they will need that many votes in order to get their amendments ratified. Now tally the votes and see which amendments passed!
• End the in-class portion of this assignment by asking students if their opinions about amending the Constitution have changed now that they have tried the process themselves.
(1) To appreciate the historical context of the amendment process, share the following material with the class:
James Madison, the fourth president of the United States, was also called “the father of the Constitution.” In 1789, while a leader in the House of Representatives, he wrote the first draft of the Bill of Rights, including the Sixth and Seventh Amendments.
His draft included a total of 12 amendments, not just the 10 we know as the Bill of Rights. Madison proposed these amendments to Congress in June 1789. A few months later, the House of Representatives and the Senate both voted in favor of the amendments.
On September 25, 1789, the amendments were proposed to the states. There were 13 states in the United States at that time. Ten of the 12 amendments, including the Sixth and Seventh, were ratified by most of the states.
In November 1789, New Jersey became the first state to ratify the Bill of Rights. Other states soon followed and, in 1791, 11 out of the 14 states (up from 13 states, with Vermont entering the Union by 1791), or 79 percent, had ratified 10 of the 12 amendments.
The Bill of Rights was then added to the Constitution. One of the two Bill of Rights amendments that was not ratified at the time eventually became the Twenty-Seventh Amendment. This amendment of 1789 limited when members of Congress could change their salaries. Like the Sixth and Seventh Amendments, it was proposed to the states in 1789, but it was not ratified until 1992, more than 200 years later!
By 1791, six states had approved the amendment, far less than the 11 needed for ratification. By the time it was ratified, over 74,000 days had passed since it was proposed, and 36 states had been added to the country. In comparison, the Twenty-Sixth Amendment, lowering the voting age to 18, took only 100 days to ratify.
• Explain to students that thousands of amendments have been proposed since the Constitution was written, but only 27 have been ratified by the states. Conclude this presentation by asking students whether they think it is good or bad that amendments are so difficult to ratify. Lead a discussion about the pros and cons of the amendment process. Ask students if they think the process should be changed. Encourage students to share their ideas with the class.
(2) Have students work with partners to research in the library or online an amendment that was proposed to the states but never ratified. Remind students to note the source or sources from where they received their information and to cite the sources on notes that include information they learned from them. Direct student partners to develop a brief oral presentation that describes what the amendment was, when it was proposed, and why it failed. As part of the oral presentation, ask one partner to develop and present a persuasive oral argument in favor of the amendment, and the other partner to develop and present a persuasive oral argument opposed to it. These pro and con arguments may be presented to the class for further debate about whether the proposals would be a good amendment to add to the Constitution now.