Yes, the U.S. Constitution is an important and influential document. But, as a topic, the constitution can be a little dry for students.
Here’s how I made this topic a little more interactive and engaging for students:
Step 1: The Importance of Rules
The constitution is, basically, like a set a rules for the government of the United States. To introduce this idea to my students, we begin by looking at rules for common games.
- Students are organized into pairs
- Each team chooses a simple game (Uno, tag, Jenga, badminton, four square, etc.).
- The pairs must then prepare a list of the rules for that game.
- Then, when completed, the pairs share their rules with another group. The groups must review each other’s rules and highlight any mistakes, omissions, or areas of confusion.
- Once completed, the class shares any funny or noteworthy rule issues.
- Then, as a class, we come up with some kind of list of what an effective set of rules must have. Some of the items that come up include clarity, accuracy/precision, any equipment needed, roles of the participants, and some agreement between the parties about the rules.
A colleague developed a variation of the above activity whereby instead of allowing the students to choose their own game, every student had to develop rules for one game that the teacher chose. This allowed for a real apples-to-apples comparison later. The original version, though, did provide participants with more input, so engagement was a little higher. Your choice!
Step 2: The Actual Constitution
Prior to the class, I would take the text of the constitution and copy it into a Google or MS Word document. I would split up the text such that there were relatively even amounts of text on each page and that the number of pages reflected the number of students in the class. I also took care to make any page breaks where the major breaks in the original document occur – for instance, where articles or amendments begin and end. Remember to number each page – this will be helpful when you ask groups to report their findings later!
Here’s the steps that would occur the day of the activity:
- I would ask students to break into pairs.
- Each pair would be presented with a page from the constitution.
- Students would be instructed to read their page and create a very basic and brief summary of the contents.
- Remind students to think broadly – to not dwell on every single word, but rather to come up with a general overview.
- Once the overview is generated, challenge students to find any noteworthy individual items in their text. For instance, a group I worked with recently had a page containing a number of amendments. We took a look at some of them and this group (made up of female students) were surprised to see that one of the amendments listed concerned voting rights for women. They were really blown away by the date this right was ratified compared to the date in which the constitution was first written.
Generally, the constitution was not the first primary source document that my students encountered in my class. It is huge and legalistic! I endeavor to let them explore many smaller documents just to get used to the old timey language. For instance, we looked at the Proclamation of 1763, excerpts from Common Sense, and the Declaration of Independence. You might even want to go through the text and make small edits to simplify the content. Just a suggestion!
Step 3- Putting It All Together
This is where students take what they found in the original text of the constitution and compile it together. Here’s what I did:
- Starting with the group that had page 1 (this is when you appreciate numbering the pages!) ask each group to present their general overview.
- Begin summarizing the student overviews on the board.
- Include any noteworthy elements the students noticed. If they didn’t find any, feel free to highlight them. Students are generally interested in elements such as the basic criteria for becoming president, the second amendment, the end of slavery, and the ratification/repeal of prohibition.
- By the end of this exercise, students will have a general summary of the entire constitution and an understanding of the structure.
Discussion opportunities: What is the significance of the rules governing congress coming before the rules of the executive branch? Does the order of the articles reflect the importance/hierarchy of the branches? Why did slavery end before women received the right to vote?
These activities would be followed later by a look at Rock/Paper/Scissors to highlight the way the three branches of the U.S. Government work together. Here, students would explore the details about the legislative, judicial, and executive branches outlined in the constitution.
In the meantime, I hope the above sparks some interest in an otherwise dry topic.