Studying the Constitution with Primary Sources
This lesson presents three activities to introduce students to the Constitution of the United States: mapping its text, studying the Preamble, and matching primary sources to clauses in the Constitution.
This lesson enables students to understand the plan for the structure and powers of government embodied in the Constitution. The lesson’s three activities reveal the meaning and importance of the Constitution in a student-friendly way.
What design for government is embodied in the Constitution of the United States?
- Election of House Speaker Tip O’Neill, January 15, 1979; NAID 1150939
- Resolution of Impeachment of President Andrew Johnson, February 21, 1868; NAID 2127356
- President Ronald Reagan's First State of the Union Address, January 26, 1982; NAID 595071
- Attempted Override of Senate Act 518, 1973; NAID 2127368
- Drawing of the Incandescent Lightbulb by Thomas Edison, January 27, 1880; NAID 17370155
- Nomination of Sandra Day O'Connor, August 19, 1981; NAID 595429
- Judgment in the Supreme Court Decision for Brown et al. v. Board of Education of Topeka et al., May 31, 1955; NAID 596300
- President Franklin D. Roosevelt's Day of Infamy Address, December 8, 1941; NAID 595426
Recommended Grade Levels:
7 – 12
Civics, US Government, US History
Topics Included in this Lesson:
limited government, republicanism, checks and balances, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, veto power, impeachment, nomination
One 45 minute class period per Activity
limited government, republicanism, checks and balances, separation of powers, popular sovereignty, veto
Activity 1: Mapping the Text of the Constitution
Make eight 8 ½ x 11” copies of Worksheet 1. Make one large copy of Worksheet 1 to display the class results. Organize the students in eight small groups — a group for the Preamble and each of the seven Articles. Instruct each group to complete Worksheet 1, Mapping the Constitution, to determine the number of words contained in their assigned part of the Constitution; the percentage of the whole document that their assigned part represents; and the main subject, structure, and power featured in their assigned part. Use this digital copy of the text and the word count feature available in most word processing programs to find the total of words in each assigned part. Use a calculator to determine the percentage of the whole each part represents. Refer to the text for the main topic of each part.
As a class, map the Constitution by instructing each group to contribute the percentage they calculated for their assigned part from their copy of Worksheet 1 to the enlarged class copy of the worksheet. Instruct each group to map its finding in sequence working from the Preamble to Article 7. Use a different color for the Preamble and each of the Articles, and fill in the appropriate number of squares to represent the percentage of the whole Constitution that each assigned part represents. Each square represents 1% of the Constitution. (Round up or down as necessary.)
Hold a class discussion to analyze the map and address the following questions: Which topics received the most attention in the Constitution? Does the map suggest hypotheses about the relative importance to the Founders of the branches and powers of the new government? To what extent do the order of the branches and their comparative size on the map match how the students understand the federal government today?
Activity 2: Studying the Preamble
Instruct the students to work in the small groups set up in Activity 1 to study the goals expressed in the Preamble to the Constitution using Worksheet 2. Assign each group to address one phrase and prepare to share their findings with the whole class. After all the groups have shared, hold a class discussion in which the students consider how the federal government acts today to achieve these goals, and how those actions impact citizens.
Activity 3: Exploring the Constitution through Primary Sources
Instruct the students to work in the small groups set up in Activity 1 to analyze one of the primary source documents by completing Worksheet 3. Have each of the groups share its findings with the class and enter them on a class copy of Worksheet 4. When the class finishes sharing their results and compiling Worksheet 4, have the students check their work against the Answer Key. Note: A document can be associated with more than one clause of the Constitution. The determination of the best match should be based on the strength of the evidence a group of students cites to support the match they make.
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