Legislative Branch

What Congress Does and Why it Matters


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The activity in this lesson centers on this diagram, which represents 20 characteristic actions performed by members of Congress and by the House and Senate as institutions.

Students learn the concepts of representation, separation of powers, and the constitutional role of Congress by assembling a visual model depicting 20 congressional actions, analyzing primary sources, and answering questions. These activities support a discussion about Congress's constitutional role.


Understanding Congress is essential to civic life. In this lesson, students assemble and discuss a visual model displaying a range of congressional actions, study the model to delineate what Congress does, and identify 20 types of congressional action reflected in primary sources. They conclude by discussing what Congress does and why it matters.

Guiding Question

What does Congress do, and why does it matter?


1 diagram, available in two sizes: large (46 by 36 inches) or small (8½ by 11 inches)

20 game pieces to be cut out, available in two sizes: large or small

20 document facsimiles

20 miniature document facsimiles to be cut out

4 worksheets

National Archives Document Analysis Worksheets

Answer key

Recommended Grade Levels

Grades 7-12


American History; U.S. Government; Civics

Topics included in this lesson

U.S. Congress, the powers of Congress, the U.S. Constitution, Article I, separation of powers, balance of branches, primary sources

Time Required

The time needed to complete each learning activity is presented in parentheses at each step. The activities can be done in sequence, or each can be done separately.

Lesson Overview

  • Students will study the diagram and use worksheets to answer questions about it.
  • They will then match 20 game pieces, each identifying a congressional action, to the appropriate places on the diagram.
  • They will use worksheets to analyze primary sources illustrating each of the 20 types of congressional action.
  • They will identify the congressional action each document facsimile best reflects and place miniature document facsimiles on the diagram accordingly.
  • They will conclude by answering reflection questions based on their work with the diagram.

Learning Activities

Note: Before beginning this lesson the teacher should

  • Print the diagram and worksheets
  • Print and cut out the game pieces and miniature document facsimiles
  • Print document facsimiles or direct students to use digital copies

1. Introducing the Lesson (15 minutes)

  • Place the diagram on a flat surface.
  • Divide the students into four groups.
  • Assign one student in each group to be the reporter, a second to take notes, and a third to write the group's responses on each worksheet.
  • Instruct each group to collaboratively fill out Worksheet 1 and prepare to report their responses to the rest of the class.
  • When each group has shared its responses, have the whole class briefly discuss the diagram and what it represents.

Note: The diagram can be projected for visibility and common reference, but having students work at a shared, printed version on a horizontal surface fosters collaborative discussion.

2. Identifying What Congress Does (20 minutes)

  • Distribute the 20 game pieces to randomly selected students.
  • Invite the students to collaborate as a whole class to identify the best match of each game piece to a location on the perimeter of the diagram.
  • Have the class collaborate until all the pieces have been located and the diagram is filled in.

Hint: The single letters printed on each game piece will spell out a three word phrase when all the game pieces have been correctly placed.

3. Analyzing What Congress Does (20 minutes)

  • Divide the students into the original four groups.
  • Assign one quadrant of the filled-in diagram to each of the groups.
  • Have each group use Worksheet 2 to analyze their assigned quadrant of the board, and prepare to report back their responses to the class.
  • Have each reporter share his or her group's results.

4. Studying Primary Sources to Reinforce Understanding (45 minutes)

Associating primary sources to actions (30 minutes)

  • Distribute one of the 20 document facsimiles (or assign documents to be studied in digital form) and the corresponding miniature document facsimiles to twenty students or pairs of students.
  • Have each student or pair use Worksheet 3 to analyze the assigned document. They may also use one of the National Archives Document Analysis Worksheets to help with the analysis (worksheet selection is based on document type).
  • Next have each student place the miniature version of his or her document on the game piece containing the action of Congress that it most closely matches. Students may overlap their documents with each other on the diagram. They will discuss their choices and make final placements in the next activity.
  • Have each student or group share their document and explain to the class his or her placement of it on the diagram.

Reviewing and discussing the placement of primary sources (15 minutes)

  • Organize the students into their original four groups.
  • Have each group study the document placements made by all members of the class and note any changes that might improve the matches of documents to game pieces.
  • Have each group share their suggestions with the class, and have the class as a whole reach agreement on the final placement of the documents.

Note: To complete this portion of the lesson in less time, assign only some of the documents. Check the placement of the game pieces and miniature document facsimiles against the answer key.

5. Reflection (20 minutes)

  • Organize the students into the original four groups.
  • Have each group answer the questions on Worksheet 4.
  • Have each group's reporter share their results with the class.
  • After the groups have shared their answers, have the class as a whole discuss the lesson's guiding question.

Additional Resources

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