Making Civics Real: A Workshop for Teachers
Constitutional Convention Constitutional Convention — Lesson Plan
The Lesson Plan section contains everything you will need to fully understand the featured lesson. It has the following sections:
- Context presents background information on the teacher, the school, and the course in which the lesson was taught;
- Lesson-Specific Standards identifies the national standards from the Center for Civic Education and the National Council for the Social Studies that correlate to the featured lesson;
- Teaching the Lesson provides an activity-by-activity description of how the lesson was organized;
- Assessment includes both the lesson assessment tools and the rubrics associated with them;
- Lesson Materials contains any printed information or worksheets distributed to students as part of the lesson; and
- Resources are additional items and/or articles that may further help you adopt these strategies in your own classroom.
Matt Johnson is chair of the department of social studies and teaches AP U. S. Government, AP Comparative Government, U.S. Government, Law, Economics, D.C. History, and Global Perspectives to students at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School in Washington, D.C. Students in his Law class have won the District of Columbia Mock Trial Championship for seven of the past nine years. In addition to his course load, he has served as senior class sponsor, coordinator of Congressional internships, law club sponsor, stock market club sponsor, and outdoors club sponsor as well as coached varsity softball, boys JV basketball, and varsity cross country. Prior to teaching, Matt Johnson interned at some political think tanks in Washington, D.C., and was a legislative librarian at a law firm. Matt Johnson earned a Bachelor of Science in political science from Ripon College in Wisconsin and a Master’s degree in political science at George Washington University in the District of Columbia.
Benjamin Banneker Senior High School is a small, college-preparatory, public high school in Washington, D.C. Nearly 93 percent of its 432 students are African American (1999-2000 data); other students are Pacific Islander (3.2 percent), Hispanic (3.2 percent), or White (0.7 percent). The high school has an attendance rate of 96.4 percent and a promotion rate of 98.1 percent. In 1999, 92 percent of its students graduated. SAT rates in that year averaged 522 in mathematics and 553 verbal.
Matt Johnson’s constitutional law course explores the political and constitutional organization of five countries—China, Russia, France, England, and India—all of which have been studied prior to this lesson. The U.S. political system was covered in a previous course on U.S. government. The typical class unit starts with students being assigned to complete a data sheet—looking at basic socioeconomic, political, religious, and societal forces in the particular country. At the same time, Matt Johnson assigns each student a one-page research paper on a specific topic, e.g., the House of Lords, and provides about a week for its completion. The class then begins three to five days of student-led presentations, each of which is followed by questions and answers about the topic at hand and discussions about what has been learned so far. It is each student’s responsibility to go out and learn enough to teach his or her peers. Each student comes to class with 25 copies of a one-page summary of his or her presentation. In effect, the students have created a textbook. The teacher’s role is to get the class started, call presenters in turn, and moderate the question-and-answer discussion after each presentation. At this time, the teacher would also fill in with additional information as needed. The simulation lesson seen in the workshop is an end-of-the-year activity that draws on all the units that have preceded it. The class meets on a block schedule every other week.
This lesson addresses the national standards listed below.
From the Center for Civic Education’s National Standards for Civics and Government (1994):
- Understand the meaning and uses of the term “constitution.”
- Be able to explain the various purposes served by constitutions.
- Be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on what conditions contribute to the establishment and maintenance of constitutional government.
- Be able to describe the major characteristics of systems of shared powers and of parliamentary systems.
- Be able to explain the advantages and disadvantages of federal, confederal, and unitary systems of government.
- Be able to evaluate, take, and defend positions on how well alternative forms of representation serve the purposes of constitutional government.
From the National Council for the Social Studies’s Expectations of Excellence: Curriculum Standards for Social Studies (1994):
- Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of how people create and change structures of power, authority, and governance.
- Social studies programs should include experiences that provide for the study of ideals, principles, and practices of citizenship in a democratic republic.
Teaching the Lesson
This program shows an AP comparative government class participating in a simulation in which students create a constitution for the hypothetical country of Permistan. The lesson–which is designed to help students review a great deal of information prior to taking their final exam–was videotaped over three class periods near the end of the semester. You will see students discuss and debate issues relating to the executive branch and the legislative branch. A worksheet on the judicial branch was assigned for homework; students’ deliberations on this topic are not seen in the workshop program.
The goal of the lesson is for students to develop a constitution for a hypothetical country called Permistan. To do so, students will need to review all the materials they have studied over the course of the semester, pull together their ideas, and analyze what works and what doesn’t work as they attempt to craft an ideal government. Students have a wide range of constitutions to look at and procedures to examine. The teacher expects that they will draw from all five countries they have studied, as well as the United States, in putting together a new constitution.
Since this is an end-of-the-year activity, students have participated in numerous cooperative learning activities in the past and Matt Johnson has learned enough about how individual students interact with one another to give him a fair degree of confidence in assigning students to cooperative learning groups. Students are accustomed to being in charge of their own learning, talking in front of the class, and being held individually responsible for work, even when it has been done with a group. Prior to the start of the simulation, students have been asked to access and bring to class the resources on different constitutions they have gathered and/or used in prior study (e.g., notes, articles, and presentations).
Introduce or review the concept of a constitutional convention. Distribute the Constitutional Convention Rubric and discuss your expectations about what students should be doing and what they will get out of the activity. Form students into groups. Matt Johnson uses six groups of four students each to encourage diverse approaches that can be resolved through debate in Activity
Activity 1: Constitutional Creation: Executive Branch
During the same class period, distribute the Basic Data Sheet: Permistan and the Executive Branch Worksheet and have the groups begin their deliberations. This sheet will serve as a framework for committee work. It directs students to decide on numerous constitutional issues (specific election rules, suffrage requirements, length of term and term limits, line of succession, shared duties, exclusive duties, cabinet positions, and cabinet duties), identify the country from which their structure or processes are taken, and provide a rationale for their choice.
Circulate among the groups to make sure they understand the assignment, are on task and including ideas of all members of the group, and to redirect any discussions that seem to have become immersed in tangential issues. To stretch students’ thinking, pose some hypothetical issues by changing some of the socioeconomic data given about Permistan and ask whether different circumstances might lead them to different solutions to the problem. If groups cannot complete this assignment within the class period, it may be completed for homework.
Activity 2: Rules for Convention
Begin the day with a full-class discussion of the level of support that will be required to adopt provisions for the constitution (e.g., majority, plurality, modified runoff) and some rules for debate. You may also need to set some rules on how these procedural matters will be determined. It is recommended that these be decided by a simple majority on the procedural question and by a plurality in the content area so that the class does not get bogged down before they get to the real issues. Matt Johnson’s class, which has 25 students, decided on majority rule and limiting debate to 30 seconds per speaker.
Activity 3: Constitutional Creation: Legislative Branch
Once the procedural matters have been settled, reform the groups and direct them to complete the Legislative Branch Worksheet, which focuses on the election process, term length, term limits, qualifications for office, leadership positions, type/number of houses, responsibilities of each house, type of representation, duties shared, duties reserved, and checks on the judiciary, the executive, and the prime minister. As with the Executive Branch Worksheet, students are expected to tell where their ideas come from and why they have chosen them. For homework, have students complete the Judiciary Branch Worksheet, which deals with length of term, term limits, appointment process, removal process, powers of court, judicial review, structure of courts, and decision to hear a case. For each of these issues, students must again identify the country from which his or her idea generated and their rationale for selecting it.
Activity 4: Constitutional Convention
Matt Johnson spent the entire third class period having students debate and offer provisions for the legislative and executive branches. (Note: The portion of the convention dealing with the judicial branch is not seen in the workshop program.) Matt Johnson recommends starting with something that is relatively straightforward, like suffrage, so that students can see the process at work. Each group reports on its decision on the matter at hand; dissenters are free to add alternatives to the list and these are given equal weight. When all responses on a particular item have been listed (e.g., on voting age, various groups and/or students in Matt Johnson’s class suggested requiring citizens of Permistan to be either 16, 17, 18, or 20 years of age to vote; some also required proof of political literacy or wanted ex-felons to have suffrage), students discuss them, move to either table the provision or bring it to a vote, and then vote according to the previously determined procedures. A summary of Robert’s Rules of Order for use in facilitating this discussion can be found in the Resources section.
Scheduling and Adaptations
The lesson that you see in the program took place over three class periods. If you have a 45-minute class, you would probably be able to follow Matt Johnson’s structure, having students finish the Executive Branch Worksheet on the first day, the Legislative Branch Worksheet on the second day, and the Judicial Branch Worksheet for homework. If you have a block period, you might have students finish the Executive Branch Worksheet, stop, and then discuss the procedures for debate on the first day. You could also extend this lesson to five class periods, using one period for each worksheet and two for the convention.
To adapt this lesson for a younger group, e.g., ninth- or 10th-grade students, consider reducing the requirements in the rubric, reducing the number of categories on each worksheet, and/or adjusting your expectations of how much material students might have at their command. The same would be true if you were using the lesson with students of a lower ability level than seen here.
The Constitutional Convention Rubric (PDF) spells out the requirements to get a grade of A, B, C, or D in each of four areas: completing the three worksheets (Executive Branch, Legislative Branch, and Judicial Branch), using a variety of examples from the six countries previously studied, participation in small groups, and contributions to the convention debate.
Below you will find additional resources pertaining to this lesson.
Workshop 1 Freedom of Religion
Ninth-grade civics teacher Kristen Borges involves her students at Southwest High School in Minnesota in a simulation of a U.S. Supreme Court hearing on a First Amendment case. Students assume the roles of Supreme Court justices, attorneys for the school district, and attorneys for the families. They first work in groups to prepare for the hearing, then participate in the hearing, and finally, debrief their experiences and write short papers stating their positions on the case. The methodologies highlighted in this lesson include questioning strategies and mock trials.
Workshop 2 Electoral Politics
This program shows the conclusion of a 12-week civic engagement unit developed by the national Student Voices program. José Velazquez's 12th-grade students at University High School in New Jersey divide into small groups to brainstorm and research community issues, prioritize the issues on the basis of what they have learned, present their findings to the class both orally and through a visual presentation, and develop a whole-class consensus on a youth agenda that they present to the mayoral candidates in a televised question-and-answer forum. The methodologies highlighted in this lesson include issue identification and consensus building.
Workshop 3 Public Policy and the Federal Budget
Leslie Martin's ninth-graders at West Forsyth High School in North Carolina create, present, revise, and defend a federal budget, and then reflect on what they have learned. After assuming the roles of the President and his or her advisors to create a federal budget, students are introduced to the actual 2001 federal budget, and in a whole-class discussion, discuss some key concepts involved in creating it. Next, students return to cooperative learning groups, revise their budgets based on what they learned, present their revised budgets, and simulate a Congressional hearing. This lesson highlights the integration of teacher-directed instruction with small-group work.
Workshop 4 Constitutional Convention
Matt Johnson teaches an AP Comparative Government class to seniors at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School in Washington, DC. In this lesson, his 12th-grade students create a constitution for a hypothetical country called Permistan. Matt Johnson uses this lesson to help students review for their final exam and the AP exam by having them draw on what they have learned during the semester about international governments. Students work in cooperative learning groups to discuss and debate issues relating to the executive and legislative branches of government. The lesson closes with a simulation of a constitutional convention. Simulation is the primary methodology highlighted in this lesson.
Workshop 5 Patriotism and Foreign Policy
The students in this program are seniors at the Duke Ellington School of the Arts, a public magnet school in Washington, DC. In this lesson, U.S. government teacher Alice Chandler has her students create a Museum of Patriotism and Foreign Policy. The lesson alternates between whole-class discussion and small-group committee work as students create a gallery for the museum using their respective arts concentration as the medium. The lesson concludes with students presenting their gallery contributions in dance, music, theatrical performances, and visual presentations, along with rationales for their selections. This lesson highlights small-group work as a constructivist methodology.
Workshop 6 Civic Engagement
This program shows a group of 11th- and 12th-grade students at Anoka High School in Minnesota engaging in service learning — a requirement for graduation. In this human geography class taught by Bill Mittlefehldt, students work in teams to define a project, choose and meet with a community partner who can help educate them about the issue and its current status, conduct further research, and present the problem and a proposed solution first to their peers, and then to a special session of the Anoka City Council. The primary methodology presented in this lesson is service learning.
Workshop 7 Controversial Public Policy Issues
In this 12th-grade law class at Champlin Park High School in Minnesota, JoEllen Ambrose engages students in a structured discussion of a highly controversial issue — racial profiling — and connects student learning both to their study of due process in constitutional law and police procedure in criminal law. Students begin by completing an opinion poll, which they discuss as a group. Students are then put into pairs in which they conduct research on the topic. Next, students participate in a debate in which each partnership argues both sides of the issue. A debriefing discussion completes the lesson. The methodologies highlighted in this lesson include role playing and structured academic controversy.
Workshop 8 Rights and Responsibilities of Students
Students in Matt Johnson's 12th-grade law course at Benjamin Banneker Senior High School in Washington, DC, engage in a culminating activity to help them review and apply what they have learned. Students write and distribute one-page briefs of Supreme Court cases they have studied. Next, students are assigned to small groups and given hypothetical cases related to student rights cases from the Supreme Court's 2001-2002 term. Students prepare their cases and present them to the Justices. Justices deliberate and present majority and dissenting opinions, after which the class discusses both the process and the disposition of the cases. This lesson highlights the use of case studies for synthesis and analysis.
Supporting Materials Introduction: Making Civics Real
Supplemental material for educators/facilitators