Friday, October 3, 2014

Teaching Ideas for the Constitution: Getting Students to READ the Constitution

One of my biggest complaints with the way the Constitution seems to be taught by so many is that students seem to memorize a lot of information and rarely read the Constitution itself. So this post will give you a way to get students to actually read (and understand!) parts of the Constitution while learning about the principle of FEDERALISM. (See my last post about the five principles.)

Here's a way to help students visualize the five kinds of powers. (With thanks to my dear friend and former colleague who taught it to me!)

You can start with just the simple Venn diagram below. (Hopefully I'll get these available as a link next week, but honestly, drawing 'em yourself on your Smartboard, whiteboard, or old-fashioned blackboard works just as well. Maybe even better.) Start by going over the delegated powers.

How? Use the text! (Very Common Core, but also just good sense.) Have students go to Article I, section 8, clauses 1-17. They don't have to read every single one, or copy them down in a chart or anything like that. But have them get a sense of some of the things Congress can do, according to the Constitution.  Your students won't understand every word of course. (Neither do I!) But some are easy--even for grade schoolers, e.g. #13- to provide and maintain a Navy or #7, to establish post offices.  I also like to point out #11, to declare war, because that is one that will come a lot when you get to Vietnam. Remind them: ONLY CONGRESS CAN DECLARE WAR. Even if you haven't gone over the fact that the President is commander-in-chief yet, someone will probably bring that up. So you can point out that that is a presidential power and you will get to that when you get to the principle of Separation of Powers and Checks and Balances. But today is Federalism, so back to that.

Then you can discuss State Powers. Of course, these are not listed in the federal constitution, but that's what the 10th Amendment is for. Have students read it. Discuss it. Then ask them for examples of things they know that states do. If they are stuck, give them a hint. Ask, where are you right now? And then they will figure out, oh yeah, school.  And then they will likely come up with other examples. They can do this in groups, in a large discussion format, or whatever works. If they don't figure it out on their own, you can then ask them about things that are listed under Article I, section 8 that both Congress and States do, such as #1: taxes!  This is what goes in the middle of the Venn diagram: the concurrent or shared powers.

Moving you can add a little 
circle to your diagram for the Denied Powers.

You don't have to go over every clause in Article I, sections 9 and 10.  I rarely go into the details, for example, of habeas corpus or bills of attainder. But going over a few are useful. Students know instinctively that neither Congress nor the states can make someone a king or queen or a lord or a duke. And Section 9, clause 8 and Section 10, clause 1 say so. Students can also see that it would be weird if one state could make its own treaty with another country. But you can have them look at that same clause so they can see for themselves. See? Reading the actual Constitution doesn't have to be that hard. High schoolers can do this. Middle schoolers can do this.

So, if it hasn't come up by now, you should now let students know about Implied Powers. Those are "found" in the last clause of Section 8. Number 18--the one you may have told them to ignore for now--is sometimes called "the necessary and proper clause" because it says that Congress can make laws that it deems "necessary and proper" for caring out the powers listed in 1-17. It is also called the Elastic clause because, like elastic, it has the power to "stretch" the powers of Congress.

And the big takeaway from this is...(drum roll)....not all Americans agree about when Congress is stretching things too far. And that, of course, can lead you to all sorts of class discussion, projects, research opportunites about what Congress should and should not do.  (This is also the point where you can explain the terms loose and strict construction.)

But before you do, make sure they get it. So use a historic example.  You can either hand it out on paper or put on a screen, or just go over the scenario below orally.

historic example:
In the 1790s, the Secretary of the Treasury, Alexander Hamilton, advised Congress to establish a Bank of the United States.  Hamilton believed that because Congress had several important powers related to money and taxes that it was both necessary and proper that the Congress establish the Bank.  However, Thomas Jefferson disagreed.  Jefferson said that because the power to establish such a bank was not specifically given to Congress, that meant that Congress had no constitutional authority to create one.  The Congress did create the Bank.

a.  On what part of the Constitution did Jefferson base his argument?

  ask students-- what delegated powers does Congress 
have that relate to money and taxes? 
Article I, Sec 8, clauses 1, 2, 5 and 18

On what part of the Constitution did Hamilton base his argument? Trick question! Article I, Sec 8, clauses 1, 2, 5 and 18—same ones, just interprets them differently.

Hope this is useful! More ideas on the Constitution coming soon!

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