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Lesson Plans
Out with the Old, in with the New:
The Articles of Confederation and the United States Constitution
OverviewProcedure for teachersStudent Resources and Materials
Prep for Teachers

Bookmark the Web site
CUE the videotape to where you see the title "Miracle in Philadelphia" with desks in the background and hear "America the Beautiful" playing.

Duplicate the Learning Activity Worksheet provided in Student Materials.

Duplicate the "Balance of Powers: Who Can Do What?" Student Sheets from "For Teachers" at, pages 7 and 8.

Duplicate the US Constitution documents that are teacher-created (see directions in materials).

When using media, provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, a specific task to complete and/or information to identify during or after viewing of video segments, Web sites, or other multimedia elements.

Introductory Activities: Setting the Stage

To tap into prior knowledge, begin the class by asking the following questions to remind students of the results of the Revolutionary War.

What are the Articles of Confederation? (The first governing document of the United States.) When were they drafted? (Drafted in 1777 by the same Continental Congress that passed the Declaration of Independence.) Why are they not the foundation of our government? (The Articles of Confederation were very weak. States maintained sovereignty, and the Articles denied Congress the power to collect taxes, regulate interstate commerce and enforce laws.)

To review the Articles of Confederation, let's look at a piece of video. Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them why changes needed to be made to the Articles of Confederation, and what actions were taken. CUE tape to where you see the title "Miracle in Philadelphia" with desks in the background and hear "My Country ‘Tis of Thee" playing. PLAY. PAUSE when you hear, "...and convinced it to create a whole new Constitution," and the camera zooms in on James Madison in a painting.

CHECK for student understanding. Ask students why the founding fathers needed to make changes to the Articles of Confederation. (The Articles of Confederation gave Congress very little power and the government was very weak.) Who was one of the leaders in re-writing this governing document? (James Madison.) What document was written? (The US Constitution.)

Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to predict what the greatest issues were in drafting the Constitution. RESUME PLAY. PAUSE when you hear the preamble of the Constitution being read with music in the background and the music stops before a new narrator's voice is heard.

Ask students what the greatest issues were. (Who should have power? Some delegates wanted the states to be strong, while others were for a strong national government. Another question was the presidency: how much power should the chief executive have? The writers also debated the relative power of the small and the large states and how each would be represented in Congress.)

How did the founders resolve the issue of state representation? (Roger Sherman of Connecticut proposed 2 houses of Congress: the first reflecting the states' populations, the House of Representatives; the second with an equal number or representatives from each state, the US Senate.)

What are the first three words in the Constitution? (We the people.) Who did that include? (Accept all responses, either that it meant all the people or some people.) Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to identify statements in the Constitution that limited the word "WE" in the preamble. PLAY. PAUSE when you hear, "...I think it will astonish our enemies." CHECK for student understanding and ask them if they caught the language that limited that "WE." (The Indians were considered as separate nations to be dealt with by treaty, and "other persons" were the slaves who were not granted the liberties outlined in the Constitution.)

Learning Activities

Step 1:

To learn a little more about the summer of 1787 let's look at the FREEDOM: A History of US Web site at and Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking students to read about the "Summer of 1787" and the "Miracle in Philadelphia." Distribute the Learning Activity Handout provided in Student Materials at the end of this lesson. Students may search this Web site to find definitions of terms, see images relating to various aspects of the day, and even hear sound clips to enhance their learning. Investigate the site together as a class or allow students time to investigate the site individually. CHECK for student understanding by reviewing the questions on their handout.

Step 2: Establishing Precedents

Ask students, “Were the founding fathers able to determine everything that would come up or would need to be established? Can you think of things that were addressed later? Let's investigate.” Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them what Washington's reaction was after he was elected to be President based on the first clip of video. PLAY. PAUSE when you hear, "I walk on untrodden ground. There is scarcely any part of my conduct which may not hereafter be drawn into precedent," and you see a close-up on the statue of Washington. CHECK for understanding. Ask students how Washington felt as he made the trip to New York to be inaugurated. (He was concerned because his actions would serve as precedent for all of the Presidents in the future of our country.) What is a precedent? (An act or statement that may serve as an example or justification for a later one.) What did Washington vow to do during his inauguration? (Preserve, protect, and defend the Constitution.)

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

The culmination of the lesson provides students an opportunity to investigate and analyze the US Constitution with regards to the powers assigned to each of the three branches of government. One reason why the Articles of Confederation were rewritten was because of their weakness in determining the jurisdiction and powers of the federal government. The Constitution is often thought of as a document that serves as an outline of the rights of Americans, but it also outlines how the government runs. It establishes the two houses of Congress, and also provides for a system of checks and balances between the three branches of government. What are the three branches of government? (Legislative, judicial and executive.) To learn more about the branches of the government, go to Provide students with a FOCUS FOR MEDIA INTERACTION, asking them to read the second paragraph to understand the main responsibility of each of the branches. After students have had ample time, ask them what each branch does. (The executive branch carries out the laws, the legislative branch makes the laws, and the judicial branch is the court system judging the laws.)

To develop a deeper understanding of the responsibilities of each of the branches of government, students will now do a critical reading activity. In the activity, students will receive a list of powers and by referring to the Constitution, determine which power belongs to which branch of government. Distribute the "Balance of Powers: Who Can Do What?" Student Sheets from
, pages 7 and 8. Also distribute the teacher-created document of Articles I, II, and III listed in the materials section. Allow students to work in small groups to organize the powers under one of the three branches of government. After students have completed the activity, review it with the class.

Ask students:

Which powers fall under the Legislative Branch?
1. Lay and collect taxes
2. Borrow money on the credit of the United States
3. Pay debts and provide for the common defense
4. Coin money and regulate its value
5. Establish post offices
6. Provide and maintain a navy
7. Declare war
8. Raise and support armies
9. Make laws
10. Regulate commerce
11. Establish a uniform rule of naturalization (how immigrants become citizens)

Which powers belong to the Executive Branch?
1. Commander-in-Chief of the Army and Navy
2. Grant reprieves and pardons
3. Nominate and appoint ambassadors
4. Make treaties
5. Recommend legislation
6. Receive ambassadors and other public ministers
7. Give Congress information on the state of the union
8. Take care that laws be faithfully executed

Which powers belong to the Judicial Branch?
1. Decide cases affecting ambassadors
2. Decide controversies between states
3. Decide controversies to which the United States shall be a party
4. Decide controversies between a state and its citizens and foreign states, citizens, or subjects
5. Power in all cases in law and equity (justice)

Continue any discussion and use the Constitution handout as a reference until students are comfortable with the powers of the three branches of government.

Cross-Curricilar Extensions

Ask students to write a governing document for your class that meets the needs of the governing body (the teacher) and the citizens (the students). Emphasize the fact that the founders of the Constitution did not just whip something up to govern the country. They created one document, the Articles of Confederation, and then threw that out when they realized it was not strong enough. They started over and created the Constitution. This investigation reemphasizes writing as a process of revision.

What is being done today to protect the original documents of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, etc.? What happens to the paper and ink over time? How can the aging process be slowed to maintain these documents for future generations to see?

Community Connections

  • Increase student awareness of the importance of voting. Do on-campus voter registration.
  • Create student groups to increase awareness about various topics of interest to students. How can they help influence change in their own community?