Teaching the US Constitution
With so much focus on math and ELA, it can be hard to find time to prepare history lessons. However, I think that most teachers would agree that teaching history is extremely important! Especially, when you’re teaching about US history topics like the Constitution.
I want to save you time and help you fall in love with teaching history. In this blog post, you will learn the most important things you need to know when teaching the US Constitution.
Below is a list of the topics covered in this guide. You can click on any of the links below to be taken to a specific section.
- US Constitution Overview
- US Constitution Timeline
- Teacher Resources for Learning about the US Constitution
- US Constitution Pacing Guide
- Free US Constitution Lesson Plans
- US Constitution Primary Sources
- US Constitution Videos
- US Constitution Interactive Lesson Plans
US Constitution Overview
This overview will explain the following:
- What is the US Constitution?
- The Articles of Confederation
- Framers of the Constitution
- Key Concepts of the Constitution
- Three Branches of Government
- Parts of the Constitution
- The Constitution and Slavery
- Amendments & The Bill of Rights
What is the US Constitution?
A constitution is a set of rules outlining what a government can and cannot do. The Constitution of the United States was created in 1787 and ratified in 1788. However, this was not the country’s first constitution.
The Articles of Confederation
As soon as the Thirteen Colonies decided to declare independence from Great Britain, they began working on a constitution called the Articles of Confederation (also called the Articles).
The word confederation means alliance or union. The Articles of Confederation united the states together in a “firm league of friendship.” They had the responsibility to help each other if they were attacked. Each state governed itself and had a great deal of freedom, power, and independence. In some ways, the states acted more like independent countries than states.
The national government consisted only of Congress, a one-house body of delegates with the power to make laws. Each state had one vote. Congress needed at least nine of the thirteen states to vote yes in order to pass a law. In order to amend the Articles of Confederation, every state had to agree.
There was no executive leader, like a president, to enforce laws. There was also no system of courts to interpret and apply laws.
The Founding Fathers purposefully made the national government very weak. They wanted their new government to be totally different from King George III’s oppressive monarchy. The Articles of Confederation lasted for about ten years. They were revised by the Continental Congress in 1787 and replaced by the Constitution that we still use today.
First page of The Articles of Confederation, Public Domain, Link
Strengths and Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation
In some ways, the Articles of Confederation were very effective. They included the basics needed to go to war with Great Britain. Congress could declare war, conduct foreign affairs, and make treaties.
However, the Articles of Confederation had many weaknesses. First, the national government held little power. The national government was made up of only one house called Congress. Although Congress had the power to make laws, it could not enforce them. If states chose not to obey the laws, there was nothing the government could do. There was no executive leader, like a president, to hold states accountable. Furthermore, there was no judicial branch to resolve fights between states. As a result, states would pick and choose which laws they wanted to obey.
Another major problem was Congress’ inability to collect taxes. Under the Articles of Confederation, only states were allowed to tax the people. All Congress could do was ask the states for money and hope they obeyed. Because of this, Congress struggled to pay and feed the Continental Army.
These problems, among others, led delegates to meet in 1787 to revise the Articles of Confederation.
Framers of the Constitution
In May 1787, fifty-five delegates gathered in the Pennsylvania State House to participate in the Constitutional Convention. In just four months, they managed to create an entirely new system of government by writing the Constitution of the United States. Who were these men?
Fast Facts about the Delegates:
- They represented all the original thirteen states except for Rhode Island.
- Many had fought in the American Revolution.
- Three-fourths had served in Congress under the Articles of Confederation.
- The average age was 42 years old (the youngest was Jonathan Dayton at 26, and the oldest was Benjamin Franklin at 81).
- Fifty-five attended the Constitutional Convention, but only thirty-nine signed the Constitution.
George Washington was one of the most famous delegates. He was selected to be the president of the convention. Later, he became the first president of the United States.
Other notable delegates included James Madison, George Mason, and Alexander Hamilton.
Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States by Howard Chancy Christy, Link
Key Concepts of the US Constitution
The Framers of the Constitution wanted to set up a government that would last. Their experience with Great Britain made them wary of a strong, powerful government. They wanted to protect people against tyranny. At the same time, many Founders were wary of giving people too much power. So, they also wanted to protect against too much democracy.
The founders understood some key concepts about government. The following are six key principles in the United States Constitution:
1. Popular sovereignty – The government’s power comes from the consent of the people. If the government goes against the will of the people, then they have the right to change the government.
2. Limited government – A government’s power is restricted by laws in order to protect individual rights and liberties. These laws are often written in a constitution.
3. Republicanism – A form of government where citizens are represented by elected officials.
4. Federalism – Power is shared by the national and state governments.
5. Separation of powers – The government is divided into branches. Each branch has separate and independent powers.
6. Checks and balances – Each branch of government can “check,” or limit, the power of the other branches.
Constitution of the United States, Public Domain, Link
Three Branches of Government
The United States Constitution divides the government into three branches: the Executive Branch, the Legislative Branch, and the Judicial Branch.
Each branch has separate and independent powers that “check” and limit the powers of the other two branches. This prevents any one branch from becoming too powerful.
- The Executive Branch enforces laws. It is comprised of the president, vice president, and the cabinet.
- The Legislative Branch makes laws. It is called Congress, which is made up of the Senate and the House of Representatives.
- The Judicial branch interprets laws. It is made up of the Supreme Court as well as other Federal Courts.
Parts of the US Constitution
The US Constitution can be divided into 9 parts: The preamble, the 7 articles, and the amendments.
The preamble serves as an introduction to the Constitution. It describes who established the Constitution as well as its purpose. The preamble explains six reasons why the constitution was established.
The Constitution is made up of seven articles. Each article discusses a different topic:
- Article 1 – Legislative Branch
- Article 2 – Executive Branch
- Article 3 – Judicial Branch
- Article 4 – States
- Article 5 – Amendment Process
- Article 6 – Debts, Supremacy, Oaths, Religious Test
- Article 7 – Ratification Process
The Constitution currently has 27 amendments. These are changes that have been made to the Constitution over time. More information about the amendments can be found below.
The Constitution and Slavery
The words “slave” or “slavery” are never mentioned in the Constitution. However, the decisions made by the framers allowed slavery to exist in the United States. This affected the lives of millions of enslaved people as well as their descendants.
The delegates of the Constitutional Convention debated three essential questions regarding slavery:
1. Should enslaved people be counted as part of the population?
Northern and Southern states disagreed on if enslaved people should be counted as part of a state’s population. After much debate, the delegates came up with the Three-Fifths Compromise. Article 1, Section 2 of the Constitution says that when calculating a state’s population, three out of every five slaves would be counted as people.
This decision increased the South’s representation and power in Congress and the Electoral College. The three-fifths compromise was repealed by the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868.
Slave auction block, Public Domain, Link
2. What should be done about the slave trade?
The delegates also disagreed about the slave trade. Some wanted the slave trade to continue while others wanted it to be outlawed. Eventually, the Framers of the Constitution decided to put off making a decision about the slave trade. Article 1, Section 9 says that no law could be passed to ban the slave trade until 1808.
Extending the slave trade into the 1800s brought many more captive Africans to the United States. Congress overwhelmingly voted to end the slave trade in 1808. This stopped the practice of bringing more enslaved people to the United States but did not free enslaved people already living in the country. Slavery was not outlawed until the Thirteenth Amendment was passed in 1865.
3. Do states have a responsibility to return “escaped slaves?”
Enslaved people resisted their treatment in many ways, including escaping to the North. Those who ran away were called “fugitive slaves.” Some Southern delegates thought that states should help catch and return “fugitive slaves.” Others felt that this would infringe on states’ rights. The Southern states won out. Article 4, Section 2 contains a Fugitive Slave Clause that says “escaped slaves” must be returned to their enslavers.
As a result of this clause, many people made a living as fugitive slave catchers. They not only captured “runaway slaves,” but also illegally kidnapped and enslaved thousands of free Blacks. The Fugitive Slave Clause was repealed by the Thirteenth Amendment which prohibited slavery.
On September 17, 1787, the delegates finished drafting the Constitution. Nine of the thirteen states had to ratify, or approve, the Constitution for it to be accepted. Those who supported ratification were called Federalists while those who opposed ratification were called Antifederalists.
Federalists favored a strong central government. Antifederalists wanted power to stay with state governments. They also criticized the Constitution for not containing a bill of rights.
Eventually, nine of the 13 states ratified the Constitution. Itbecame the official framework for the United States on June 21, 1788.
Dates the 13 states ratified the Constitution, Link
Amendments & The Bill of Rights
An amendment is an official change to the US Constitution. There have only been twenty-seven changes to the Constitution because amendments are difficult to pass.
First, an amendment is proposed by Congress. It must pass with at least a two-thirds majority in both houses. Amendments can also be proposed by a convention called by two-thirds of the states; however, this has never happened. After being passed by Congress, an amendment must be ratified, or approved, by at least three-fourths of the states.
The first 10 Amendments are called the Bill of Rights. The Bill of Rights is a specific list of citizens’ rights and limits on the government’s power.
- First Amendment – Freedoms of speech, religion, the press, assembly, and to petition the government
- Second Amendment – Right to own and carry guns
- Third Amendment – No quartering (housing) of soldiers during wartime
- Fourth Amendment – Freedom from unreasonable searches and seizures
- Fifth Amendment – Right to due process; the government can’t take a person’s land without paying for it
- Sixth Amendment – Right to a speedy and public trial
- Seventh Amendment – Right to trial by jury in federal civil cases
- Eighth Amendment – Freedom from excessive bail and cruel and unusual punishments
- Ninth Amendment – Citizens have other rights besides the ones listed in the Bill of Rights
- Tenth Amendment – Powers not given to the federal government are reserved for the states.
These amendments would be the first of many. Since it’s creation, the Constitution has been amended 27 times. Some notable amendments include:
- Thirteenth amendment – Outlaws slavery
- Fifteenth amendment – States that the government cannot stop people from voting based on their race
- Nineteenth amendment – Extends the right to vote to women
The United States Bill of Rights, Link
US Constitution Timeline
When teaching the US Constitution, or any historical period, it can be helpful for students to have a general timeline of important events and when they occurred.
- March 1, 1781 – Articles of Confederation are ratified
- February 21, 1787 – Convention to discuss Articles of Confederation revision called
- May 14, 1787 – Constitutional Convention Begins in Philadelphia, but only a few delegates arrive, so quorum is postponed
- May 25, 1787 – Enough delegates arrive, and the convention is called to order
- May 29, 1787 – Edmund Randolph proposes the Virginia Plan
- June 15, 1787 – New Jersey Plan is presented by William Patterson
- July 12, 1787 – Three-Fifths Compromise is adopted, deciding how slaves would be counted
- July 16, 1787 – Connecticut Compromise is adopted, deciding representation in the House and Senate
- September 17,1787 – Delegates finish drafting the constitution, convention adjourns
- December 7, 1787 – Delaware is the first state to ratify the constitution
- June 21, 1788 – New Hampshire is the ninth state to ratify; The Constitution is officially established
- February 4, 1789 – George Washington is elected the first president of the United States
- December 15, 1791 – The Bill of Rights is added to the Constitution
Signing of the US Constitution, Public Domain, Link
Teacher Resources for Learning about the US Constitution
Now that you know the basics, here are a few excellent resources to help you learn more. These resources will help you better understand the US Constitution:
- The Constitution, the Articles, and Federalism: Crash Course US History – John Green’s fast-paced and informative video gives a helpful and engaging overview of the US Constitution’s origins and history
- Free Online US History Textbook – Chapters 7 and 8 of this online textbook discusses more details that are helpful when teaching about the US Constitution and early American government.
- Britannica Online – Britannica’s Constitution of the United States of America article is a simple but great resource, including a helpful list of all constitutional amendments.
US Constitution Pacing Guide
US Constitution Simulation
Have you ever considered bringing the US Constitution to life with a simulation? Here’s what I did with my students:
After learning about the Framers of the Constitution, students have a chance to participate in their own Constitutional Convention. Each student is given a delegate identity. They are also assigned a state and two opinions they have about government.
Next, students are grouped by state. They get to pick a new name (they love this!) and complete a delegate character sketch about their new identity.
As the unit continues, students learn about important debates from the Constitutional Convention. Each day they debate topics the Founders discussed, including choosing representatives, representation in Congress, and presidential terms.
Just like in the real convention, my students present plans and vote on proposals. This is such a great way to get your students excited and engaged in learning about the Constitution. I know you and your students will love it!
If you are interested in doing something similar, here is the pacing guide I used:
3-Week Pacing Guide
|Day 1||Day 2||Day 3||Day 4||Day 5|
|The Articles of Confederation||6 Key Concepts in the Constitution||Simulation: Become a Delegate||Simulation: Choosing Representatives||Simulation: Representation in Congress|
|Day 6||Day 7||Day 8||Day 9||Day 10|
|Simulation: Presidential Terms||The US Constitution and Slavery||Ratification of the Constitution||Be a Constitution Detective||The Preamble|
|Day 11||Day 12||Day 13||Day 14||Day 15|
|The Branches of Government||Federal, State, and Local Governments||The Bill of Rights||Amendments||The Constitution in Your Daily Life|
Note: Each lesson is 45-60 minutes long.
This pacing guide is the same one I use in my US Constitution Unit.
If the idea of planning and prepping everything for your Constitution unit overwhelms you, then this resource is for you! It has everything you need!
Included is a helpful teacher resources, engaging simulations, ready-to-print student worksheets, and an easy-to-use study guide and assessment.
For those of you who are teaching remotely, I’ve added Google Slides to all the lessons. I created this unit to help you and your students love learning about the US Constitution!
Free US Constitution Lesson Plans
Do your students struggle to understand how the US Constitution is organized? It’s a difficult concept, so I’ve created this “Parts of the US Constitution” lesson plan with a foldable graphic organizer. This lesson will help upper elementary and middle school students understand:
- the parts of the Constitution
- the purpose/function of each part
In this lesson, students research the parts of the US Constitution and fill out a helpful graphic organizer to show what they’ve learned. I’ve created the graphic organizer for you and listed some helpful research resources.
In this lesson, students match picture cards to descriptions of each amendment in the Bill of Rights. Then they evaluate scenarios in which the Bill of Rights are violated by reading task cards around the room. Finally, they write a classroom Bill of Rights.
This lesson includes picture cards, task cards, a writing prompt, and student worksheets and answer keys.
Enter your email below to grab your free Bill of Rights Lesson.
US Constitution Primary Sources
If you aren’t using primary sources to teach about the US Constitution, you’re missing out! No matter what historical period you’re teaching about, primary sources help history come to life for your students.
The main difficulty with primary sources is finding the time to search for them when you already have a million things to do.
To help save you time, I’ve created a list of teacher-approved US Constitution Primary Sources.
One of my favorite US Constitution primary sources is this note from the constitutional convention.
Memorandum Regarding Population Estimates for Purposes of Apportioning Delegates (1785)
Description of Primary Source:
This note lists population and delegate estimates for each of the thirteen states. The memorandum was part of a collection of notes from the Confederation Congress. The author was trying to figure out how many delegates each state would receive if representation was based on population.
Later this issue became an important debate at the Continental Congress in 1787, and was resolved by the Great Compromise. The Great Compromise created a bicameral legislature with equal representation in the Senate and proportional representation in the House of Representatives.
Class Discussion Questions:
What is the date of the document?
Which state had the largest population in 1785?
Which state had the smallest population in 1785?
What was the estimated population of the United States in 1785?
Which states would benefit the most from proportional representation and which states would benefit the least?
Who do you think wrote this document?
Why do you think this document was written?
Resources for this Primary Source:
Student worksheet for analyzing a written document (National Archives)
US Constitution Videos
Another great way to engage students is through high-quality history videos. Videos can teach a lot of information in a short period of time. They are also engaging and fun!
However, most teachers know that not all history videos are created equal. It’s hard to find accurate, appropriate videos. To help provide you with awesome, informative videos, I’ve created this list of 5 US Constitution Videos for Kids.
One excellent US Constitution video is The Constitution Song (Despacito Parody) by MrBettsClass.
The Constitution Song (“Despacito” Parody)
Mr. Bett’s overview of the US Constitution including its purpose, Preamble, articles, and amendments
My Rating: age 8+
Notes: Like all of Mr. Bett’s song parodies, it’s cringy in the best way. I recommend watching it twice: first, let the kids get all of their giggles out. Then, watch it again so kids can focus on the content. Provide students with some guiding questions (ex: What are the main parts of the Constitution? What is the purpose of the Preamble? etc.).
US Constitution Interactive Lesson Plans
I hope that these resources help you while you are teaching the US Constitution. If you need more help, consider checking out my 3-week US Constitution Unit.
Feeling stressed about teaching the US Constitution? This unit will help you feel prepared and excited to teach by providing you with 15 complete lessons, worksheets, and answers keys.
Sounds amazing, right?
As teachers, we want to create meaningful lessons for our students. But with so many subjects to cover, it can be difficult to find the time. This is especially true for subjects like history that require a lot of prior knowledge.
I created this unit to provide you with high-quality lessons that will save you time and help you fall in love with teaching history! Keep reading to see what makes this US Constitution Unit so awesome!
15 complete US Constitution lesson plans for 5th grade and middle school aged students
15 days of activities
150+ pages with a variety of activities (simulation, writing activities, task cards, and more)
Table of Contents for US Constitution Unit
Part 1: Context for the Constitutional Convention
- The Articles of Confederation— identify the strengths and weaknesses. Includes informative article, task cards, classifying worksheet.
- 6 Key Concepts—describe key concepts: popular sovereignty, limited government, republicanism, federalism, separation of powers, checks & balances. Includes student booklet, sorting cards, game.
Part 2: Events of the Constitutional Convention
- Become a Delegate Simulation—assume a fictional identity as a delegate to the Constitutional Convention. Includes article, identity cards, delegate character sketch, and more.
- Choosing Representatives Simulation—in a simulated Constitutional Convention, debate and vote on how congressional representations should be chosen (arguments for both sides, student worksheets, informative article)
- Representation in Congress Simulation—in a simulated Constitutional Convention, debate and vote on how states should be represented in Congress. Includes arguments for both sides, student worksheets, informative article.
- Presidential Terms Simulation—in a simulated Constitutional Convention, debate and vote on how long presidential terms should be. Includes arguments for both sides, student worksheets, informative article.
- The US Constitution and Slavery—identify sections of the Constitution which permitted slavery and how these sections affected the nation. Includes informative article, graphic organizer, opinion writing.
- Ratification of the Constitution—identify primary source quotes as Federalist or Antifederalist arguments. Includes informative article, primary sources, student posters, reflection sheet).
Part 3: The Constitution and the US Government
- Be a Constitution Detective—use the Constitution to summarize the main idea of each section and answer questions about the US government. Includes puzzle pieces, student worksheet.
- The Preamble—translate and illustrate the Preamble. Includes task cards & recording sheet, student-created posters, preamble cut apart for memorizing.
- Three Branches of Government—explain how power is separated between the three branches of government. Includes posters/anchor charts, matching worksheet, card game.
- Federal, State, and Local Governments—list and analyze the powers of the federal and state governments, as well as research elected officials. Includes graphic organizers game, research elected leaders worksheet.
- The Bill of Rights—interpret and teach about the Bill of Rights. Includes worksheet for analyzing each Bill of Right, amendment rap, main idea worksheets, cards for acting out the Bill of Rights.
- Amendments—categorize the amendments and create my own amendment. Includes amendments timeline, amendments chart, create my own amendment worksheet.
- The Constitution in Your Daily Life—explain how the Constitution affects me in my daily life as well as analyze The American’s Creed. Includes teacher guide, situations worksheet, writing about The American’s Creed.