With support from the University of Richmond

History News Network

History News Network puts current events into historical perspective. Subscribe to our newsletter for new perspectives on the ways history continues to resonate in the present. Explore our archive of thousands of original op-eds and curated stories from around the web. Join us to learn more about the past, now.

Constitution Day: Lesson Plan

Duration: One 40-50 minute lesson.

Goal: Students will understand the key principles that form the basis of the Constitution.


  • Students will be able to describe the issues Founding Fathers had to resolve during the Constitutional Convention.
  • Students will be able to define key terms relating to the Constitution.
  • Students will be able to explain the relationship between key terms and the need for compromise in the Constitutional Convention and the United States Government.
  • Essential Question: How does the constitution make the United States a strong and unified nation?

    Common Core Standards:

  • CC.5.W.2.d- Use precise language and domain-specific vocabulary to inform about or explain the topic.
  • NCSS Themes:

  • Theme 6- Power, Authority, and Governance
  • Theme 10- Civic Ideals and Practices
  • Procedures:

    Activity 1:

    Procedure for simulation (10-15 minutes)

    1. Put students into groups of varying sizes. Make sure that they know these represent states and their varying populations.

    2. Briefly describe the Continental Congress under the Articles of Confederation. Make sure students understand the limitations of this government.

    3. Set the scene for the Constitutional Convention. Tell them that the Founding Fathers met in Philadelphia in 1787 to fix the Articles of Confederation and ended up writing a whole new constitution after much debate. Tell them that they will be participating in a simulation that illustrates this debate.

    4. Present the issue to the students: in this case whether to have McDonalds or Burger King for hot lunch at school. (You can adapt the issue depending on your students’ interests.)

    5. Give the groups a minute or so to decide on what their group would rather have for lunch.

    6. Pull the class together and call on each group one-by-one and ask what they have decided. Suggest that each group get one vote on the matter and have the groups discuss for a few minutes amongst themselves the fairness of each group only getting one vote. Tell students to come up with solutions if they find this way of voting unfair.

    7. Pull the class together and discuss some of the suggestions student come up with. As students share their suggestions, present the pros and cons of each one. For example, if students suggest one vote per person, inform them that the big groups would dominate and get whatever they want. Ask if there is some way to compromise.

    8. After students have presented a few suggestions for compromise, debrief students on how the simulation relates to the Constitutional Convention. Tell them that the Founding Fathers had to compromise in order to form the government that we have today. Describe that the big states (Virginia plan) and the small states (New Jersey plan) had to compromise in order to distribute power fairly. In order to make this distribution of power fair, the Founding Fathers came up with many principles that are important in our government today and in our Constitution.

    Activity 2:

    Procedure for breaking down key concepts of the constitution (30-35 minutes)

    1. Redistribute students into even-numbered groups.

    2. Give each group one notecard with a constitutional term and definition written on it. (See terms and definitions provided below.)

    3. Instruct students to collaborate with their partners to create a poster in order to teach the class what their chosen term means and its importance relating to the simulation. Each group’s poster should include the key term and definition, a relevant picture, and a brief written explanation as to how their term relates to the simulation.

    4. After students have been given time to create their posters, have each group present their poster.


    Tie all of the terms together and briefly explain how all of the key terms form the basis of the United States Constitution and how they establish the basis of civilized discussion. Ask students how effective a democracy would be if these ideas were not part of the Constitution.

    Materials Needed: Poster board, notecards, markers or colored pencils.

    Key Terms

  • Checks and balances- The idea that each branch of government checks the actions of another branch in order to prevent one from becoming too powerful
  • Separation of powers- The division of power between the legislative (makes laws), executive (carries out the laws), and judicial (decides if laws follow the Constitution) branches of government.
  • Virginia Plan- A plan offered at the Constitutional Convention representing the big states that wanted a bicameral (two houses) legislature where both houses were represented by population.
  • New Jersey Plan- A plan offered at the Constitutional Convention representing the small states that wanted a unicameral (one house) legislature where each state would receive one representative.
  • Great Compromise- A compromise between the big and small states that set up a bicameral (two houses) legislature in which the lower house (House of Representatives) was based on population and the upper house (Senate) received an equal number of representatives per state (two).
  • Electoral College- A group of representatives from each state that elect the president of the United States. Each state gets two representatives plus additional representatives based on the state’s population. This was another way to compromise between the big and small states.
  • Commerce Clause- Allows Congress to control trade between states.
  • Elastic Clause- Allows Congress to pass laws that are “necessary and proper” that are not listed in the Constitution.
  • Amendment- A change to the Constitution which can add or delete existing parts.
  • Bill of Rights- The first ten amendments (changes) to the Constitution that guarantee basic freedoms and rights such as freedom of speech and religion.
  • Extension Activities

    1) Introduce students to the conservative and liberal interpretations of the Constitution. Use a current issue such as the health care reform. Illustrate how conservatives find it unconstitutional since it is not listed in the Constitution while liberals view the constitution as flexible and changing according to current needs.

    2) Read Writing the U.S. Constitution by Lori Mortensen. (Mankato, MN: Picture Window Books, 2010)

    3) As an additional reference, you might find the book What Is a Constitution? by William David Thomas (Pleasantville, NY: Gareth Stevens Publishing, 2008) helpful to explain concepts to students.

    Accommodations for students with special needs

    1) Provide the key terms and definitions to students before the lesson so students can familiarize themselves with them.

    2) During the simulation activity, occasionally ask for thumbs-up or thumbs-down response to yes or no questions during the discussions in order to promote the inclusion of all students.

    3) Make sure students with special needs are in groups with classmates who can help them. Also ensure that they understand the instructions and help them begin the activity.