In this lesson, students are introduced to the Preamble to the Constitution. They will examine the significance, wording and the fundamental purposes that establish the framework for the Constitution. Students will explore who the people in the phrase “We the People” are in the context of our nation’s past and the present. Students will also discuss the meaning of those three words to them as young people of the United States. Students will examine primary source documents for a better understanding of what the founding fathers meant when they wrote the phrase, “We the People.” Students will view a short film clip from We the People Film that will begin the lesson as well as their inquiry into the Preamble and the compelling questions for this lesson:
What does “We the People” imply?
How was the phrase different in the1790s as compared to present day?
What do the words in the Preamble mean?
What is the purpose of the Preamble?
What is the importance of the first three words of the Constitution of the United States, “We the People” and how has the meaning of those three words changed over time?
Historical and Contextual Background:
Teachers note: While most students will have formally studied the history of early America prior to the writing of the Constitution, there may be some students who have had no exposure to American history or the founding documents. This lesson is designed to introduce students to civic education through the words “We the People” and to help students to explore the language and intention of our founding documents. This lesson and We the People Film clip will enhance students’ understanding of the significance of the first three words of the U.S. Constitution and how the meaning of those words have changed over time. Students will begin to make a personal connection to our nation’s history and its documents.
In 1787, after years of struggle for independence from Great Britain, the men who would later be known as the founding fathers gathered in Philadelphia to form a government that would not only strengthen the new nation, but unify it. Realizing that the country needed a stronger government than the one that had been established following the Revolutionary War, the founding fathers carefully considered the foundation and principals of government before crafting the central guiding document of our democracy—the Constitution of the United States.
Introducing the Preamble
Introduce students to the lesson by providing them with copies of the historical background reading, a copy of the Preamble and present the guiding questions to this lesson. An image of the Constitution could be projected.
Continue the lesson by asking students:
Framing the Film
After discussing the purpose of the Preamble and having examined the vocabulary, prepare students to view an excerpt from We the People Film. Framing the film will activate students’ background knowledge.
This segment lays the foundation for a discussion of the historical significance of the three words “We the People” and provides a platform for future lessons.
Document Analysis Activity
Teachers Note: In 1787, “We the People,” did not include all people. The historical documents included in this lesson provide students with a “snapshot” of 1787 and the years that followed when not all individuals living in the United States were represented by the words “We the People.” The issue of slavery, women’s rights, and rights of indigenous people, immigrant groups, and social groups shaped our history. This change over time will illustrate to students that the Constitution is a “living” document–its meaning can change both in fact and interpretation.
Historical note on Document A
John Adams, a prominent patriot, was serving as a U.S. diplomat in England at the time of the signing of the Constitution. He was a strong supporter of the U.S. Constitution and later served as Vice-President to George Washington and then as the second President of the United States.
Provide students with analysis documents, the graphic organizer and divide into groups of four students to analyze the documents. Students can analyze all four documents and share with their group. An alternative would be to have each student analyze one document and present their findings to the group. Another option would be to use a Jigsaw Cooperative Learning Technique.
Use the following questions to get students to source each document and consider the context. Sourcing asks students to consider who wrote a document as well as the circumstances of its creation. Contextualization asks students to locate a document in time and place and to understand how these factors shape its content.
Both sourcing and context are important historical reading strategies.
Students consider who wrote a document as well as the circumstances of its creation. Who authored a given document? When? For what purpose?
Guiding questions for documents:
Students “locate” a document in time and place and to understand how these factors shape its content.
Guiding questions for documents:
After students have analyzed the documents review the guiding questions:
Complete the short essay from the document analysis activity