America’s founding legal document, the Constitution, is a central element of American law and civics. It has been studied, debated, and celebrated since before its passage in 1787. And — protests from Corsica notwithstanding — it is generally considered the first written constitution in the world.
That’s why, since 1940, September 17 has been a day to celebrate citizenship, and an occasion to mark the adoption of the United States Constitution. If you are looking to use the occasion to spark learning in your classroom, here are some useful, free digital resources.
But First, A Brief Knowledge Assessment
Let’s take a quiz.
- True or False: Every state has two senators.
- True or False: The first ten amendments are called “The Articles of Confederation.”
- True or False: The federal government has more constitutional authority over public education than the state governments.
- True or False: A U.S. Congressman must be twenty-five years old to be eligible to serve in the Congress.
- True or False: Someone must be a natural born citizen and thirty-five years old to be eligible to run for president.
If you answered true, false, false, true, and true, then give yourself an A!
Sadly, we know from watching late-night comedians interviewing our fellow citizens on the streets of America that most of us don’t know that much about our constitution. This is why in 1940 Congress passed a law that the president should set aside the third Sunday in May as a day to celebrate citizenship in the United States. In 1952, Congress moved Citizenship Day to September 17, which is the date the constitution was signed in 1787. In 2004, Congress designated this day as the Constitution and Citizenship Day and required that every educational institution that receives Federal funds hold a program on the constitution every year on this date.
You may be asking why we need to do this. After all, we all took government in high school and college, so don’t we know what’s in our Constitution? Remember Jay Leno’s Civics Tests? Those comedy bits tell a different story. As a former history teacher, I cringe when I watch our citizens not know basic facts about one of our key documents. However, it is apparent that the contents of this document are not well known, so taking one day a year to highlight its contents and significance is a good thing.
However, there is no way you can cover the entire U.S. Constitution in one day. Instead, I recommend you select one part or concept that you think your students would be interested in or that is especially pertinent to today’s events. Here are a couple of activities that you could do in your classroom or at your school to highlight the U.S. Constitution. These can be done anytime, not just on September 17.
Preamble, Your Style
Have your students video themselves singing or rapping the Preamble to the Constitution and upload it to Flipgrip. They can then tag their video with #ConstitutionDay. In order to complete the assignment, they will need to read the Preamble and be able to explain what each of the phrases mean.
The Preamble serves as an introduction to the Constitution. Having a good understanding of what it says will help your students understand why the U.S. Constitution is so important and at least some of the motivation behind its creation.
The Electoral College is one of the most misunderstood provisions in the Constitution. It is also one that should generate a lot of interest and discussion. Have your students read an article on the Electoral College using Google Docs so that they can insert comments on segments of the article where they feel there are significant differences in how the general public thinks a president is elected and how the process actually works.
You could also ask your students to provide their commentary on segments of the article on which they agree or disagree. I would urge them to read the entire article before they provide their commentary on the electoral college.
The Supreme Court is the only branch of the government that is not run by elected officials. Who are these nine justices and what is their job? The federal government has created some activities that can be adapted to any state’s standards that will help you teach about this important branch of the government.
Lesson Plans for Constitution Day
The Center for Civic Education has created lessons for all grade-levels. The one for grades 5-6 teaches about the Preamble, so it would be a perfect lesson to accompany the Preamble Your Style activity above.
These are just a few sample activities and lesson plans that a teacher could use to help educate their students on the U.S. Constitution. Below are some additional resources that might inspire you to create your own.
Library of Congress:
- Continental Congress and the Constitutional Convention Broadsides Collection
- Constitution Day Resources
- Federalist Papers (Congress.gov)
- Primary Documents in American History – United States Constitution
- United States: The Constitution
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration: