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Civics in Action: Teaching the Branches of Government

By Nicole Jamerson, Middle School Civics Teacher

Civics education is incredibly important and much needed in our schools and communities. An educated and well-informed populace can lead to an overall stronger country. Ensuring that people understand what it is each branch does and what each level of government is in charge of allows “we the people” to act as a check on our government to ensure they do not overstep their powers.

Laying the foundation in elementary and middle school will allow for practical discussions in high school. This is not to suggest that some discussions cannot happen sooner, but the students must have a foundational knowledge of civics in order to be prepared for those discussions. It is often why we see so many adults having arguments that go nowhere or seem ridiculous, due to a lack of foundational knowledge about our constitution and how our government works.

What is appropriate for different grade levels?

First, as an educator you are a professional. Work both within the standards and benchmarks you are required to teach as well as what you know your students are ready for and can handle. There are some topics not appropriate to discuss with certain age groups. The most vital thing when teaching social studies is always to remain objective. You are not there to push any viewpoints on your students. The job of a teacher is to educate your students and let them think critically coming to their own conclusions. Here are some suggestions for how far to go when teaching about the branches of government in different grade levels. Keep in mind that these can vary, depending on the students.

Pre-K and Lower Elementary

While it is too early to discuss the different branches of government, it is a good time to help students build an understanding of the concept of community and that there is a government that helps to keep us safe. Students can also be introduced to the concept of rules and laws that they need to follow in the classroom and outside of school. Lightly touching on the idea of our country having a President may tie in with what students hear at home and also with national holidays, such as President’s Day.

Middle and Upper Elementary

As students move through their elementary school years, educators can begin using the names for the branches of government. Congress can be mentioned as well as the President. As students progress, discussion of what the branches of government do in relation to the laws can be a great introduction into separation of powers. A curation of current events can tie in allowing students to see those powers in action with real-world examples, such as when a new president is elected or when Congress passes a law.

Middle School

Now that students are older and may have a slight foundation into the basic roles of government, delving into the founding documents (U.S. Constitution, state constitution, Bill of Rights, etc.) will allow them to determine the roles and purpose of government. A great way to accomplish this is through close reads of the text, then also tying in what they are learning with current events. Students will begin to develop a well-rounded understanding of how our government is supposed to work.

High School

Students who have been learning about civics and government over the years should be ready to evaluate the branches of government today and compare the functions intended in the founding documents to what they are doing currently. Students will be ready to discuss bigger concepts such as the Electoral College, rule of law, Judicial independence, and more. By comparing what the government is supposed to do versus what they are seeing happen, students will become critical thinkers and overall more well-informed to help keep the government in check.

What are some activities and resources to help teach about the government?

I teach in Florida where civics is a required course in middle school. This is my area of expertise and these activities can be scaled up or down based on your students.

1. Modernize the founding documents

If you have ever read the Declaration of Independence or the United States Constitution, then you know how difficult they can be to understand. Now imagine being twelve years old and trying to read them. The text is above a college-level reading Lexile which means much analysis and breakdown will be needed. By finding or making modern “translations” of the text into words that your students will be able to understand more easily, it will allow them to better take in the meaning of the words that the Founding Fathers wrote. This is not to suggest that students should not be exposed to the original text. It is important for students to break down the original words and their meaning. I often like to have excerpts be read or even listen to parts of the text before giving them a modern version. I also pull quotes from key parts of the text for analysis and discussion.

2. Introduce current events in the classroom

As a teacher is it important to show both sides of topics and keep one’s own political beliefs out of the classroom. Teaching students about bias in the media and helping them learn how to think critically will allow students to begin to see and hear that bias. It can sometimes be difficult to find resources that do not have some sort of bias or when searching for a short news clip, the options can be limited. There is no perfect news source and so I try to use a variety throughout the year. One source I find that does a great job of compiling world news to share with students is a branch of CNN called CNN10. Each school day there is a 10-minute video geared toward students about news going on in the world.

3. Navigating government websites

Having students visit and learn how to navigate government websites is vital. There is a great deal of direct information that can be found on these sites. There are many uses for these websites in the classroom including during Election season, students can find the platform of a candidate on their site; students can learn about the decisions from various U.S. Supreme Court cases as well as listen to audio files of the argument (oyez.org); students can access and read the text of proposed bills and legislation that has been passed; and so much more. Students need to learn to go directly to sources rather than only getting them second-hand from news media and social media. Words, when removed from their context, can take on a different meaning than what the words as a whole might have intended, which is why being able to understand and read political documents is a skill much needed for an informed populace.

While this is by no means an extensive list, it is a starting point that utilizes resources that can be accessed by many. I hope that it can provide insight and information for both new and experienced teachers to transform their lessons and help educate our next generation.

Resources

  • Annenberg Classroom contains the text of the United States Constitution as well as explanations of the meaning.
  • CNN 10 can be used to show students news clips of what is going on in the world on a daily basis.
  • National Constitution Center has an Interactive Constitution which provides breakdowns and resources to help in interpreting the constitution, including the Bill of Rights.
  • Oyez can be used to access the U.S. Supreme Court case opinions and audio files.

Nicole Jamerson is a middle school civics teacher. She works with some amazing students in Orlando, Florida and loves helping them learn more about the government and country we live in. She has been teaching for over 6 years and in the last 3 years has been incorporating Project-Based Learning in her classroom. She and her husband who also teaches love having their summers off to road trip and travel the country!

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