New Resource for High School Teachers: Constitutional Convention Simulation

I’m presenting at the National Council for the Social Studies annual conference in Washington, DC this weekend on ConSource’s new Choosing to Make a Nation Curriculum project, and in particular our Constitutional Convention unit, which is now available for free download. More information about both is provided below. This is an outstanding resource for high school government and history teachers!

Choosing to Make a Nation: Interactive Lessons on the Revolution, Constitution, and Bill of Rights

The Choosing to Make a Nation Curriculum Project developed by award-winning author Ray Raphael is a student-centered, primary source-rich approach to teaching about American history and our nation‘s founding documents. The lesson plans in this curriculum are premised on the idea that history is the chronicle of choices made by actors/agents/protagonists in specific contexts. Students understand choices – they make them all the time. These lessons involve students by placing them in the shoes of historical people and asking: “What might you do in such instances?”

For these exercises to be historical (more than affirmations of individual whims), we needed to provide context: what was the issue, the problem to be solved? What were the existing realities/constraints that limited possibilities? With those in mind, what were the available options? For each option, how did people view the possibilities for a desired outcome? What were the potential dangers? When studying battles, we see how generals evaluate troop strengths, positioning, logistics, morale, and so on. In fact, all historical actors do this—not just leading political figures, but ordinary people and collective bodies. In Revolutionary times, people often made decisions in groups, both indoors (town meetings, caucuses, conventions, congresses) and “out-of-doors,” as they said at the times, informal gatherings that protested authority or enforced popular will. Individuals, forced to navigate the troubled waters of those days, also faced momentous decisions.

Our task is to introduce students to historical protagonists who confronted such choices. Points of decision create teachable moments. We help students imagine, from a distant time, the hopes of these people, but also their constraints. With these protagonists, students explore the available options. Having skin in the game, they will better understand why people acted as they did. They will think more deeply about the paths actually taken — how events ensued, the consequences of decisions, and the subsequent issues these created. By exercising individual and group decision-making skills within political contexts, they prepare for civic life.

The Constitutional Convention unit is now available for free download here.

Other units will be published online once completed, and include: The Road to Revolution; The Declaration of Independence, The Revolutionary War; Articles of Confederation and State Constitutions; Ratification of the Constitution; the Bill of Rights; and the Constitution in Action.

Constitutional Convention Simulation

Basic Structure for Choice-Centered Lessons

  • Formulate the problem, the issue at hand; define the players; provide context.
  • Outline and discuss the available options.
  • Individuals or groups make and reveal their choices.
  • Presentation of the historical outcome: the choice actually made by the players – using historical documents whenever possible.
  • Analysis of the historical outcome.

Infrastructure for the Constitutional Convention Simulation

  • The eight lessons can be used individually or as a unit. In either case, here are the basic rules of operation.
  • Assign each student to a state delegation in 1787 Federal Convention in Philadelphia. You can also allow students to choose their states. Students should sit with their fellow state delegates.
  • Break groups, called “discussion and debate” (D&D) groups will be comprised of several state delegations from diverse regions: lower South, upper South, mid-Atlantic, New England. These should be small enough to allow each student to participate. The number of state delegations represented in each group will vary according to class size.
  • Each time students meet in their D&D groups, they should be reminded that these are for deliberations only. The groups do not have to come to any agreements. Students will not be casting votes in these groups.
  • Students will vote by state delegation – one vote for each state delegation, just as it was at the Federal Convention of 1787. If delegates of any state are evenly divided on an issue, they report “divided” as their state’s vote.

If you plan to teach each lesson in the unit, here is the suggested order:

  1. Reform or Revolution? (one-day and two-day options)
  2. Composition of Congress (one-day and two-day options)
  3. Creating an Executive (one-day and two-day options)
  4. Should Judges Judge Laws? (one-day lesson)
  5. Fine Tuning the Balance of Powers (one-day and two-day options)
  6. Slavery at the Constitutional Convention (two-day lesson)
  7. Amendments and Ratification (one-day and two-day options)
  8. To Sign or Not To Sign
    1. Option A: The Historical Constitution (one-day lesson)
    2. Option B: The Student-Generated Constitution (one-day lesson)

 

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