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Unit 18 Plan: Civics and Government Today

Unit Summary

For upper elementary students, the material contained in Unit 18: Civics and Government Today may be their first exposure to information about how the government works and the role of citizens in a representative democracy. Students are introduced to the fundamental principles that are the foundation of American government and essential to its preservation. Although many of these concepts are abstract, students can engage these concepts and grasp them in concrete forms.
This unit also covers the structure of the federal government, the state government, and local government in New Hampshire, as well as media literacy, civic virtue, and the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Educators are encouraged to use historical examples that appear throughout the “Moose on the Loose” to illustrate civics and government in action.

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A Word about Civics and “Moose on the Loose”

The New Hampshire Historical Society takes seriously its responsibility to offer high-quality civics resources. The material offered in “Moose on the Loose” covers not just the logistics of civics instruction but also the foundational principles that are so important to our nation’s past, present, and future. Although well within the grasp of children at the elementary grade levels, an introduction to these foundational principles is sadly curtailed, or even omitted, in most civics instruction today. “Moose on the Loose” hopes to remedy that.

“Moose on the Loose” includes numerous instructional resources on civics and government geared specifically for elementary students. Many of these resources appear throughout the “Moose,” interwoven with the state’s history, but two units in particular focus on these subjects. The first is Unit 6: Establishing Government, which explores the creation of both the New Hampshire and U.S. constitutions, beginning with the fundamental ideas that shaped the Founding Fathers’ decisions about the type of government best suited to support our liberty and prosperity. This unit also introduces the concept of rights. Note that this unit focuses on state and national constitutions as they were when they were created, not necessarily as they are today.

The second is Unit 18: Civics and Government Today, in which students return to these fundamental ideas as they learn about the characteristics of American democracy in our own times; the structure of national, state, and local governments; the rights and responsibilities of citizenship; and the importance of media literacy. This unit focuses on the way national, state, and local governments work today, not necessarily the way they worked when they were created. The lesson plans for this unit encourage more in-depth explorations of key concepts in American civics and government that are vitally important to our society today. Students are given many opportunities to both learn and take informed action in constructive ways that emphasize how our democratic processes are supposed to work.

The two units were designed to work together, and combined they offer a scaffold to expand civics instruction in later grades.

For more about the importance of incorporating our country’s foundational principles into civics instruction, see the unit plan for Unit 6: Establishing Government.

Foundational Principles and Informed Action

Unlike other units in “Moose on the Loose,” the unit plan for Unit 18: Civics and Government Today does not contain additional content material for educators that deepens their knowledge of a particular historical topic. Instead, the educator overview in the unit plan discusses best practices for civics education at a time when American government and politics seem to be in crisis in our country. Increased partisanship, the breakdown of traditional norms that have preserved American democracy, and an adult population that probably knows less about civics and government than any previous generation have prompted calls for schools to improve students’ civics education. Yet most educators lack the resources and training to do so. “Moose on the Loose”—and particularly the units on constitutions (Unit 6) and civics and government (Unit 18)—attempts to lay the foundation that will help rectify these problems for New Hampshire teachers and their students.

New Hampshire state law requires students to begin civics education in kindergarten, but many New Hampshire schools first offer instruction in American civics and government in middle school. The little civics and government instruction introduced in younger grades tends to gravitate toward national symbols and holidays. Yet scholars who study civics education have found that substantive instruction in this topic must start at the elementary level in order for students to become fully immersed in democratic beliefs and practices. In many ways, the classroom may be the first civic experience of a child’s life. The behaviors that shape good citizenship—fair play, following rules, concern for equity—are well suited for elementary classrooms and certainly within the grasp of elementary students.

But practical lessons in social behavior and acceptable classroom habits are not sufficient for instilling in students a true understanding of democratic principles. It is essential that behaviors are linked firmly with the ideas that underlie our system of government, and elementary students are undoubtedly capable of grasping these ideas with suitable guidance and instruction. Even in middle schools, much of civics education centers around learning the logistics of how government works (how many senators come from each state, how old one needs to be to run for president) rather than the foundational concepts that have shaped American democracy.

This problem is exacerbated by an emphasis on skills over content knowledge and the general enthusiasm for getting students to “take action” when the national civics standards calls for students to “take informed action.” The distinction between the two is critical to successful civics education and for cultivating the kind of civic behavior that a democratic society requires to survive and thrive. Furthermore, social studies leaders on the national level emphasize instruction in civics over student action. In other words, if students are to take action at all, it should only be after all the other requirements of civics education have been met.

The need for high-quality civics resources that focus on foundational principles is not just restricted to elementary schools, and more than any other units in “Moose on the Loose,” Unit 6: Establishing Government and Unit 18: Civics and Government Today are scalable. Although written for upper elementary students and midle school students, the material is well-suited to serve as a foundation for high school students’ civics instruction as well. Teachers can expand upon these concepts by adapting lesson plans and activities to delve more deeply into the complexities of American democracy.

Although there are certainly challenges in teaching substantive civics programs, there are also tremendous benefits. Civics education can help educators to:

  • Teach empathy and develop students’ understanding of the common good
  • Incorporate inquiry, including opportunities for students to take meaningful action
  • Illustrate the wide variety of perspectives that exist in American society
  • Develop students’ critical thinking skills in contexts that are relevant to their lives
  • Use historical examples to create the intellectual distance necessary to evaluate complex issues, to understand how our society got where it is today, and to appreciate the work and sacrifices of those who came before us
  • Engage students in civil dialogue and find common ground even amidst disagreements
  • Provide current, real-life examples for evaluating sources, information, and arguments
  • Develop students’ understanding of the difference between opinion and informed opinion
  • Cultivate students’ sense of agency in their own lives
All of these are essential to supporting American democracy.

Focus Questions for This Unit

Lessons in this unit are geared towards students answering the unit focus questions comprehensively through a variety of methods. This unit’s focus questions are:
  • 1
    How do people act as good citizens in a democracy?
  • 2
    What are the people’s rights and responsibilities?
  • 3
    What are the responsibilities of federal, state, and local government?
  • 4
    How is a balance of power part of our democracy?

Essential Questions for This Unit

Essential questions are designed to be answered repeatedly throughout the entire curriculum. This unit particularly addresses three of the curriculum’s essential questions:
  • 1
    How has New Hampshire come to be the way it is?
  • 2
    How has New Hampshire been shaped by many voices?
  • 3
    How have New Hampshire’s people shaped its government?

In the “Civics and Government Today” unit, two lessons introduce students to the definitions of democracy and living document. The next three lesson plans examine limiting government, the specifics of the New Hampshire state legislature, and local government. The sixth lesson plan is a writing assessment about the balance of power in government today. Then, students investigate how to behave as a good citizen through paying taxes, balancing rights and responsibilities, and civic engagement. The last two lessons curate activities on media literacy and guide students through essential skills of civil discourse and mediation in difficult discussions in order to create a strong community.

Lesson Plan 1: What Is Democracy?

Students first compare monarchy and democracy before reading about and creating a “Democracy Superhero,” made up of the six characteristics of American democracy.

Lesson Plan 2: What Is a Living Document?

After using a primary source to introduce the idea of a living document, students examine four amendments about voting with a thinking routine and explore how the U.S. Constitution is amended.

Lesson Plan 3: Federalism and the Separation of Powers

Students compare how a school is separated into levels of governance to understand federalism and identify ways in which their federal, state, and local governments affect them, then make graphic notes about the three branches and play a game using their knowledge.

Lesson Plan 4: The New Hampshire State Legislature

Students first “meet” their legislators, then identify core parts of New Hampshire’s legislative process through a simulation game before reflecting about whether and how they could change existing laws.

Lesson Plan 5: Local Government

Construction of a class K-W-L chart helps students identify what they want to know about their local government so they can figure out resources to investigate it, then they participate in a mock town meeting and vote on class issues.

Lesson Plan 6: Balance of Power Writing Assessment

After discussing how a balance of power works, students use unit knowledge to complete graphics and then write an essay about a balance of power in government today.

Lesson Plan 7: Rights and Responsibilities

Students discuss how rights and responsibilities connect through examples in their lives and in historic images.

Lesson Plan 8: How Do Taxes Work?

Students first discuss how to pay for a public service and sort services into public and private before debating whether a public service should be paid for by federal, state, or local government and write a proposal for a new service in their town.

Lesson Plan 9: Good Citizenship and Civic Engagement

After assessing cartoons to develop a definition of good citizenship, students rank the traits of good citizenship, role play conversations about why to vote, and complete a Venn diagram comparing good citizenship in adults and children.

Lesson Plan 10: Media Literacy

After defining media literacy, students engage in activities exploring and practicing media literacy from a curated list of outstanding websites.

Lesson Plan 11: Perspectives in Democracy

Students learn an active listening technique and consider the difference between debate and discussion before using scenarios about town conflicts to practice mediation and civil discourse.

Please note that a printable vocabulary list with definitions is accessible to students in the Learn It! section of this unit.

Vocabulary in This Unit


(verb) To revise or change


(noun) An addition to an existing document; in the U.S. Constitution, the amendments come after the original document


(noun) Something used to cast votes in an election. Ballots can either be on a piece of paper or a computer


(noun) A legislature that has two parts; the U.S. Congress is bicameral because it has the House of Representatives and the Senate


(noun) In government, a draft version of legislation that is under debate and not yet law

Bill of Rights

(noun) The first 10 amendments to the U.S. Constitution that list the freedoms of the people and states; the Bill of Rights was adopted in 1791

board of aldermen

(noun) A governing body of a city of town

branch of government

(noun) A section of government with its own purpose; the U.S. government has three sections of the government with different responsibilities that support each other to create, examine, and enforce laws


(noun) An estimate for how much money will be spent and made in a set amount of time


(noun) A group of unelected people who manage government business


(noun) In government, a group of people who advise the leader


(noun) Someone who is applying for a job. In a presidential primary, a candidate is a person who is trying to get the job of president of the United States.

central government

(noun) The center or federal government of a group of states; the U.S. central government is in Washington, D.C.


(verb) In government, when one part of the government legally stops another part from taking its desired actions

checks and balances

(noun) The idea where separate parts of the government are given powers to stop each other’s actions and are made to share power


(noun) A member by law of a nation or group

citizen legislature

(noun) (noun) A group of people chosen or elected to make the laws for a colony or state; citizen legislators are not full-time politicians and usually have other jobs


(noun) The position of belonging to a nation or group by law

city council

(noun) A group of elected officials that makes laws for a city

civic disposition

(noun) Having the traits necessary to take on the responsibilities of citizenship in a community

civic engagement

(noun) Actions taken to participate in the rights and responsibilities of citizenship in a community

civic virtue

(noun) Actions citizens do and qualities citizens have that benefit their community


(noun) Behaving or speaking in a polite manner


(noun) A person who manages and keeps records and accounts in an organization


(noun) A group of people who make decisions and plans about a specific topic or issue

common good

(noun) A phrase in the preamble of the Constitution; what is best for the community


(noun) A group of people living together or having something particular in common


(verb) The process of coming to a solution that works for everyone


(noun) When a group of people come to agreement about an issue


(noun) A document laying out the rules for how a government will work


(noun) The document that lays out the framework for how the federal government works; written in 1787 and ratified in 1789

Declaration of Independence

(noun) The document that said the 13 colonies would be free of Great Britain's control; it was adopted in 1776

deliberative session

(noun) A time to explain, discuss, and debate proposals in government


(noun) A government ruled by majority vote of the people

democratic process

(noun) When citizens participate in governing their community


(noun) The ruler of a nation or people who has absolute power


(noun) Unjustly treating someone or something differently


(noun) When people vote for a person for office or other position

eligible voter

(noun) Someone who is legally allowed to vote in an election


(noun) When people or things are treated the same


(adjective) Describing the person or branch of government who puts plans and laws into effect

executive branch

(noun) The section of government that puts plans and laws into effect

executive council

(noun) In New Hampshire, the elected group of people who advise the governor


(adjective) The central government of a group of states; the U.S. federal government is in Washington, D.C.


(noun) When local towns, states, and the federal government share power together

foundational principle

(noun) An idea on which something stands; one foundational principle of the United States is the rule of law

founding documents

(noun) A piece of writing that states the ideas or principles on which a government was founded; in the United States, the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the Federalist Papers are founding documents

Founding Fathers

(noun) The people who led the colonies in the American Revolution, then designed and set up the government of the United States; also called the framers

free press

(noun) When the group of people who report the news are allowed to speak without controls from the government

General Court

(noun) The official name for the New Hampshire state legislature

good citizenship

(noun) Actions people take to appropriately behave as a member of a community, such as civic duty


(noun) A group of people that have the power to make and carry out laws for a community


(noun) The leader of the executive branch of a state government

House of Representatives

(noun) One of two legislative chambers; usually larger than the Senate

individual rights

(noun) Freedoms a person has under a democratic government; for example, to speak freely or pursue happiness


(verb) To actively break a law or agreement

interest group

(noun) A group of people who care about a particular issue and try to influence the government on that issue


(noun) A person who investigates and reports the news


(noun) A person who knows the law and decides for the community whether actions follow the law


(adjective) Describing the people or branch of government that decides if laws are fair

judicial branch

(noun) The section of government that decides if laws are fair


(noun) 1 Behavior or treatment that is fair and right
2 A person who knows the law and decides for the community whether actions follow the law; justices are similar to judges but sit on state supreme courts or the U.S. Supreme Court


(noun) A rule that regulates the actions of members of a community


(adjective) Describing the people or branch of government that makes laws

legislative branch

(noun) The section of government that makes laws


(noun) A person elected to serve in either the House of Representatives or Senate


(noun) A group of people chosen or elected to make the laws for a colony or state


(noun) The ability to read and write

living document

(noun) A paper that is added to or changed through time

local control

(noun) When decisions about government are left up to the local community, rather than the state or federal government


(noun) More than half of a group


(noun) The elected executive of a city


(noun) A system to communicate with a large number of people, such as television, radio, or newspapers; for example, the news media communicates about events

media literacy

(noun) The ability to identify different means of communication, to recognize and to evaluate the messages in the information, and to create your own communication


(noun) Less than half of a group


(noun) A person who leads a meeting to ensure it is organized and balanced


(noun) A form of government led by a king or queen who holds the leadership position for life


(noun) A formal proposal made in a meeting


(adjective) Describing something or someone who is not on any side of an issue

party divide

(noun) When political groups disagree on many issues and have trouble working together


(noun) The point of view expressed through writing, speech, photographs, and other sources of information

point of order

(noun) A question in a formal meeting whether the rules are being followed

political party

(noun) An organized group of people with similar goals and opinions about how a nation should function. The United States has two major political parties: the Democratic Party and the Republican Party.


(noun) Someone whose profession is to be in government


(noun) The elected executive of a government


(noun) News media including print and digital publications

public service

(noun) Something that is supplied for the benefit of the people; examples of public services are police, libraries, school, roads, courts, and military


(noun) The person selected by a group of people who will communicate their views and make laws for them


(noun) A community where people are governed by their elected representatives


(noun) An action an individual takes to be accountable for something


(noun) Something a person should legally or morally be able to do or get to have

school board

(noun) A group of elected representatives who make decisions about the school system in a town

select board

(noun) A group of people elected to govern a town


(noun) One of two legislative chambers; usually smaller than the House of Representatives

separation of powers

(noun) When the actions government can take to govern are divided among parts of the government in order to limit government’s power

social contract

(noun) An agreement between people and their government to give up some rights in exchange for security and law and order


(noun) What comes when people live together in a community


(noun) In government, a member of the House or Senate who officially presents a bill to the legislature

supervisors of the checklist

(noun) People elected to maintain the official list of voters


(noun) An amount of money, added to the regular cost of an item, that goes to the government

town council

(noun) A group of people elected to govern a town

town meeting

(noun) A formal gathering of the citizens of a town to discuss and vote on town business

town meeting day

(noun) The day on which a formal gathering of the citizens of a town to discuss and vote on town business occurs; in New Hampshire, this day is traditionally the second Tuesday in March

town report

(noun) A yearly document laying out the management, money matters, and actions of a town


(verb) To reject something; in government, to reject the final version of a bill passed by the legislature

voter turnout

(noun) The number of people who voted in an election divided by the number of people allowed to vote; shown as a percentage


(noun) A document giving authority to do something

warrant article

(noun) A planned action or discussion item to be considered at a town meeting

The Bill of Rights: Protecting Our Freedom Then and Now
By Syl Sobel
For Students. A look at each of the 10 amendments in the Bill of Rights, suitable for grades 4–7
Civics 101
By New Hampshire Public Radio
For Educators. Fun and irreverent series that explores how American government works, with some politics and history thrown in; includes lesson plans, activities, and graphic organizers.
Civics 101: NH
By New Hampshire Public Radio
For Educators. Fun and irreverent series that explores how New Hampshire state government works, with some politics and history thrown in; includes lesson plans, activities, and graphic organizers.
Constitution in the Classroom
By the National Constitution Center
For Educators. Projects, lesson plans, educational resources, and virtual classroom presentations centered around the U.S. Constitution
Constitution USA
By Peter Sagal from NPR
For Educators, with some videos appropriate for students. Short videos of Sagal traveling around the country seeing the Constitution in action and explaining various components of the the Constitution and the Bill of Rights
Crash Course: The Constitution
By John Green
For Educators. Fast-paced and irreverent video covering the Articles of Confederation and the creation and ratification of the Constitution
Crash Course: U.S. Government and Politics
By Craig Benzine and PBS
For Students and Educators. Follows the same format as John Green’s popular Crash Course series on history with fast-paced narrative explanations of key concepts, animations, and thought bubbles. Might be suitable for advanced middle school or high school students
How the U.S. Government Works
By Syl Sobel
For Students. Geared toward upper elementary and middle school students, it explores the three branches of the federal government
By iCivics
For Students and Educators. A wide variety of teaching resources, including games, activities, DBQs, and lesson plans, that cover all of U.S. civics
If I Were President
By Catherine Stier
For Students. A picture book that explores what a girl would do if she were elected president
The Liberty Key
By Lorenca Consuelo Rosal
For Students and Educators. Cartoons, documents, and stories explore the creation of the NH Constitution
NH's Kid Governor
By the New Hampshire Institute of Civics Education
For Students. A statewide program to annually elect a kid governor.
Center for Civics Education: Teaching Resources
By Center for Civics Education
For Teachers. Age-appropriate lesson plans on the fundamentals of American government.
We the Kids: The Preamble to the Constitution of the United States
By David Catrow
For Students. Appropriate for kids ages 4–9, this picture book uses illustrations to explain the Constitution’s preamble
We the People
By Scholastic Kids
For Students and Educators. Online book with a few videos and graphic organizers explaining how American government works
We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution
By the Center for Civics Education
For Students. High-quality civics textbook and teacher’s guide for students, focusing on national government. Four levels of the curriculum cover grades 3 to 12
We the People: The Story of Our Constitution
By Lynne Cheney
For Students. Illustrated story of the creation of the Constitution, suited for grades 5–8