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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 18: Civics and Government Today.

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 currently requires students to begin civics education before eighth grade, and 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.

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, the material is well-suited to serve as a foundation for middle and 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.

Practical Suggestions for Civics Instruction

To come.

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 all four 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 “New Hampshire and the American Revolution” unit, three lessons examine the beginning of the revolution by looking at why it started and who declared independence. Two additional lessons focus on the perspectives of people in New Hampshire about the revolution and how they then participated in it. Finally, in the summative assessment lesson students use unit knowledge to construct in groups the front page of an 18th-century newspaper about the revolution.

Lesson Plan 1: Why Did We Have a Revolution?

Students define the word “revolution” using primary sources and an explainer video, then use non-fiction and mapping skills to decide how one of three events in New Hampshire meets their definition.

Lesson Plan 2: Revolutionary Taxes

Students participate in a classroom simulation about taxes before writing a dialogue explaining to the king why the colonists were so upset about taxes.

Lesson Plan 3: Who Declared Independence?

After comparing the words “petition” and “declaration,” students investigate groups in the colonies who worked for independence.

Lesson Plan 4: Divided New Hampshire

Students engage with varying perspectives about the revolution through journal entries and letters written by historic figures, then reflect personally about when they felt part of the majority or minority.

Lesson Plan 5: Who Took Part in the Revolution?

After practicing using evidence and reasoning to support claims, students move through stations to find evidence for their mind maps about how people in New Hampshire participated in the revolution.

Summative Assessment: Revolutionary News

Students look at the front pages of 18th-century newspapers and use unit knowledge in order to construct their own front pages of newspapers about the revolution.

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

adopt

 

amend

(verb) To revise or change

amendment

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

article

(noun) A part or piece of something

Articles of Confederation

 

bicameral

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

bill of rights

(noun) A document that contains a list of freedoms to protect; in the U.S. Constitution, the Bill of Rights is the first 10 amendments

Bill of Rights

 

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

central government

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

check

 

checks and balances

 

civic virtue

 

common defense

(noun) A phrase in the preamble of the Constitution; protection for the community

common good

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

compromise

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

consensus

 

consent

 

Constitution

 

constitution

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

constitutional convention

 

delegate

(noun) A representative who speaks for their people or organization

dictator

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

domestic

(adj) In our country or at home

elect

 

election

 

executive

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

executive branch

 

federal

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

federalism

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

foundational principle

 

Founding Fathers

 

fundamental

 

government

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

infringe

 

insure

(verb) To protect

judicial

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

judicial branch

 

justice

(noun) Fairness for everyone

legislative

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

legislative branch

 

legislature

 

liberty

(noun) The freedom to exercise your rights in a community

limited government

(noun) When the power of the people who rule a community is controlled so that no person or group gets too much power

majority

 

minority

 

more perfect union

(noun) A phrase in the preamble of the Constitution; a joining of the states in the best way possible

necessary and proper clause

(noun) A phrase in the United States Constitution that says that the central government can make all laws it thinks are necessary and good in order to run the nation

ordain

(verb) To declare

persuade

(verb) To cause something to happen through asking, giving reasons, or arguing

posterity

(noun) Future generations

preamble

(noun) Introduction

promote

(verb) To help

proportional representation

(noun) Representation in government based on the population; a larger population has more representation than a small population

ratification

(noun) A document that explains a new rule or decision made by a government

ratify

(verb) To make legal by signing or giving permission

representative democracy

(noun) When a group of people select someone to communicate their views and make laws for them

rights

 

rule of law

(noun) The idea that everyone in a community agrees to a set of written rules and then everyone follows the same rules

secede

(verb) To separate from a political organization, like from a state or country

social contract

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

society

 

supremacy clause

(noun) A phrase in the United States Constitution that says that the Constitution and any law made in the central government is more powerful than state laws

tranquillity

(adj) Peacefulness

welfare

(noun) Safety and happiness

Book
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
Website
Center for Civics Education: Teaching Resources
By Center for Civics Education
For Teachers. Age-appropriate lesson plans on the fundamentals of American government.
Podcast
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.
Website
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
Videos
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
Videos
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
Book
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
Website
iCivics
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
Book
If I Were President
By Catherine Stier
For Students. A picture book that explores what a young girl would do if she were elected president
Book
The Liberty Key
By Lorenca Consuelo Rosal
For Students and Educators. Cartoons, documents, and stories explore the creation of the NH Constitution
Program
NH's Kid Governor
By the New Hampshire Institute of Civics Education
For Students. A statewide program to annually elect a kid governor.
Book
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
Book
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
Website
We the People
By Scholastic Kids
For Students and Educators. Online book with a few videos and graphic organizers explaining how American government works
Book
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