Interpreting the Constitution

What is the lesson plan:  'Interpreting the Constitution'?

From iCivics

This lesson plan teaches students that the rights in the Bill of Rights are open to interpretation — they have no exact definition. 

Students look at real cases involving the Fifth and Eighth Amendments and consider whether they would come to the same conclusion about each case as the Supreme Court did.  Each student develops his/her own reasoning and casts a vote, understanding that the Supreme Court undergoes a similar decision-making process.

The real scenarios concerning the Fifth and Eight Amendments are especially appropriate for a high school audience; they allow the students to pick a side and then discuss as a class why they chose “yes” or “no.”

How do you use it?

This lesson plan gives judges or teachers all the materials needed to teach this lesson, including step-by-step instructions, handouts, powerpoints and flash-cards.  The various parts of the lesson plan direct students to make decisions about real cases that involved the Fifth and Eighth Amendments, and then lets them compare their results to the actual Supreme Court decisions for each case.

Caution:  The two "What Does That Mean" powerpoints (a slide from one of those presentations is duplicated here) have minimal educational value on their own, especially for a high school audience.  However those two presentations could be used as "cue cards" for a judge or presenter to talk over — or they could be used in front of a middle school audience.  The decision "games" are fun and help reinforce various key concepts.

Who is the audience?

Given the concepts of the Fifth and Eighth Amendments, "Interpreting the Constitution" is especially appropriate for high school students. Yet although it is meant for an older audience, the components of this lesson plan are sufficiently versatile to help younger students in middle school understand the Supreme Court and its decision-making on these issues.

What other resources will complement this?

  1. 9/11 and the Constitution  Lesson plans from the Center for Civic Education (M, H)  
  2. A Day in the Life  Interactive "game" from (M, H)
  3. Balancing Free Speech and Fair Trial   Lesson Plan from the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (H)
  4. Courts in the Classroom  Videos from the Judicial Council of California and the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts (P, M H)
  5. Korematsu and Civil Liberties  Video from the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics (H, A)
  6. One Person, One Vote  Video and lesson plan from the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics (H, A)
  7. Perseverance and the Bill of Rights  Lesson plan from the Bill of Rights Institute, via the National Constitution Center (M, H)  
  8. Respecting Freedom of Speech  Lesson Plan from the Bill of Rights Institute, via the National Constitution Center (M, H)  
  9. Supreme Decision  Game from iCivics (M, H) 
  10. The First and Fourteenth Amendments  Lesson Plan from Channel One (M, H)  
  11. The Story of the Bill of Rights  Videos and game from the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics (M, H)
  12. Yick Wo and the Equal Protection Clause  Video from the Leonore Annenberg Institute for Civics (H, A)

Additional Recommended Resources Off-Site Links
  1. A Constitutional Timeline
    • Multi-aged audience timeline that highlights key dates in history of Constitution, with links to text, audio and video clips. From National Constitution Center's Constitution Day site. 
  2. Interactive Constitution
    • Multi-aged audience site that enables users to search Constitution by keyword or topic, with access to explanatory materials throughout. From National Constitution Center.   
  3. The Annenberg Guide to the United States Constitution
    • Multi-aged audience site that lists the text of each section of every article in the Constitution, and provides explanation of what the text means in plain language.  From the Leonore Annenberg Institute of Civics. 
  4. Understanding the Federal Courts
    • Multi-aged online textbook-type document that includes sections on Article III, the Federal Court system and the geographical boundaries of the Courts of Appeal and the District Courts, the code of conduct for judges, juror qualifications, exemptions and terms of service, as well as categories of bankruptcy cases.  From the Administrative Office of U.S. Courts.