For my middle school U.S. History course, I created a project to introduce students to the basic structure, roles and responsibilities of a government. I found that this pre-work comes in handy for when we begin to look at the development of the U.S. government as it exists today.
Here’s how it works:
1. Defining Government
I have students take out their devices (we are a BYOD school) and have them search online for anything that will contribute to an understanding of what the word government means. We look up definitions, synonyms, related terms and ideas and I put them on the board. Then, I challenge the students to take all the ideas and develop a definition of what government is.
2. What a Government Does
Next, I have students search online for the tasks or jobs that governments are typically responsible for. Here, I have the students create a bullet-point list in their notes. I move around the room, peeking over their shoulders and commenting aloud on their lists. For instance, I might say “Wow, that is an interesting one!” or “Nice thought – you are the first student to find that one!” I also use my wandering time to ensure students are actually doing something. I might call out any lists that aren’t long enough – but I won’t attribute any sarcasm to anyone in particular. I would boom out something like “What? Only three? Come on!” and then, on a more positive note, call out someone anonymously for having a really impressive list: “Look at this list! Awesome!”
Once I feel that students have gathered enough information, we start sharing our lists aloud. Again, I put their ideas up on the board. Once we have exhausted the ideas, I ask students to copy down ideas listed on the board that they didn’t have on their own list. This way, all students have the same list to work with.
3. Types of Government
In this step, I have students enter “types of government” into Google. Using the results, students are challenged to find 10 types of government systems. Again, I walk around the room, peering over shoulders. In this step, I am seeking understanding versus quantity. So, I will ask students about the government systems on their list to see if they can define the style and explain how it works. Some students surprise me with their existing knowledge. Others are delighted by the variety of styles out there. One of my favorite sites to introduce to students is http://phrontistery.info/govern.html This site lists dozens of styles – some of which are legitimate and founded on reality. The rest of the styles on this site, however, are quite intriguing and spark amazing discussions. For instance, on Phrontistery you can find styles such as foolocracy, kleptocracy, and paedarchy.
Once students have their list of 10, I ask students to circle their top three. This project usually occurs right after my unit on the U.S. Revolution. So, the context is the creation of the new U.S. government following the end of British monarchy. As a result, when they choose their top three, it must be the top three that the U.S. might have actually adopted following the revolution. I find it helpful to review the characteristics of the USA at this point in time to ensure students can accurately determine what styles of government that U.S. citizens might be interested in. We talk about the fear of dictatorship, the hatred of monarchy, the strong belief in their rights, the quickly growing population, etc.
4. The Best Option for the New USA
The next stage is to challenge students to choose the best government option for the newly free United States. Students are given the choice to work with a single existing government style, to combine multiple existing styles (ie, republicanism, democracy and theocracy), or to create a style from scratch.
5. The Formal Presentation
Once a final style was selected, students were further challenged to flesh out their choice for a formal presentation to George Washington and the Continental Congress. The presentation had to take the form of a Google Slides presentation (or MS PowerPoint) and had to fully explain how their new government style was organized and how it operated.
Points that had to be addressed in the presentation included:
- Who is in charge of your style of government? Is it a team? Is it a committee? Is it one person? Is it three people?
- What is the name of your style of government? Why did you choose that name?
- What jobs/tasks will your government be responsible for?
- How is the leader(s) chosen? By votes of the people? By a test? Are they chosen by a team of smart people?
- How long are leaders in power? For life? For 4 years? For 2 years? For 5 years?
- What are the rules for succession? Who is in charge if the leader(s) die?
- How are laws made? Only by the leader? Is there a team who makes laws?
- How are taxes made? Can taxes be changed? Who collects the taxes?
- Is there a group who check the laws to make sure they are just and fair? Who is in this group?
- Is there a Parliament/Congress/Committee who make laws? How are they chosen? How long can they be in power? 4 years? 2 years?
- Does the government represent all 13 states, or is it possible for all the leaders to come from one or two states?
- Will small states be treated the same as big states? Will there be one representative for each state or do the bigger states (with more people) get more representatives?
- Is there a plan to make sure no one can take all the power and become a dictator?
- Is the military a part of the government? Or, are they separate? Who controls the military – one person, or a group?
- Is the religion a part of the government? Or, are they separate?
- Can laws be cancelled or changed?
- Can leaders be fired? How does that work?
- Are citizens free? Or, are freedoms restricted by laws? Are people free to do anything?
- How are citizens involved in the government? Can they meet with leaders to complain? Can citizens suggest ideas for new laws? Can citizens ask for laws to be cancelled?
- Is there voting? If so, who gets to vote? Everyone? Only smart people? Only men? Only free people? Can children vote, or is there an age limit?
- Is there 1 big government in charge of all 13 states? Or, are there 13 governments that work together?
At the actual presentation, I play the role of George Washington (complete with my powdered wig and period clothes!). If you want to go crazy, you can have the students in the audience play the roles of the state representatives. You can even teach students to say old-timey things like “Hear! Hear!” or “For shame!” whenever something of note is presented. There is lots of room for fun here.
This project helps students develop a basic understanding of the role and structure of government. Then, when we explore the actual makeup of the U.S. government, students are better equipped to understand and critique it. There’s nothing better than overhearing a student make a comment like “Nice – we had the same succession plan in our government!” when they study the actual U.S. government.
I hope you find this useful. As always, if you have any suggestions, I would love to hear them!