Teaching and Learning History - 091316

Classroom Applications


Using the Preamble to Commemorate Constitution Day

By Beth Scarbrough
Chair, NCHE Board of Directors

Constitution Day 2016 will be observed on Friday, September 16. The U.S. Department of Education encourages educators to help our students “reflect on the importance of active citizenship, recognize the enduring strength of our Constitution, and reaffirm our commitment to the rights and obligations of citizenship in this great Nation.”

So, what will that look like in your classroom this year? How can you fulfill the federal mandate and continue to help students think like historians?
One suggestion is to use the Preamble for an inquiry-based lesson. The introduction to the Constitution holds our highest ideals of what government is meant to provide for its citizens. With a little guided inquiry the Preamble is accessible to students from Kindergarten through 12th grade. As their inquiry grows, so too does their understanding of the Constitution and the reasons for its commemoration each September.
So, here it is in all its glory . . . the Preamble:

We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Admittedly, some of the words and phrasing are hard for students to understand. How do we help them?
Here are two ideas from Teaching Like a Historian by Mandell & Malone (2008)
     1.  Pose big questions and ask students what they would need to know in order to answer them. Change the “what I’d need to know” statements into questions. Students can use these questions to guide their learning.
     2.  Give students a primary document that will be used later in the unit or lesson. Ask them what they do know and what they do not know from examining the document. The things they don’t know can be formulated as questions for further investigation.
Taking idea #1, the big question could be: Why does the Constitution have a Preamble?
What do we need to know to answer the question? In my elementary classroom students need to know:

  1. What the Preamble says.
  2. What the word “Preamble” means.
  3. What the Constitution does for the United States.
So, our questions to answer for Constitution Day included:
  1. What does the Preamble say?
  2. What does the word “Preamble” mean?
  3. What does the Constitution do for the United States?
Now your students are ready to research to find the answers. Leading your students in creating the questions, generates curiosity and leads to authentic learning.

Using the second idea, give your students a copy of the Preamble and begin the inquiry discussion by listing the things that students already know about the document. I gave a class of 5/6 students the Preamble and asked them to tell me what they know after reading the document. They answered:
  1. It is the beginning of the Constitution.
  2. It has a list of things the government is supposed to do.
  3. The people created the government.
Now, what did they need to know?
  1. What does it mean to:
    1. establish justice?
    2. insure domestic tranquility?
    3. provide for the common defense?
    4. promote the general welfare?
    5. secure the blessings of liberty?
    6. ordain and establish the Constitution?
Using these questions, the class split into groups to research each question and report back to the class.

The discussion at the end was much more lively than if I had just put them in groups and given them questions to research. They own the inquiry and their acquisition of knowledge.

These two strategies for inquiry are useful tools in our classrooms on Constitution Day and beyond. 

About NCHE

The National Council for History Education promotes historical literacy by creating opportunities for teachers and students to benefit from more history, better taught.