The Powers that Be: A New Way to Analyze the Preamble

Help your students understand the Preamble as never before even as they engage in critical analysis skills, examining the Enumerated Powers of Congress as listed in Article I by comparing them to the goals of government found in the Preamble. Full instructions included in this blog post to help you take your Constitution teaching to the next level!

When studying the  U.S. Constitution, it makes a lot of sense to start at the Preamble, but bringing that text to life is easier said than done. In a lot of government and history classes, students read and discuss the Preamble; they may even be assigned to memorize and recite it. But then the class moves on into Article I without much else.

Six Goals of Government

The Preamble provides six reasons why the Constitution is being written:

  • To form a more perfect union
  • To establish justice
  • To insure domestic tranquility
  • To provide for common defense
  • To promote the general welfare
  • To secure the blessings of liberty to the founding generation as well as future generations

These can also be thought of as six reasons for the new government to exist, or six things that the government is supposed to accomplish. Government classes typically go over all the items to be sure students understand what each goal means; many teachers will take the discussion a step further by asking students to come up with things they believe the government could do, or does already do, to accomplish these six stated objectives.

A Better Way: A Deeper Analysis

Once I’m sure that my students can restate the six goals in their own words, I like to help them to acquire a much more in-depth understanding of what those goals meant back in 1789. What did “insuring domestic tranquility” look like to the founding generation?

To do this, I have students compare the Preamble with the Enumerated Powers of Congress, found in Article I Section 8. The Enumerated Powers is a list of eighteen entries, each of which puts forth one or more things that the United States Congress is definitely empowered to do. My goal is to guide the students toward a careful consideration of the relationships between these two sections of the Constitution.

How to Begin the Analysis

It’s good to get started by modeling one sample comparison. For this, I pick something simple from the Enumerated Powers. For example, according to the Enumerated Powers, Congress is authorized to establish post offices. Which of the six goals does that power support? Is there a relationship between the creation of post offices and promoting the general welfare? How can it help to provide for the common defense? What about domestic tranquility?

I have the class discuss the connections they can forge between the six goals in the Preamble and the post office clause. This requires them to put themselves in the place of the Founders and consider their life circumstances, including the technology of their day — the post office was a much more vital means of communication then than it is in the current day, which features any number of electronic alternatives.

In some cases, they may decide that there is NO relationship between post offices and a certain goal of government as stated in the Preamble. And that’s fine — not everything Congress is authorized to do will relate to all six goals, certainly. It is my contention, however, that each one of the Enumerated Powers should and does support at least one of the six goals. The exercise in class, then, becomes a matter of matching up each power with one or more of the six available goals.

Next Steps

Once the class understands the comparison process, I like to set them loose to work with the Enumerated Powers in pairs or small groups. For each power they consider, they need to do two things:

  • Match up the power to one or more of the Preamble goals
  • Be prepared to explain and justify their match-ups, persuading others that indeed, the power can be used to accomplish the goal(s) claimed

I usually insist that each group write down its findings and rationales so they can be clear and concise later when sharing their thoughts with the class.

Instructional Options

To assign the comparison, you might print off a list of the Enumerated Powers. If you don’t want to create one yourself, you could consider using the Enumerated Powers Analysis Worksheet packet linked at the end of these instructions.

If You Only Have One Class Period for the Activity:

Slice the print-out into pieces, giving each pair or group two or three powers to work with. This would probably take them 10 or 15 minutes; you could use the balance of the class period to have each group share its findings with the class, defending their match-ups against challenges by other groups.

If You Have Two Class Periods:

Alternatively, you might ask each pair or group to do match-ups for all of the Enumerated Powers. This would probably occupy the students for most of a class period, and the next day could be used to call on students randomly to state and justify their match-ups. This approach conveniently means that students can be assigned to complete their match-ups as homework, assuming that they need more than one full class period to work with the Enumerated Powers.

The second option takes longer, but has a strong advantage in that it will require each student to do direct work with all of the Enumerated Powers. This can provide a good foundation for further study of the Constitution and U.S. government. With the first option, however, you can still guarantee that all students are at least exposed to all the Enumerated Powers, simply by making sure that you go through all of them while you are asking groups to justify their findings.

Looking Backwards

Another way to use this approach is to wait until you reach Article I, Section 8 in your regular curriculum sequence. In my classes, we get there right after we study Section 7, since it’s my practice to read through the entire Constitution with my students every year, discussing all provisions as we go. Or you might reach the Enumerated Powers when your textbook deals with them.

If you do the comparison then, you’ll help students to review the Preamble and reinforce their earlier understanding of it. At the same time, you’ll be helping them to gain a much more thorough understanding of the Enumerated Powers.

Either way you proceed, it’s a win-win!

Enumerated Powers Worksheets

You can do this activity with very few materials. All you really need are printouts of the Preamble and the Enumerated Powers, and those can be easily created just by selecting text from an online version of the Constitution. In a pinch, you can even do the activity without any printouts at all — just have students refer to the Constitutions printed in their government textbooks. This makes comparing a little more difficult as they might have to flip back and forth between the Preamble and the powers.

Another option is to use these Preamble and Enumerated Powers Worksheets I’ve prepared to facilitate the activity. The packet linked below contains additional instructions and teaching tips to help you make the most as you guide your students through this deeper analysis of constitutional thought.

Click below to find out more this quick and fun hands-on Constitution analysis activity!

Reading the Constitution is one thing, but thinking carefully and critically about it is far more valuable! This worksheet will give teachers the tools they need to help students analyze the Enumerated Powers of Congress. Many students find the Enumerated Powers rather boring, but there's no reason for that, not when they are given the opportunity to dive deep into the text and do a little close reading analysis! The goal of the worksheet is to encourage students to think more deeply about how actions by Congress can serve the nation by fulfilling the goals of government listed in the Preamble.


Other Constitution Activities You Might Find Useful:

Liven up your government teaching with this guided Constitution Article I worksheet that takes students through the details of the legislative branch. These worksheets let students really get into the primary source text instead of relying on textbook authors to tell them what the Constitution says about Congress -- and because it is a complete look at Article I, it covers a lot of ground that textbooks tend to overlook!

A GUIDED WORKSHEET THAT TAKES STUDENTS ALL THE WAY THROUGH ARTICLE I

Liven up your government teaching with this guided Constitution Article I worksheet that takes students through the details of the legislative branch. These worksheets let students really get into the primary source text instead of relying on textbook authors to tell them what the Constitution says about Congress — and because it is a complete look at Article I, it covers a lot of ground that textbooks tend to overlook!

 


This Article I project, in contrast, will help students apply what they are reading to the modern United States in which they live. This Constitution project is intended to help students gain a much better understanding of the ways in which Congress currently uses the powers granted to it in Article I, Section 8 of the U.S. Constitution -- the portion of the text that's commonly referred to as the “Enumerated Powers.”

A GOVERNMENT PROJECT THAT HELPS STUDENTS SEE THE POWERS OF CONGRESS IN ACTION!

As they complete the steps of this Article I Project, students will:
• Re-read the Enumerated Powers, looking for ones that most interest them
• Research reputable news sources looking for instances in which Congress has recently used one or more of the Enumerated Powers
• Evaluate the newsworthiness of online sources
• Summarize and analyze a news article
• Demonstrate their understanding of a specific enumerated power by marking the text of a news article they choose
• Demonstrate their understanding of the same news article by composing critical thinking questions about it
• Craft an original news story of their own that demonstrates Congress using another one of their Enumerated Powers
• Practice key electronic publishing skills to make their creative writing piece look polished and professional
• Gain confidence in public speaking by performing a dramatic reading of their creative writing piece

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