Most U.S. history and government textbooks present the Constitution as a kind of secular Ten Commandments: James Madison brought the document from the mountain and it was Good. The books may point out that not everyone agreed on the best plan for government, but through debate and compromise “Right” triumphed.
What makes this treatment of the Constitution so pernicious is its effect on students. Removed from a social context, cast as an inevitability, the document is elevated to an almost holy status, above analysis and critique. This Constitution-as-religious-icon scenario doesn’t allow much wiggle room for student reflection. Instead, the teacher’s task is to enlist students in memorizing Constitutional wisdom: What’s meant by “checks and balances”? What’s a writ of habeas corpus? I’m sure I wasn’t the only student forced to learn by heart and repeat on command: “We the people, in order to form a more perfect union …” This is indoctrination, not education.
The Constitution Role Play asks students to think critically about a number of issues that confronted the original framers of the Constitution. But the role play adds a twist: instead of including only the bankers, lawyers, merchants, and plantation owners who attended the actual Constitutional Convention, the activity also invites poor farmers, workers, and enslaved African Americans. This more representative assembly gives students a chance to see the partisan nature of the actual document produced in 1787.
In the second lesson (The Constitutional Convention: Who Really Won?), with the Constitution Role Play as background, students are primed to wade into the actual document and analyze parts of it in a social context.
These lessons on the Constitutional Convention are among the most frequently downloaded from the Zinn Education Project website.
One of my favorite activities from the Zinn Education Project is the Constitution Role Play: Whose “More Perfect Union”? and The Constitutional Convention: Who Really Won? The simulation allows for students to not only use their critical thinking skills, but to challenge the traditional mythology and romanticism of American values and democracy. This lesson pairs well both in U.S. History and American Government classes, and it can be modified easily for all levels of students.
This is a fantastic activity to use at the beginning of the year, to set the stage in your classroom for political discourse and courageous conversations.
The results of our role play about “Who Really Won?” speaks volumes to the themes of any U.S. History course — it’s hard work to face hard history. But recognizing those individuals who came together collectively to bring positive change and realize many American values for those not at the table during the convention, inspires students to embrace their own voice, courage, and responsibilities as a citizen in today’s complicated political arena.
The Zinn Education Project has delivered time and time again the most impactful experiences for my students. They will not remember the PowerPoint info on the Articles of Confederation, but they will remember when they wrote the Constitution from the perspective of an enslaved African America or a member of the Iroquois nation using the Constitutional Convention role play.
They understand the problems embedded into the way our country was founded AND the remarkable opportunities we have to reshape the conversation in our nation.
More Classroom Stories
I use the Constitution Role Play lesson in my classroom as a hook for a larger unit, in tandem with Teaching Tolerance’s unit “Did the Constitution establish a just government?” The students were very engaged during the activities and created a much more just constitution in our role-play. Really appreciated the resource.
See how teachers in California, New York, North Carolina, and Illinois used the lesson in their classrooms:
— Lisa Steiner (@HistorySteiner) January 15, 2019
— Anneke Radin-Snaith (@AnnekeRadin) February 11, 2016
The People’s Constitutional Convention role play from @ZinnEdProject never disappoints! 1st period broke into applause after abolishing slavery and expanding democracy this morning, which led to a great discussion about why the oft-celebrated Framers did the opposite 🤔🤔🤔 pic.twitter.com/yftyMxPYYC
— Tracey Barrett (@traceyebarrett) September 6, 2018
Welcoming so many new faces to our #AmericanStudies Unconventional Constitutional Convention @YorkD205 w @KellyDeloriea Thank you @ZinnEdProject and Bill Bigelow for another successful debate. Democracy is not a spectator sport! #IgniteD205 #teachingoutsidethetextbook pic.twitter.com/09SyoSv0kM
— Lindsey DiTomasso (@laldtd) September 10, 2018
— Jessica Buckle (@JBuckLearns) August 29, 2019
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