Three Branches, One Goal

Helping teenagers defend their beliefs with a foundational understanding of government structure.

By Mollie Moore

US Capitol building

It’s Fall 2013, and young learners are surrounded by impassioned opinions on the debt ceiling, health care reform, 21-hour filibusters, a looming default date, and tensions between the president and the Speaker of the House of Representatives. Do you feel it? Even if you didn’t plan to cover this quite yet, you have to admit- contextually speaking the time is rife with opportunity for a lesson on the basic structure of American government. Not only is there enough fascinating partisan fodder to promote relevant current events discussion, but it’s times like these that kids need the foundational understanding to be informed members of political conversations.

I’ll admit it; as a high school government teacher, I am guilty of taking some form of pleasure in asking a student who so passionately stands behind a rote statement, “Why?” and watching him or her fish futilely for an answer. Obamacare is horrible. Why? Tea Party members are terrorists. Why? The war in Iraq was pointless. Why? You get it, and I’m sure you’ve heard it.

I know, I know. These baseless statements could really speak more to my lack of coverage as their government teacher than to their political obliviousness, but I’d like to add somewhat confidently that assertions like these are much more rare by the end of the semester than at the beginning, most likely due to the promise of that dreaded question. I’d like to also add, it gives me exponentially more pleasure to hear a well-thought-out answer to that question—I think my teacher-heart literally jumps for joy when I hear a great response.

The point is, we need to prepare teenagers to defend their opinions, and a basic understanding of our government structure, with its checks and balances is, in my opinion, required.

Getting Started with an Arguably Inspiring Quote

With my high schoolers, I love starting this study with a famous quote: To be free, one must be chained. I ask them to think it over and write a response. Do they agree? What does it mean? Then, we discuss it. Typically, the conversation sparks some fascinating Hobbes-Locke debate between those who feel humans are inherently good and don’t require much (if any) law enforcement, and those who feel humans are inherently evil and require strict law enforcement. If the conversation needs more structure, try asking some prompting questions:

  • If you were allowed complete freedom, what would you do differently?
  • Is there anyone you wouldn’t want to have complete freedom?
  • What does freedom mean? Who affords it?
  • What does it mean to be chained? Does the government need to be chained?
  • Why? (You knew that question had to make an appearance!)

Use this conversation as a way to introduce or review the basics of how the US government was designed to keep complete freedom from any one branch, limiting power through a system of checks and balances. 

Prolong Student Engagement with a Simulation

Once learners have a foundational understanding, have some fun by getting them involved in the process with a series of classroom laws using this simulation activity from AFSIVAGovernment. One the plus side, this resource has everything you need to get your class participating in the legislative, judicial, and executive branches of the government within the context of the classroom, and you can extend it to take a couple of weeks with a RAFT project or just use a couple of days with the in-class activity. Before you start, you should know a couple things:

  1. Learners really do need a foundational understanding before starting this activity—it will be much more effective.
  2. The MS Word documents are editable, and if you are using them, you will need to change the local government officials, town names, school name, etc. to reflect your community.
  3. You may end up getting impeached. You’ve been warned!

Making it Current with Real-Life Scenarios

I said it once and I’ll say it again: in order to successfully participate in political discourse, it’s imperative that kids understand how their government works. Our three-branch system is alive and well (albeit arguably) in the media, so take advantage of the news and work through the stories together. I like to assign parts of our content to groups of students and have them look up a current event that embodies that government structure. For example: Find a story that shows the executive branch’s veto power. Once groups have found their stories, they can present their findings to the class and assess how these concepts are functioning in modern-day reality.

However you approach this study, know you are contributing to a young person’s ability to actively participate in a political discussion, and that is something to be celebrated!

Other Ideas to Consider:

Checks and Balances: Safe Harbor

High Schoolers explore power distribution among the three branches of government and jigsaw complicated legislation to detect the system of checks and balances. Part of a larger unit, this lesson is also designed for the Common Core literacy standards!

The Federal Courts in American Government

Focus on the judiciary branch and its relationship to the legislative and executive branches in an extremely thorough lesson. Learners think critically about this relationship using primary-source documents and in-class discussion. Everything you need is here! 

US Constitution

Don't forget about the Constitution! Here's a lesson appropriate for 7th grade and up where scholars examine the role of documents such as the Bill of Rights and the US Constitution in their own freedoms as well as their government structure. Although some may be dated, the primary documents in this resource are excellent and will make implementing the lesson a breeze!