Context: 8th Grade Advanced Civics and Economics class at Henley Middle School. Students come from suburban and rural areas, about half have a parent(s) that works for UVA. Advanced students have an on- or above-grade level reading ability, 95% have Internet access outside of school.
Unit: Structure and Functions of US Government
Lesson: Introduction: Three Branches (Lesson 1)
VA SOL Addressed: CE 6a, b, d; 7a, d (US and VA three branches, separation of powers)
Albemarle County Life-Long Learner Standards Addressed: 3 (critical thinking) and 12 (metacognition)
Students will know:
- the structure of the US and VA governments
- the functions, positions and locations associated with the three branches of the US and VA governments
- their own habits of mind through reflection
Students will understand that:
- power enables choice.
- getting better at your job/work takes not only practice, but also self-evaluation.
Students will be able to:
- define the functions, positions and locations associated with the three branches of the US and VA governments
- develop an understanding of the three branches of government through individual contemplation and group and class discussions
- reflect on the concept attainment process and evaluate their personal habits of mind
- Diagnostic – “Brain Dump” – students are given 2.5 minutes to write down as many terms, phrases, people, locations, etc. that they can think of, related to the three branches of government. This informs the teacher of students’ prior knowledge and provides insight into what topics will need deeper coverage through out the unit. Students also use this to assess what they already know and, after the lesson, reflect on how their understanding has changed.
- Formative: “Brain Dump” group analysis, group definitions, class discussion and individual reflections. The group analysis and definitions reveals students’ knowledge of the three branches and the refinement of their individual knowledge after the group discussion. The teacher can gauge the depth and breadth of both background knowledge and new understanding of the three branches. The class discussion further informs the teacher of student understanding and critical-thinking skills. The individual reflection provides detail into students’ concept development skills and personal habits of mind. The teacher learns the students’ strengths and weaknesses in individual and group critical thinking.
The backbone of Civics, what is government and what does it do, is a partial review of what students learned in sixth-grade US History. The lesson is built on this idea and thus attempts to tap into students’ prior knowledge while expanding their critical-thinking and metacognitive skills. Using techniques from the concept development model, students build on their knowledge through group interaction. The students are hooked by the sociability of the activity, as well as the drive to reach each level of thinking. Educator Doug Lemov describes this as “Look Forward,” or creating anticipation for what is coming next to keep students interested and on pace (p. 231, 2001). Working in groups also encourages friendly competition, which motivates students to put in their best effort. Lastly, the lesson taps into the goals of Honors students by the teacher’s framing of the culminating reflection. The reflection is described as a practice of a good student, especially a student interested in the AP track in high school.
The United States and Virginia governments are structured to have distinct and independent branches. Articles I, II and III of the US Constitution describe the structure and function of the legislative, executive and judicial branches respectively. Articles IV, V and VI of the Virginia Constitution describe the same with Article III outlining that “departments shall be separate and distinct, so that none exercise the powers properly belonging to the others, nor any person exercise the power of more than one of them at the same time” (law.justia.com). Both governments break the governing process into creating laws (legislate), carrying out laws (execute) and interpreting laws (judge). This separation of powers allows the government to protect and ensure one of America’s greatest strengths – diversity. As Thomas Jefferson wrote in his 1825 Declaration and Protest of Virginia about the organization of government, “[they] have completely secured the first object of human association, the full improvement of their condition, and reserved to themselves all the faculties of multiplying their own blessings” (Thomas Jefferson on Politics and Government).
- Unit Overview
- Lesson handout
- Lesson PowerPoint deck
- Notebook paper
- Post-Its/Memo notes (3 colors, 1 of each color per group)
- Computer, Projector, Elmo
- Whiteboard and markers
- Agenda: 2 minutes
- Unit Overview: 15 minutes
- Brain Dump: 3 minutes
- Group Definitions: 15-20 minutes
- Class Definitions: 15-20 minutes
- Official Definitions: 15-20 minutes
- Reflection/Wrap-Up: 15-20 minutes
Procedures (includes Activity Type identification):
1. Agenda (2 minutes): Teacher has agenda written on the board before students enter the classroom. Teacher explains the agenda for the class, directing students to the board for reiteration.
2. Unit Overview (15 minutes) – Knowledge Building: Read Text & Discuss:
a. Teacher introduces the unit by framing the new content in terms of what students have already learned:
i. You have learned what being a citizen means and the ins and outs of the greatest responsibility of citizenship, voting. Now we will explore how the government is organized and what each branch of the government does. We will look at all levels of government – federal, state and local – and examine the relationship between the three. Remember, Social Studies is the study of society and we are now going to study how the government enables our society to work and function together.
b. Teacher emphasizes the academic skill of organization by explaining the purpose of the unit’s table of contents and essential vocabulary and understandings:
i. The transition to high school involves greater independence. More independence also means more self-reliance. You’ll have to keep yourself organized – teachers aren’t going to do it for you. When you get an overview sheet like this, you’ll need to get in the habit of returning to it again and again to see if you’re on track with the learning expectations and understandings. Now is the best time to get into those habits.
c. Teacher reads aloud the four unit understandings and has students supply some ideas or examples of the meaning of these understandings.
i. What is a relationship? What are some ways you maintain good relationships? What are some obstacles in relationships? How might these ideas be seen in the relationships involved with government?
ii. Hypothesize what diversity means in this understanding. Why might diversity be a strength? How might dividing power protect diversity? In other words, how does power enable choice?
iii. Describe some ways that we have already seen the media act as an outlet for officeholders and “the people.” Brainstorm ideas for how the Internet could be used to facilitate communication between “the people” and the governing.
3. Brain Dump (3 minutes) – Convergent Knowledge Expression: Complete a Chart: Teacher asks students to get out a sheet of notebook paper. While students do this, teacher turns on the projector and PowerPoint deck. Teacher gives directions while projecting the instructions on the board:
a. Divide your paper into three columns and label the columns as executive, judicial and legislative. You have 2.5 minutes to individually write as many words as you can that are associated with the three branches of government. I call this Brain Dump, you could also call it free association. To guide your thinking, consider the prompts on the screen:
i. What does the branch do?
ii. Who works under that branch?
iii. What powers does it have?
iv. Where does it work?
v. What items are associated with that branch?
vi. What days or holidays are associated?
vii. Historical examples? Broad and/or specific.
b. Teacher sets timer and circles the rooms, directing students to the task.
4. Group Definitions (15-20 minutes) – Knowledge Building: Debate & Compare/Contrast: Students are now directed to work in their triads (teacher should group students ahead of time) to develop a definition for each branch. This process is twofold.
a. First, students:
i. Circle all of the words/phrases that everyone in the group has written under each branch. Circle only the words that you ALL have in common.
ii. Strikethrough any words/phrases that, as a group, you agree does not make sense.
iii. Underline any words/phrases that you didn’t all write down, but that you all agree are essential words/phrases. (These words won’t show up on everyone’s papers, but you agree, as a group, that they are key words.)
b. Teacher allots 5 minutes for this task and sets timer. During this time, the teacher passes out the colored post-its to each group’s recorder (one student per group chosen ahead of time by the teacher) and the lesson handout to each student.
c. Second, students:
i. Create a definition for each branch that includes: what it does, who is generally involved and where the branch works. (Remember, that the three branches exist on a national level AND state level…)
ii. Everyone writes his or her definitions in the indicated space on the lesson handout. The recorder also writes the definitions on the colored notes: Purple=Executive, Green=Judicial, Yellow=Legislative.
d. Teacher allots 7 minutes for this task. During this time, the teacher circles the room, directing students, observing students’ group skills and assessing understanding orally.
5. Class Definitions (15-20 minutes) – Knowledge Building: Take Notes & Discuss: Definitions are passed to teacher and she lines the post-its under the Elmo. For each branch, the teacher displays the post-its and reads the responses aloud.
a. Students are asked to listen for common words/phrases and record them on the back of their Brain Dump.
b. After the definitions have been read, students tell the teacher what words were common and she circles these words on the post-its.
c. The teacher then asks a volunteer to use the common words/phrases to develop a class definition. The volunteer also records the definition on the whiteboard that the PowerPoint deck is being projected. Students record the class definition on their lesson handout in the specified boxes.
6. “Official” Definitions (15-20 minutes) – Knowledge Building: Take Notes, Discuss & Compare/Contrast: Now, the teacher projects the official definition on the board.
a. Students summarize the information and record the definitions in the specified boxes. Teacher reminds students that summaries are short and give the main ideas.
b. Students are asked to share similarities and/or differences between the class definitions and the “official” definitions.
c. Teacher asks students to give historical or real-life examples of the branches in action. This allows students to hook new content to prior knowledge while also informing the teacher of students’ historical prior knowledge.
7. Reflection/Wrap-Up (15-20 minutes) – Convergent Knowledge Expression: Answer Questions*: Individually, students reflect on the concept attainment process and their own learning/habits of mind. Students write their responses to the following prompts, as listed on the lesson handout:
a. In what ways did your ideas about what each branch is/does change after you created a group definition, but before we wrote definitions as a class? (e.g. Did you have any misconceptions? Were there concepts you didn’t know or didn’t realize had anything to do with the three branches?)
b. How did you feel when you compared your lists with your group members (Reassured? Surprised? Happy?…) and why do you think you felt this way?
c. Do you think you have a better understanding about the 3 branches now? AND, which part of the process helped you understand most (working in the group, as a class, reading the “official” definition) and why?
d. In your own words, explain what a branch of government is and why we divide our government into branches.
In the last minutes of class, teacher has a few students share their responses to letter C.
* However, I would argue that this is a divergent thinking task. Students are answering questions in order to structure their reflection process. The activity is similar to journaling, a written divergent knowledge expression.
Alterations to include technology:
1. This would be a great way to utilize a tablet/iPad. Students can read the unit overview on the machine and write comments or questions on the document. I am assuming there is a program/application that allows this sort of quick editing and sharing. The comments/questions could be shared in real-time for the class discussion or afterward for the teacher to gauge student understanding. Or, students could share their comments through TodaysMeet, which can be displayed on the screen behind the teacher though out the discussion.
2. Students could transition from the discussion to their individual brain dump using an Internet application like Wunderlist or concept-mapping program like bubbl.us. Wunderlist would allow students to make individual lists for each branch, which could then be easily shared electronically with other students and the teacher. A concept-mapping program would be more visually engaging.
3. Students could continue using Wunderlist, collapsing and altering their individual lists into group lists. Their final definitions could be shared via a list or wiki.
4. The teacher would then display the lists or wiki on the board, so that all group definitions are shown for each branch. Students could generate class definitions from the group definitions in real time on the wiki and thus a map of the class’ thinking is recorded into the wiki. Alternatively, each group could generate new definitions based on the other groups’ definitions as they appear in the wiki. The teacher would no longer need to guide the discussion at the board and the lesson would remain constructivist. The class could continue to use Wunderlist instead of a wiki, but there is a greater chance of students getting confused by the inundation of lists.
5. The teacher could then paste the “official” definitions into the wiki and have students compare and contrast orally while reviewing the wiki. Students would write their summaries of the official definitions into their individual lists on Wunderlist to keep a record of the before and after definitions.
6. Students would use a word processing program to finish the lesson. Googledocs might be easiest for sharing/editing between the teacher and student.
Jefferson, T. (1825). Declaration and Protest of Virginia. Thomas Jefferson on Politics and
Government. Retrieved from http://etext.virginia.edu/jefferson/quotations/
Lemov, D. (2010). Teach like a champion. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.
State Representatives. (1787). United States Constitution. Retrieved from
Virginia Delegates. (1788). Virginia Constitution. Retrieved from http://law.justia.com/
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