Orbis Pictus Honor Book – Fault Lines in the Constitution: The Framers, Their Fights, and the Flaws That Affect Us Today
By Cynthia Levinson and Sanford Levinson
Published by Peachtree Publishers, 2017, ISBN 978-1-56145-945-2
On this President’s Day, it is important to note that “not one of our first eight presidents had any real power” (p. 9). No real power? Huh? It was not until our ninth president, George Washington, that presidential power as we understand it was established. What made the shift? The U.S. Constitution! Throughout the hot summer of 1787, delegates to the Constitutional Convention, charged with revising the Articles of Confederation, instead “concocted an entirely new and daring kind of government, faults and all” (p. 11). Fault Lines in the Constitution leverages the word “fault,” the geological cracks in the Earth’s crust, as it introduces middle grade students to the strengths and weaknesses of our democracy’s most flexible document. After an examination of the Preamble in a preamble, the book is organized into seven parts: how a bill becomes a law, concepts of representational government, the qualifications needed to vote and run for office, the electoral college, the transition of power, emergency powers, and an evaluation of the Constitution based on the ideals set forth in the Preamble. Each chapter begins with a “fault line” – a moment during American history or the recent past – in which some aspect of governance is exposed, exploited, or questioned. This moment becomes the lens through which readers learn, in tween-friendly language, about a particular process in the executive, legislative, or judicial branch and an article or amendment in the Constitution. An exciting addition to middle school social studies and humanities curriculum, as well as a powerful primer for students and their families looking for a greater understanding of the political process and the balance of power, Fault Lines is sure to ignite important conversations about rights and responsibilities in and outside of the classroom.
Teaching Ideas and Invitations
Exploring the Preamble. The authors explain that while the Preamble serves as an introduction, it was one of the last parts of the Constitution written, much like students may write an introduction to a paper or essay after the rest of the essay is written. Conduct a choral reading of the Preamble, having each student read it aloud, popcorn style. Next, engage students in a discussion of what they heard. What language stood out? Why? Next, divide students up into eight groups, each examining the various claims within the Preamble, detailed in pages 13-20. Have each group explore what the Levinsons have to say on their “claim,” and then brainstorm different examples of that claim that surface in current events today. As each group reports out on their section, have other students in class try to make even more contemporary connections. To what extent do they think our nation today lives up to the ideals established in the Preamble?
Beyond Schoolhouse Rock: The Constitution for Kids. Before reading Fault Lines, play the Schoolhouse Rock video “Preamble.” What do students learn from it? Who is included and excluded in this 1970s video? What do elementary-aged students in the 21st century need as a primer? Task your students with creating digital materials that can be shared with an elementary school in your district. Have students create videos or podcasts that outline some portion of the Constitution to a younger audience, using contemporary age-appropriate issues as examples. Have students present their videos or podcasts to a team of elementary teachers and/or the students themselves, depending on the timing of your respective units within the school year.
Researching the Iroquois Foundation for the Constitution. On page 26, the Levinsons discuss the oral laws developed by the Iroquois Confederacy that served as the foundation to the U.S. Constitution. Historians are not in agreement about this connection. Have your students learn more about the ways in which the Iroquois made decisions across the five nations, and the influence their processes had on the Founding Fathers drafting the Constitution. First, have them read this article from The New York Times in 1987. Next, have them read this 2014 analysis of a Facebook meme on Politifact. Finally, have them read the 2012 article from Indian Country Today, a news outlet of the National Congress of American Indians. Have your students discuss their reactions to the various stories, and how their own understanding of influence and causation is shaped by this debate.
Exploring the Bicameral Body. The United States Congress is a bicameral legislature, made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate. After students explore Chapter One’s discussion of how Congress functions, have them explore different news stories about recent Congressional actions. Use vetted news sources such as The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Wall Street Journal, National Public Radio (NPR), The Chicago Tribune, The Los Angeles Times, and U.S.A. Today. If you run up against paywalls, work with your school librarian to determine which stories are available in databases available through your school system, city or town, or state library system. Next, read this article about Congressional gridlock in 2018 and this article about Congressional gridlock in 2014. Have students learn more about the the legislative bodies in the countries named on page 30. What do students think should change in Washington? Can our Congress continue to function in the ways outlined in the Constitution?
Grading the Constitution. After students have read the book, provide them with ample time to discuss the tensions that stand out for them in Chapter 19, “Grading the Constitution.” Do they agree with the Levinson’s assessment? How would they rate the Constitution’s ability to meet the ideals of the Preamble? What changes to the Constitution, or the attitudes of America’s leaders in the Legislative, Executive, and Judicial branches do they recommend?
Painting the Constitution. The Constitutional Convention has been represented in art by a range of artists over the years. Have students examine the mural created in 1936 for the National Archives in Washington, DC. What do they notice about the picture? What questions do they have about the painting? What or who might be left out? Next, based on students understanding of the Constitution and the challenges that face young people today, have them create a portrait of the rights and responsibilities afforded to 21st century Americans by the Constitution. Have students create murals in small groups, either using digital production tools or paint.
Exploring the Constitution by Articles and Amendments: Instead of trying to read Fault Lines cover-to-cover with your class, have all students read the Preamble. Next, use the jigsaw method, so that several students are responsible for each chapter. After they read the chapter, have them go to the Interactive Constitution from The Constitution Center, and find the parts of the Constitution or Bill of Rights discussed in their chapter. Have them read the primary text, the interpretation, and then the “Matters of Debate.” Have students within the small group debate the interpretations within the book chapter and on the website. Have each group identity a current problem/concern in American life that relates to that article or amendment. Each group must then present their findings to the rest of the class. After all of the presentations have been made, have students read the final two chapters.
Rights Around the World in Reality. To what extent does the U.S. Constitution compare and contrast to the constitutions of other countries around the world? First, have students recall the countries that stood out in the “There are Other Ways” section of each chapter. Next, have students explore documents from those countries and others using the global interactive on The Constitution Center website. Start by having students explore the documents of other countries as they compare to our Constitution. Next, have them conduct research on a country of their choice. How does the government run? Do other democracies around the world face the same gridlock the U.S. legislative system faces? If not, why not? What can we learn from them? Finally, have students explore whether or not the rights articulated in the Constitution are actually realized. Are the rights in theory only? How does this compare to some of the rights in the US Constitution? Draw upon the expertise of your school or local public librarian to maximize students’ research using subscription databases made available by your school, town/city, and state.
What is a Constitutional Crisis? On the book’s companion website, authors Cynthia and Sanford Levinson continue to write, research, and consider the Constitution. In late January 2018, one of their entries was entitled “What is a Constitutional Crisis Anyway and How Will We Know if We’re In One?”. After finishing the book, have students read this entry. Split the class up into three groups, giving each group responsibility for one of the linked articles included within the entry. Have students debate circumstances in which they believe we would be in a constitutional crisis. What is the difference between a political crisis and a constitutional crisis?
Rights and Responsibilities: The Right to Bear Arms. Perhaps no amendment may be as familiar to your students than the Second Amendment, given the national debate about gun rights and responsibilities and the epidemic of gun violence. In the week in which this blog entry was written, seventeen students and teachers were murdered at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. After finishing Fault Lines, have students read the text of the Second Amendment as well the interpretation, and the “Matters of Debate” section on the Constitution Center’s interactive site. In small groups, have students create a timeline of the debate. Next, have students explore gun violence statistics in the United States as presented by a range of sources: The National Rifle Association (NRA), The Brady Center, The National Center for Gun Rights, and Everytown for Gun Safety. Next, have students explore the pros/cons on gun rights and responsibilities as presented by ProCon.org. Finally, have students look at the statistics compiled hourly by the Gun Violence Archive, a non-partisan, non-profit organization. Finally, have them read and watch what some of the students from Douglas High School are saying this week.To what extent is our epidemic of gun violence connected to other challenges faced by our country, such as a lack of access to mental health services and the opioid crisis? What do your students think should happen next? What, if any, laws should be created?
Fault Lines in the Constitution Website
The Constitution of the United States, National Archives
The Constitution Center, Philadelphia
Crash Course US History with John and Hank Green: “The Constitution”
About Mary Ann Cappiello
Mary Ann is a professor of language and literacy at Lesley University. A former public school language arts and humanities teacher, she is a passionate advocate for and commentator on children’s books. Mary Ann is the co-author of Teaching with Text Sets (2013) and Teaching to Complexity (2015) and Text Sets in Action: Pathways Through Content Area Literacy (Stenhouse, 2021). She has been a guest on public radio and a consultant to public television. From 2015-2018, Mary Ann was a member of the National Council of Teachers of English's Orbis Pictus Award for Outstanding Nonfiction (K-8) Committee, serving two years as chair.
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