Sep 08 2011

A More Perfect Union

Video and other Web 2.0 tools can simplify and enliven students' exploration and mastery of the U.S. Constitution.

Every September 17, in classrooms around the country, students commemorate the 1787 signing of the U.S. Constitution, which preserves Americans' basic freedoms and republican form of government. Video technology can help students understand this historically significant document's organization and meaning by forcing them to summarize its complicated concepts in short, visually appealing vignettes for an online audience.

Lesson Description

Before beginning this activity, screen for students the “Electing a President in Plain English” video from Common Craft, a Seattle-based producer of educational videos that explain complex subjects using simple language and simple materials, such as paper cut-outs and a whiteboard. Follow the viewing with a class discussion of the methods Common Craft used to effectively summarize in just a few minutes the complicated issue of electing a president. Advise students that they will be working together to create and publish a similar video that will help others develop a greater understanding of an even more complicated topic: the Constitution.

To begin, group students into teams of four and assign each team a section of the Constitution (Article I, sections 1 and 2, for example). Have each student summarize his or her assigned section in a richly detailed, yet concise written paragraph.

Next, have team members read each other's paragraphs and either pick one to use as their video script or combine the best elements of each into a new paragraph. Be sure to review each final paragraph before students proceed further to ensure that all of the key elements of their section are included. Students also should begin creating a series of illustrations on white paper that depict the key topics addressed in their section and then decide as a team which illustrations to use in their video vignettes.

To create their vignettes, students will need access to a bracketed Flip Video camcorder, a document camera or some other video-capture device. The camcorder's lens should be positioned at a 90-degree angle facing down toward a plain, dark-colored surface.

Ask students to choose (or assign them) one of four roles: camera operator, director, narrator or manipulator of the visuals. Consider combining the camera operator and director roles for each team so that two students can function as visual manipulators, with one person moving the illustrations into camera view at the appropriate point in the script and the other removing them when necessary. Prior to filming, each team will want to line up their illustrations in sequential order, just out of the camera's view, so that the images can be manipulated easily once production begins.

When everything is in place for each team, the director should initiate production by pointing to the camera operator to begin filming. Once filming begins, the director should silently count down from five and then point to the narrator to begin reading the script. The visual manipulator(s) should move each illustration into camera view as the narrator explains the subject of the illustration and then out of view when it is no longer relevant to the narration. When the narrator finishes reading the script, the director should silently count down from five and then point to the camera operator to stop filming. (A five-second buffer on both ends of filming makes it easier to edit all of the team vignettes together in postproduction.)

Once filming is complete, use Windows Movie Maker or another video editing software to assemble the vignettes into a short movie detailing the Constitution's key concepts. Share the final product with others by uploading it to a class YouTube or Vimeo account.

Subject Area

This lesson was developed as an eighth-grade U.S. history project, but it can be adapted for other grade levels and subjects.

Curriculum Standards

This activity fulfills many of the Pennsylvania Department of Education's Academic Standards for Civics and Government, which challenge students to, among other things:

  • apply examples of the rule of law as related to individual rights and common good (5.1.9.A.);
  • examine the process of checks and balances among the three branches of government, including the creation of law (5.3.9.A.); and
  • analyze the roles of local, state and national governments in policymaking (5.3.9.B.).


Grading Rubric

Students should be graded individually on their summary of the section of the Constitution they've been assigned and on their completion of assigned team tasks.

Teaching Tips

  • Use Google Docs to facilitate team collaboration.
  • Limit each team's video vignette to 30 seconds.
  • Give teams adequate time to practice their scripts (and make adjustments where needed) prior to filming.
  • Monitor each team throughout preproduction to ensure that their script and illustrations are factually accurate and address all key concepts.