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2. The Constitution: Fixed or Flexible?, Using the Video
Topic Overview Using the Video Readings Critical Thinking Activity Web-Based Resources

 

Classroom Applications Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion Watch the Video and Discuss Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion

 

Using the Video Unit 2

Pre-Viewing Activity and Discussion (30 minutes)

Before viewing the video, discuss the following questions:

  • Discuss how the Constitution should be read-a document to be read literally and applied without regard to changed circumstances or as a living document subject to reinterpretation as the times demand.

  • How does the Constitution guard against the concentration of power?

  • Who ordained and established the Constitution?

  • Is the original Constitution democratic?

Watch the Video (30 minutes) and Discuss (30 minutes) [Top]

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The video includes three segments:

1. The Death Penalty: Is It Constitutional?

Throughout U.S. history, judges have had to interpret constitutional principles in the light of unique cases and social contexts. A basic question facing judges is how much weight should they assign to changing societal norms and public opinion in their decisions. Should the Constitution be interpreted as a fixed set of principles that endure even though society changes, or should it be reinterpreted and reapplied as society changes? This is not a new question. In fact, the Constitution's framers themselves disagreed over the answer. The death penalty and the vague language of the Eighth Amendment offer excellent examples of the difficulties in applying the Constitution to specific societal problems.

Discussion Questions

  • How should judges interpret vaguely worded phrases in the Constitution?

  • Should public opinion dictate how the Constitution is interpreted?

  • Should public opinion be ignored?

  • If public opinion is relevant to the interpretation of the Constitution, how are we to know what the public wants?

2. When Congress Says Yes, and the President Says No…And Congress Says Yes


Following years of wartime freezes on workers' wages and labor strikes, organized labor began a series of labor strikes in 1946. At their height, the strikes placed over 2 million workers on the picket lines. Although he was a Democrat and generally supported organized labor, President Harry S. Truman tried to stop the steel strikes first by negotiating with union heads and then by placing the coal mines under government control. Republicans had recently gained a majority in both houses of Congress, and they were determined to act through legislation. They passed the Taft-Hartley Act of 1947, which permitted states to legislate right-to-work laws that prohibited "closed shop" contracts that excluded non-union workers from unionized plants. It also authorized federal injunctions against strikes that "jeopardized the public health or safety." Truman's veto of the Taft-Hartley act set up a clash between Congress and the President and illustrated the Constitution's principles of separation of powers and checks and balances.

Discussion Questions

  • Why does the president have the veto power?

  • Since Truman favored some portions of the Taft-Hartley Act, would the nation have been better served if he had possessed a line-item veto?

  • How does the battle over the Taft-Hartley Act demonstrate the Constitution's version of checks and balances?

3. Seventy-Two Years to Success: Women Gain the Right To Vote

The story of the struggle over women's suffrage illustrates the difficulties involved in passing a constitutional amendment. At the end of the Civil War, Congress passed the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that granted the right to vote to former male slaves. Many abolitionists, including Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, argued unsuccessfully that the amendment should also grant women the right to vote. Supporters of women's suffrage continued to press the issue by introducing a constitutional amendment into every Congress after that. By the early 1890s, the profound changes in women's lives fueled the suffrage movement; but as the movement grew stronger, so did the opposition. In the final analysis, the suffragettes won, but the battle was long and hard, demonstrating that amending the Constitution is seldom easy.

Discussion Questions

  • Why were women originally excluded from voting?

  • Why was it so difficult to secure the right to vote for women?

  • Has it always been this difficult to amend the Constitution?

  • The Nineteenth Amendment is one of only 27 amendments. Have any of the others changed the principles under which our constitutional system operates?
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Post-Viewing Activity and Discussion (10 minutes) [Top]

Try the Critical Thinking activity for Unit 2. This is a good activity to use with your students, too.

1. Are Additional Constitutional Amendments Needed? (10 minutes)

After researching the current amendments, develop and present a proposal for a new amendment. Possible changes might include new rights (e.g., a right to education or health care), altered governmental powers (e.g., presidential declaration of war), or changes in procedures (e.g., term limits for Congress or the Supreme Court, direct popular election for presidents). Discuss why the amendment is needed and strategies for gaining ratification.


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Homework [Top]

Read the following Readings from Unit 3 to prepare for next week's session.

  • Introduction-Federalism: U.S. v. the States

  • Tocqueville, Democracy in America: "In What Respects the Federal Constitution Is Superior to That of the States"

  • Federalist Papers: "Federalist No. 46"

  • McCulloch v. Maryland

  • Dred Scott v. Sandford

Read next week's Topic Overview.


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Classroom Applications [Top]

You may want to have your students do the post-viewing activities: Ongoing Disputes Over the Meaning and Application of Constitutional Principles and Are Additional Constitutional Amendments Needed? They are provided for you as blackline masters in the Appendix of the print guide.

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