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Activity 1

Essential Question

How are federal and state powers and responsibilities distributed, shared, and limited by the United States Constitution?


In a constitutional system, the powers of government may be retained by the central government, retained by smaller governmental units with the central government having limited powers, or power may be shared between the central government and local and/or state governments. In the United States, we operate under this federal system of shared governmental powers as defined by the United States Constitution

Additional Information

Instructional Strategies

Strategy 1

Assessing Prior Knowledge

  • Have your students review the purpose for a KWL chart. Remind them that new information is best learned by relating it to prior knowledge. Explain to them that a “Taking-Stock Table” is the same kind of strategy for linking new information to prior knowledge.
  • Have students click on the Taking-Stock Table and fill in Columns 1 and 2 first independently and later as a class. Ideas can be written on the chalkboard or on a transparency. You may want to suggest a few topics such as: funding of highways, education, law enforcement, coining money, building prisons, etc. for context. Corrections to student misunderstandings found in Column 1 can be made later in the module (see Strategy 6) as a check for understanding. Inform students that they will fill out the third column later in the unit.

Check for Understanding

  • Do I have Columns 1 and 2 in the Taking-Stock Table filled out as accurately as I can?

Strategy 2

Gathering Information

Comparing Federal and Confederal Systems

Using lecture, readings, Internet sources, and/or the additional information section of this module, have students discuss the meanings of these three concepts:

  • federal system
  • confederal system
  • unitary system

Enhance student understanding by using primary sources such as the Articles of Confederation (Articles I-III) and the Preamble to the U.S. Constitution.


Having students explain how the Articles of Confederation is most consistent with a confederal system and how the U.S. Constitution is most consistent with a federal system.

Strategy 3

Compare and Contrast

Assign students to small groups to compare and contrast a confederal system with a federal system. Have them show their comparisons using a Venn diagram as their graphic organizer. Have groups compare their Venn diagrams and make improvements to them. The completed Venn Diagram below can be used to summarize the discussion.

 Printable Student View

Venn Diagram to Compare Federal and Confederal Systems

Have students use the T-Charts to identify advantages and disadvantages of each system of government.

Have students decide in small groups whether they believe they as American citizens would be better off with a federal or a confederal system. Encourage students to take an opposing view following the reports of each group. Model this strategy for the students.

Extension: This activity could be repeated, this time comparing unitary systems to federal and confederal system.

Strategy 4

Cooperative Learning Strategy

Have students use “Expert Groups” to do a Constitutional analysis of federal powers versus state powers as enumerated in the U. S. Constitution.

Assign students to their cooperative groups and provide each group with a copy of the United States Constitution.

Assign one of the following topics to each expert group:

1. Article I, Section 8 of the Constitution

  • Ask students to explain in their own words, clause by clause, what powers the Constitution gives to Congress. Help them with their thinking on these matters and make corrections as necessary. As much as possible, promote learning by asking questions, rather than by passing on information in order to place on the students the burden of translating ideas from constitutional language into everyday language.

2. Article I, Section 9 of the Constitution

  • Ask students to explain, clause by clause, what powers the Constitution forbids to Congress and the federal government.

3. Article I, Section 10

  • Ask students to explain what powers the Constitution forbids to both the federal government and to state governments.

Note: There will be some words unfamiliar to the students, such as “imposts,” “duties,” “excises,” “naturalization,” “letters of marque and reprisal,” “militia,” and “tribunals.” Such terms are typically found in government or civics textbooks in the books’ Constitution annotations or in their glossaries. The important thing is to help students put those terms into today’s language as much as possible.

Have students summarize and share their findings with other groups. Encourage students to use good questioning techniques to probe for additional information.

Strategy 5

Simulation Activity/Application

Divide students into small committees of two to five students. Give each committee a copy of the United States Constitution. The Constitution may be found on the Internet using these websites:

Give each group a copy of Table 1: Is it Constitutional?

Table 1 Scoring Guide

Inform the student committees that they are assuming the role of members of a state legislature in our early history, when the United States was a young nation. Inform them that their committee has been given the job of looking at some of the bills proposed in the legislature. The student’s task’s deciding which of those bills would be within the power of their state to pass according to the U.S. Constitution. The subject matter of the bills is in the left-hand column of the table that follows. The committees job is to answer the question in the right-hand column for each of the bills:

  • Each committee should indicate for each bill listed whether the U.S. Constitution would permit the state to pass the bill into state law.

Select a student from each group to serve on the United States Court of Appeals. Each group’s job is to now defend their decisions before the United States Court of Appeals. This court will decide whether it agrees with the decisions of the state legislature. It is important that the state legislators cite from the United States Constitution specific clauses that may be used to support their position.

Select a different student from each group to serve on serve on the United States Supreme Court. Have one person on the Supreme Court serve as Chief Justice. He or she may be appointed by the teacher or may be selected by other members of the court. The Chief Justice should call on the Courts of Appeals to report its decision one one of the laws that generated considerable discussion. Judges on the Supreme Court may then ask members of the Court of Appeals to report on the court’s rationale for its decision, following which the Supreme Court would huddle briefly and then announce its decision on whether the bill would be constitutional. Have the Supreme Court explain its reasoning by citing a clause or provision of the Constitution

Use the scoring guide to summarize the activity. In some cases, it may be possible to argue with the scoring guide. It is less important that the answer is precisely correct than that students have sound arguments defending their positions.

Scoring Guide

Note: This same activity can be modified with students roleplaying that they are members of Congress and are reviewing proposed bills from the perspective of legislative committee members. Students should use Table 2: Is it Constitutional? for this version of the simulation.

Table 2 Scoring Guide

Updated January 31, 2023 4:47pm