Early Democratic Documents Inquiry Activity

Early Democratic Documents Inquiry Activity

Magna Carta

This inquiry activity will provide historic context at the beginning of your unit over the United States Constitution.  The lesson allows students to explore our good friends:   The Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights and The Mayflower Compact.  Oh, the joy and rapture that invades their young hearts as we explore these benchmark government documents… because they are typically sound asleep and drooling as they frolic through dreamland in their happy place!!!

Today, I’m brainstorming ways to get students engaged in learning about these very important documents. I think the key is inquiry – students need to be asking their own questions about these documents.  So, here’s my evil plan:

Step One: Let’s engage a little prior knowledge by asking a thought-provoking question:


Ideally, there will be some debate here.  Hopefully, someone will recall from 7th grade World Civ that democracy began in Athens Greece, someone else will remind us about the senate in ancient Rome and so on…

If you really want to have some fun, you can show this short video which explains that America is NOT a democracy and the difference between democracy and republic.

Step Two:  Tease the three documents.  I’m going to give them just some basic information about the three documents.  For example:

Documents that influence American Government:

  • The Magna Carta limited the power of the British King.
  • The English Bill of Rights gave British citizens basic rights.
  • The Mayflower Compact stated pilgrims would make their own laws.

Step Three:  Students create questions.  I would probably divide students up into groups of two or three and have them create a list of questions they have about these three documents.  They can be specific questions about each, or questions for all three.  If you have a group of students that needs more structure, you could challenge them to write “who, what, why, when, where, how” questions.  If students generate a whole lot of questions, you might ask them to narrow down their questions to the “best” five questions and perhaps have a quick discussion about what the word “best” means.  You might even have each group share out their “best” question.

Step Four:  Present students with information they can use to answer their questions OR, have students research to find their own answers.  (If you don’t have technology available in the classroom and you have a number of students without access at home, you may want to use hard copy materials.)  I’ve created these handouts that I plan to use when I teach this lesson.    (government documents activity)  I always try to incorporate primary sources when possible, but these three primary sources are so difficult to read that I’ve included only a couple of quotes along with some very basic explanation of each.  This is definitely too low of a reading level for high school students, but would work well for upper elementary and some middle school students.

Step Five:  It’s time to make connections between these government documents and American government.  One way to do this is through a group brainstorming session.  To begin, I will give each student two post-it notes and ask them to compare one of the documents to something they know to be true about American government.  I will put up posters (or just use the white board) to create a space for each of the three documents.  I will have each student put their post-it notes under the appropriate document.  Then, I will have students “tour” the information and record at least 5 good connections that they agree with.  We’ll follow this up with a group discussion.

Step Six:  Now that we’ve had some fun, it’s time to assess out learning.  One way to do this is to give students a prompt and 15-20 minutes to write a response.  I think the obvious prompt would be, “How did the Magna Carta, English Bill of Rights and Mayflower Compact impact American Government?” or (for hip teachers) “How America Plagiarized Democracy.”  Students could create a blog post that addresses this question, or create a prezi or other cool “techi thing” on your class website.  Or, you could have them participate in an online discussion.

Do you have a better assessment idea or an extension activity?  Please send it to me by emailing jennifer@c3socialstudies.com.

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