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Civics - Unit 1 

Exploring Rights & Responsibilities in a Democracy/Government

Introduction: Unit Overview  

This unit focuses on the rights that make it possible for people to fulfill their role as participants in a democracy. The unit also asks students to consider their responsibilities to our democracy. In the first lesson, students brainstorm questions about the rights and responsibilities of powerful civic actors. Students then learn about the importance of the Constitution in providing rights individuals need in order to fulfill their role in a democracy. The subsequent Launch Lessons look more specifically at rights and their uses as well the responsibilities of members of a democratic community.

The Explorations engage students in analyzing primary sources that provide insight into the meaning of “We the People,” involve students in discussing if people today are becoming less responsible, simulate a Supreme Court hearing, ask students to inventory their media use and learn to use a framework for analyzing media, and build students’ skill in making an argument.

Unit Assessment: Analyze a case study of a powerful civic actor and write a brief persuasive paper related to the case study. 

Lesson 1:  What Should We Know about Rights and Responsibilities?

In this lesson you will use a case study of young people who changed policy in Chicago Public Schools.  This will serve as a springboard, students brainstorm questions about rights and responsibilities of powerful civic actors.


  • What rights do I have? How does the Constitution protect those rights?
  • What responsibilities do I have to our democracy and community?
  • How do my rights enable me to use my power in our democracy and society? How do my responsibilities require me to use my power?


  • The Constitution provides a framework for a government with limited powers and guarantees the rights of the people. But not all people’s rights have been protected throughout U.S. history.
  • Individuals in a democracy have many rights that allow them to exercise their power, but these rights are limited, and some individuals’ rights are more limited than others’.
  • Rights often come into conflict with one another, and resolving these conflicts can be challenging.
  • Democratic responsibilities are not clearly defined, but people taking responsibility and exercising their power to work for the common good is essential to our democracy and community.
Part 1:  "Rights" and Responsibilities" 
1) “Rights” and “Responsibilities” two words and concepts important to powerful civic actors that the class will be exploring in this unit.

2) Right or Responsibility? 

  • Free speech 
  • Freedom from cruel and unusual punishment
  • Picking up trash around the school
  • Watching a younger sibling after school 
  • Freedom of religion
  • Completing school assignments on time 
  • Paying taxes
  • Freedom to travel to other cities
  • Being informed 
  • Voting 

3) Today you will be generating questions about rights and responsibilities that you would like to explore and answer in their study. 

4) Take a moment and think about young people you know in Chicago who are already powerful civic actors.  Don't know any?  Let's take a look:  Case Study: Voices of Youth in Chicago Education (VOYCE) handout 

5) In small groups, read and share how rights and responsibilities relate to the students’ story in the case study. Each group will report out one way in which the case study was related to rights and responsibilities.

6) In your Friday Small Groups, develop questions about rights and responsibilities. Decide a note-taker. Brainstorm as many questions as you can in the time you given for this task. Review the Rules for Developing Questions (below) visual and follow these rules as they work. Be sure groups understand the note-taker should also contribute questions.

VISUAL: Rules for Developing Questions
 Ask as many questions as you can..
 Do not stop to answer, judge, or discuss the questions.
 Write down every question exactly as it is stated.
 If a statement is made instead of a question asked, work together to restate it as a question.
7) Time is up!  What is the difference between closed and open-ended questions? Closed questions can be answered with a single correct answer. This doesn't mean "yes-no" questions, rather any question with an indisputably correct factual answer is closed. Open-ended questions do not have clear-cut right answers; people will disagree on the answers. Answering an open question requires thinking, combining ideas, and creativity, and the answers are likely to involve more explanation than closed questions. For example:
  • Does an eighth-grader have the right to free speech? (Closed) 
  • What limits should be placed on students’ rights at school? (Open-ended) 

8) Both types of questions are useful depending on the circumstances.  What are the advantages and disadvantages of the two types of questions?

9) In groups: Categorize each question on your lists as closed-ended (“C”) or open-ended (“O”). When you are have done so change one closed-ended question into an open-ended question and one open-ended question into a closed-ended question. If all of your questions are of one type, rewrite two of those questions to the other type.   Note-taker will share your changed questions from the original form to the new form. 

10) Display the clean copies of the questions in the classroom. Explain that these will serve as anchor charts, “home base,” for this unit. Students can add questions as they arise and post answers to questions as they learn. I will document your questions on the Civics - Board and Notes document.  

Closure & Assessment:  

Each student should choose one question, picking a question you find especially interesting or important. Write a brief justification for why you chose that specific question. We will do our best to answer each of questions they chose in this unit.


Going Deeper: Encourage students to learn more about VOYCE and their work (, creating a list of the issues that VOYCE has advocated on. Students might divide the issues among themselves and follow current news on the issues.

Lesson 2: What Is the Constitution and How Does It Protect Our Rights?

This lesson introduces the Constitution as the foundation of our government and a protector of individual rights. The lesson opens with a challenge: If we wanted to create a new kind of school, what steps would we need to take to make it happen? Students then compare this process with what the Framers did when they wrote the Constitution. They learn that the U.S. Constitution establishes a framework for the U.S. government and puts limits on that government. They are introduced to the Bill of Rights and consider how the rights protected help individuals become powerful civic actors.


What rights do I have? How does the Constitution protect those rights?


The Constitution provides a framework for a government with limited powers and guarantees the rights of the people. But not all people’s rights have been protected throughout U.S. history.

Understanding the Functions of a Constitution
1) Imagine that they have been appointed to a committee that will design a new model for a grade 6-8 school in Chicago Public Schools. What would be some of the steps that would need to happen? 
What decisions would need to be made?  Whose voices should be included? 

2) Share some ideas. How would we keep track of all the decisions that were made and make sure that people who want to work there or attend school there know how the school works? 

3) We are going to be gathering some background information about how the  U.S. Constitution was written.  As we learn more about how the Constitution was written, think about how the experience of planning a new school is similar to the process that the Framers of the U.S. Constitution went through in 1787.  Take a moment to read the 1787: Writing the Constitution handout. 

Discussion Questions:
  • Any questions or clarification on any of the information that may have caused some confusion? 
  • How was the constitutional convention similar to the process you went through in thinking about a hypothetical new school? How was it different? 
  • Which process--your process you thought about for the new school or the process used at the constitutional convention--do you think was more democratic? Why?

4) We will delve more deeply into the principles that are embedded in the Constitution. In seven groups you are going to be assigned one of the principles of the Constitution. Your job is to create a visual that shows how the principle limits government to protect the citizen's power.  

7 Principles

5) Open the Principles in the Constitution CardsYou will have 15 minutes to complete your visuals.  Share them with the whole class. 

Discussion Questions:

  • Which principle in the Constitution do you think is most important? Explain your answer. Be sure to consider how the principles help ensure individual power within our democracy.
  • Find two principles that you think are linked. Explain the link.
  • Would you have been a Federalist or Anti-Federalist? That is, would you favor a strong national government and no bill of rights or a bill of rights to protect individual and state rights from a strong national government? Why? 
  • What do you think the delegates to the convention should do to solve the disagreement over a list of rights?

Part 3: Understanding The Bill of Rights

1) What did our Founding Fathers or Framers of the Constitution do to resolve the disagreement over rights?  Can you think of an example?  Maybe you recall the Federalists Papers WS-Webquest.doc.  The Federalists agreed to add a Bill of Rights as soon as the first Congress was elected under the new Constitution. The Bill of Rights was passed through Congress in 1789 and submitted to the states for ratification. While 12 amendments were proposed, only 10 were ratified. They went into effect in 1791.

Group Discussion Questions:

  • Open and discuss: Bill of Rights Handout
  • What rights should be protected in The Bill of Rights?
  • Anything that should be included that isn't in the current Bill of Rights?

2) There are two ways that the Bill of Rights helps us to become powerful civic actors. 

What do you think those two ways might be? 

  • One is by giving us the rights we need to make our voices heard. 
  • The other is by keeping the government  from becoming too powerful.

What could happen if the government  becomes too powerful? 

  • It could stop people from using their rights by throwing them in jail. 

3) We are going to be applying their understanding of the Bill of Rights while thinking about these two ways in which our rights help us become powerful civic actors. Complete the Which Right? Handout. 

Closure & Assessment:

Complete an exit ticket in which you identify one time you have used a right protected by the Bill of Rights to advance the common good. 

Lesson 3: How Have Our Rights under the Constitution Changed?

The Constitution included provisions for amending the document, a fact that has proven essential to the expansion of rights in the United States. In this lesson, students learn about the amending process and look at key rights-related amendments, the critical Fourteenth Amendment and the various voting rights amendments (Fifteenth, Nineteenth, Twenty-third, Twenty-fourth, and Twenty-sixth). They also learn that rights can be obtained or suppressed via laws. The lesson concludes with a mini inquiry project on the status of voting rights today. The lesson concludes with a mini inquiry activity on the status of voting rights today.


  • What rights do I have? How does the Constitution protect those rights?


  • The Constitution provides a framework for a government with limited powers and guarantees the rights of the people. But not all people’s rights have been protected throughout U.S. history. 
  • Individuals in a democracy have many rights that allow them to exercise their power, but these rights are limited, and some individuals’ rights are more limited than others’.    
Part 1:  Decoding the Fourteenth Amendment
1) Take a moment to recall previous lesson about designing a new model for a 6-8 school. Now imagine that you have completed your planning and drawn up a constitution for the new school and even included a bill of rights.  But, then the school opens and after some time, students, parents, and even some teachers feel that a certain group of students are not being treated equally to other students. Nothing in your constitution addresses this issue. How can we solve this problem? In groups come up with a plan.  
2) Note to Students: If students mention changing the school constitution, putting new rules in place, or asking someone with authority to intervene in the situation, explain that these are some of the strategies that the United States has used to extend rights. The United States has amended the Constitution, passed laws, and asked the Supreme Court to rule on whether government policies and procedures have violated rights protected by the Constitution. Remind students that one of the checks and balances that limits any branch of government from getting too much power is the court’s power to declare laws or acts of the executive branch unconstitutional. 

3) Remember the Bill of Rights was added to the Constitution through the amendment process. Remember that after the Civil War, three very important amendments were added to the Constitution to address the rights of 4 million formerly enslaved, newly freed people. The Thirteenth abolished slavery and the Fifteenth said the right to vote could not be denied to someone because of their race or color or because they have been enslaved (this applied only to men). We will revisit the 15th amendment and voting rights but right now we will focus on the Fourteenth Amendment.

4) In small groups: Open up the Decoding the Fourteenth Amendment handout and decode the Fourteenth Amendment. This is a challenging task--Supreme Court justices are still working out the meaning of the Fourteenth Amendment as they decide cases today.  The Fourteenth Amendment has had ongoing significance since its adoption and is still very relevant to people’s lives today. 

Part 2: Talking Timeline on Voting Rights

1) Time to look at how voting rights have changed over time. 

Discussion Questions:

  • Why are voting rights important in a representative democracy? 
  • How many elected officials do you think there might be in the United States?  Don't peek! 
  • 6% is the percentage of people who were eligible to vote when George Washington was President of the United States. If only 6% of the people elected all those officials, would the United States even be a democracy?
  • 73% is the percentage of people in the United States who are eligible to vote. 
  • Who do you think makes up the 27% of people who are not eligible to vote in the United States? 
  • How do you think the United States got from 6% to 73% of the people being eligible to vote? 

  1. Distribute the A History of Voting Rights handout and read the background information with students. Ask students to report on what they highlighted in the reading--new information, concerning information, and questions raised. Ask table groups if any of their hypotheses about how the vote expanded have been confirmed by the reading.

  2. Explain that students will take the roles of people who could or could not vote during various periods in history. Hand out role cards and the signs or materials for students to make the signs. If students are to make the signs, allow time for them to do so.   (If there are more than 22 students, have pairs of students share roles that appear in more than one time period.)

  3. Tell students they are going to do a quick “Meet My Role” Parade (like a Halloween costume parade). Have them hold up their signs and walk around the classroom so that every student gets a good look at all of the roles.

  4. Explain that each role represents developments in one or more periods of history and is marked Period 1, 2, 3, and/or 4. When their time period is called, students should stand up along the timeline, in numbered sequence, and read their role cards aloud. If they have the right to vote, they should affix their sign on the timeline and remain standing at the timeline until the end of that Period. If they do not have the right to vote, they should not affix their sign to the timeline and stand to the side, off the timeline. If they had the right to vote and lost it, they should remove their sign and stand with others who cannot vote.  As the timeline is being built, students should think about: 

  • Who cannot vote at the end of the time period?

  • Who lost and who won in this time period?

 Stimulate student interest and thought about voting by asking such questions as the following: 

  • (Accept all answers.)  


  • What questions do the events of this time period raise about voting in our country?

Tell students that those who are not on the timeline for a period will be in charge of the conversation at the end of that period. Project the Analyzing the Timeline visual as a reminder to students of the questions they should be thinking about.  

  1. Read the background for Period 1, 1787-1829 below. Then ask, “Who has the right to vote?” Ask those persons with roles in that period (Numbers 1-10) to stand and arrange themselves in numerical order. After they read their role card, they will either put their signs on the timeline (if they can vote) or take their signs and stand off the timeline (if they cannot vote). At the end of the period, ask a student who is sitting to lead a brief conversation around the questions on the visual: Who lost and who won during this period? Who cannot vote at the end of this period? What questions do the events of this time period raise?  Most of the comments should come from those who are sitting. 

Follow the same procedure for Periods 2 (role numbers 11-22), 3 (role numbers 23-32), and 4 (role numbers 33-42). In Period 3, some students will have to remove their signs from the timeline because of disenfranchisement.



 3-4 class periods

1-4 Why Are Our First Amendment Rights So Important? 2+ class periods

This lesson engages students in learning about the First Amendment in some depth. Students work in groups to investigate the six rights protected by the First Amendment--free exercise of religion, protection from establishment of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the press, right to petition, and right to assemble. The groups make presentations to the class, focusing on how their right relates to being a powerful civic actor.

1-5 Do Our Rights Have Limits? 2 class periods

This lesson focuses on several key ideas: that rights have limits, that limits often arise when rights come into conflict, and that rights may be more limited in some locations and for some groups. To pursue these ideas, students delve into the limits on their Fourth Amendment rights at school, looking first at the landmark case New Jersey v. T.L.O. and then applying what they learned to other cases involving searches at school.

1-6 What Are Our Responsibilities to Our Democracy and Community? 1 class period

After focusing on their rights, students turn to their responsibilities to our democracy and community. Because there is no “Bill of Responsibilities” in our Constitution, students begin with a broad list and narrow it down to a class list of essential civic responsibilities. Students then consider how their rights link to their responsibilities and conduct a Save the Last Word for Me conversation around a reading proposing a “Bill of Responsibilities.”


PS-1 Primary Sources 1-2 class periods

What Does “We the People” Mean?

This lesson introduces primary sources and asks students to consider four primary sources that may provide insight into how the meaning of the term “We the People” has changed over time. The sources are the Declaration of Sentiments from the Seneca Falls Women’s Rights Convention, Cesar Chavez’s address to the Commonwealth Club of California, Oren Lyons’s speech to the Aboriginal Law Association of McGill University, and the Black Lives Matter statement of beliefs.

C-1 Controversial Issues Discussion 1-2 class periods

Are We Becoming Less Responsible?

In this lesson, students take part in a civil conversation focused on a reading that suggests Americans today are less committed to their civic duties than generations past.

S-1 Simulation 3-4 class periods

What Are Our Free Speech Rights at School?

This lesson begins with a human continuum activity on the limits that should be placed on students’ free speech rights at school. Students then have the opportunity to take part in a moot court on a landmark case involving young people’s First Amendment rights at school--Tinker v. Des Moines. At the end of the lesson, students confront cases that have been decided since the Tinker case, cases that have placed greater limits on students’ First Amendment rights at school.

M-1 Media 2-3 class periods plus

How Can We Assess Media Messages?

In this lesson, students take an inventory of their own use of media. They are introduced to a set of questions for analyzing media messages. The questions are then tied to five key concepts in media analysis: authorship, purpose, content, format, and audience. They use the concepts and questions as they create simple media messages.

SB-1 Skill Builder 1-2 class periods

How Can I Make an Effective Argument?

Advocating for one’s point of view is a key element of being a powerful civic actor. To advocate effectively, one must be able to construct an argument. That skill is the focus of this Exploration.

U.S. Federal Constitution Test Prep

Mr.Streit's Federal Constitution Flashcards

Download 2 or 3 at a time and practice remembering them.  Come back when you have and download a few more.
  1. 1 - Sons of Liberty, Boston Tea Party, Patrick Henry.doc
  2. 2 - 1st Coninental Congress, 2nd Continental Congress, George Washington.doc
  3. 3 - Declaration of Independence, Thomas Jefferson, Unalienable Rights.doc
  4. 4 - Weaknesses of The Articles of Confederation, Shays Rebellion.doc
  5. 5 - Consititional Convention, Independence Hall.doc
  6. 6 - New Jersey Plan, Virgina Plan.doc
  7. 7 - 17th Am, Common Man, Raitfying Const.doc
  8. 8 - Federalists, Anit-Federalists.doc
  9. 9 - Democracy, Purpose of Bill of Rights.doc
  10. 10 - Preamble, Branches of Gov., Articles and Amendments.doc
  11. 11 - 1st & last Amendment, Supreme Law of the Land, Constitiution Established.doc
  12. 12 - 1st, 2nd, 3rd Amendments.doc
  13. 13 - 4th, 5th, 6th Amendments.doc
  14. 14 - 7th, 8th, 9th Amdendments.doc
  15. 15 - 10th Amendment, Purpose of Branches, 2 Houses of Congress.doc
  16. 16 - Number of Senators-Reps, salaries, vacancies.doc
  17. 17 - Qualifications -Terms of Sen - Reps.doc
  18. 18 - Duties of Sen. - Reps., Sen. numbers.doc
  19. 19 - Presiding officers, congressional numbers, quorum.doc
  20. 20 - Revenue Bills, Congressional Records, Election years.doc
  21. 21 - What is a bill, Overriding Presedntial Veto.doc
  22. 22 - Pocket Veto, Greatest Power.doc
  23. 23 - Expressed, Enumerated, Implied Powers.doc
  24. 24 - Elastic Clause, Ex Post Facto, Habeas Corpus.doc
  25. 25 - Full Faith, Credit Clause, President, Vice-President.doc
  26. 26 - Electing, Qualifications, of Presidents, Salary.doc
  27. 27 - Order of Succession, Nixon, Impeachment.doc
  28. 28 - Commander-n-Chief, Term, Duties of President.doc
  29. 29 - Cabinet Positions, Coining Money.doc
  30. 30 - Duties of all Cabinet Positions, Electoral Votes.doc
  31. 31 - More Electoral Votes, Popular Votes, No. of Justices.doc
  32. 32 - Federal Judges, Impeachement of Judges, Court of Appeals, District Courts.doc
  33. 33 - Marbury vs Madison, Checks & Balances, Federalism.doc
  34. 34 - Amending Constitution, Position of Flag.doc
  35. Bill of Rights.pdf
  36. Weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation.pdf
  37. First 5 Presidents.pdf

U.S. Federal Constitution Prep Classwork & Homework Assignments: 

Prep/Resources & Study Guides:

IL State Constitution


Prep & Study

IL State Constitution Webquest / Study Guide