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Life, Liberty and Property: What’s the Big Idea?

Constitution of the United States

Quick Overview
This tried and true lesson, a blend of history and civics, guides students through a process of evaluating John Locke’s theory of “living in the natural state” as a basis of our Constitution. Students discuss and learn about the three basic freedoms (rights) in our Constitution: life, liberty and the right to own property. Students will “lock in” these concepts through an exciting mix of brainstorming, framed discussion, and writing techniques designed especially for English Language Learners.

Meeting the Needs of English Language Learners
Beyond feeling safe in a learning environment, three learning components remain essential to the success of English Language Learners (ELLs). First, ELLs have an easier time assigning meaning to a concept when they have been able to grapple with it and experience its importance. The second level of learning comes from evaluative discussion with others, and in a basic sense, provides an opportunity for students to say, “today I learned _______ and this is why it is important.”

The third component, however, is often a missing ingredient in lessons designed for ELLs, and that is writing. The process of writing solidifies learning in the minds of all learners because it requires higher order thinking skills. This lesson uses all three of these elements and supports students’ use of language while they learn significant content. Students use oral discussion frames and sentence frames that account for the linguistic patterns of various levels of ELLs.

Learning Objectives
Students will:

  • understand the terms and concepts of a constitution, rights and freedoms.
  • learn about and evaluate John Locke’s theory of living in a “state of nature” and how his three proposed basic rights (life, liberty and property) are essential to the Constitution of the United States of America.
  • identify and determine which rights they think must be protected by a national constitution.
  • evaluate the necessity of a national constitution for the success of a nation.

Time Frame
This lesson can be completed in less than an hour, or spread out into two or three sessions, depending upon the extent that the attached writing frames are utilized.

Basic Procedures
After teaching the concepts that our Constitution is a written, signed documents that serves as a set of “rules” or laws that protect the rights of American citizens, the teacher should divide the students into groups of 2-5 participants. The teacher should introduce the following scenario and then use a timer or time signal for each step.

Scenario: Imagine that you are shipwrecked in a foreign land with 100 other people. They could be strangers or people you know, but you all have one problem in common: there is no way to leave this foreign land. Therefore, you must decide upon a constitution that will protect the rights and freedoms of all 100 people. All 100 must agree to this constitution!

  • Step 1 (5 minutes): Discuss what might happen if all 100 people live together with no rules and laws. Record your responses as you consider: a) What might the stronger, more dominant people do? b) What might the weaker people do? c) Would there be criminals? d) Whom or what would protect people?
  • Step 2 (5 minutes): On a sheet of paper, your group will record a list of rights that everyone in the new land should have. Create a separate list of basic rules (laws) that everyone must follow.
  • Step 3 (5 minutes): How should the group of people decide on the laws and rules? Record your ideas!

Upon completion of the activity, each group will share some of their responses, particularly their list of rights. Depending on the language levels of the students, the teacher may wish to have students answer with the oral discussion frames provided in Handout 1.

Finally, read through my short informational article about John Locke (See Handout 3) and facilitate a discussion about whether or not students agree or disagree with his ideas and why it is (or is not) important for our country to have a national constitution. As an optional piece, the teacher (or students) can select from the accompanying writing frames as learning outcome statements and as a general assessment of whether or not the activity was a success (See Handout 2).

Additional Language Support
ELLs and students may pick from the oral response frames in Handout 1 when sharing responses. Note, for purposes of language development, students should not be allowed to use one-word responses or utterances. Instead, complete sentences should be expected. The blank sections of the frames can be simple or complex—one or two words, or multiple sentence responses; the teacher can write the frames on the board, display them, print and distribute them, etc.

Extensions

  • Create a classroom constitution for creating an effective learning environment. The students can all sign the constitution and post it on the wall for display.
  • Use the sentence frames and/or oral response frames for journal entries or quick writes.
  • Use the sentences frames and/or oral response frames for expository writing, such as comparing and contrasting student ideas to those of John Locke or writing a persuasive essay related to why a constitution is or is not important for a society’s survival.

A Note to the Teacher
I first taught a version of this lesson a year ago and then recently decided to test the idea in a few other classrooms. I needed to see the lesson in action—with someone else at the wheel. The results were thrilling: in each case, I saw students highly intrigued by the content and able to express their thoughts accurately and passionately, using the frames.

In one session, the students literally begged for the lesson to continue. Hearing these 5th graders discuss some of Locke’s finer points was extraordinary, and the teacher was proud to have content-area writing samples showcased on her walls, which is not always the norm in the first few weeks of the school year.

Most importantly, however, I often say that the “mark” of a good lesson is measured by learning that endures with time. Rest assured this lesson will deliver such results.

This past summer I was at a 4th of July barbecue with some students and their families. One of my students spied a sign in the corner of the yard with the following inscription: “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.” Quickly she tugged on my arm, yanked me over to the sign and proceeded to announce that someone had changed the phrasing of the “right to own property” to the “pursuit of happiness.” While she was quite disappointed by the sign, I was elated that she was remembering such a profound constitutional truth after several months with no review.

At that moment, I realized this lesson had truly “hit the mark.”

For more information 

Ideas for this lesson were inspired by:

  • Jean Fritz, Shh! We’re Writing the Constitution. New York: Putnam, 1987. 64 pp. Illustrated by Tomi dePaola.
  • Center for Civic Education. We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, Level I. Calabasas: Center for Civic Education, 2003.
  • “I Signed the Constitution.” An original lesson plan: National Constitution Center. Philadelphia, Pennsylvania.

Visit the website at the National Constitution Center for printable copies of the Constitution, other free primary sources, and lesson ideas. You can also find ideas and resources at the Center for Civic Education.

 
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