The United States has three branches of government. Here are lesson plans and resources to help your students get to know all three.
The executive branch
The President of the United States, the Vice President of the United States, the president’s staff, and the cabinet are members of the executive branch of the U.S. government. The president is in charge.
- Read what the White House says about the executive branch.
- Ben’s Guide has the kids’ version.
- History has videos on the subject.
- iCivics has lesson plans about the executive branch. You’ll have to register, but it’s free to do so.
The biggest job of the executive branch is to enforce the laws of the United States of America. Make a bulletin board to collect news stories your class finds that show the executive branch doing that.
There have been 46 presidents so far. Use a list of the presidents to find them all. Then use a pack of blank playing cards to create a game. Let each student design and make a card for one of the presidents (or more, depending on the size of your class). Make sure that the design shows important facts about the president based on research before approving the design. Let students add their design to a card and laminate the pack. Then have groups of students develop games to play with the cards. Write the rules clearly and store them with the cards as a center to use all year round.
The legislative branch
The Congress, which is made up of the House of Representatives and the Senate, is the legislative branch. Their biggest job is to make the laws which the executive branch enforces.
- Read the White House description of the legislative branch.
- Ben’s Guide has a version for kids.
- Watch Congress in action.
Find your legislators at Congress.org. Learn about your senators and members of the House. Find their websites and see what issues they care about. As a class or as individuals, write a letter thanking a representative or asking one to support an issue that is important to you.
Use GovTrack to find and follow a law. A simple piece of legislation to learn about is the new resolution allowing senators to bring their babies to the Senate. The page on this resolution explains the difference between a resolution and a bill, tells the history of the action, and provides the full text.
Once you’ve used this simple example to understand how GovTrack works, practice using the search function at the website to find a law that your class cares about. You can add a widget tracking that law to your class website or subscribe to updates. Read and understand the text of the law, see who supports or opposes it, and follow the process.
The judicial branch
The courts are the judicial branch of the government. Their biggest job is to interpret the law and decide how it applies to real life situations. They are also in charge of making sure that new laws don’t contradict the U.S. Constitution.
- Read what the White House says about the judicial branch.
- Ben’s Guide has a much shorter explanation for kids.
- Ducksters has a reading passage with a quiz.
- EdSitement has a lesson plan on the judicial branch and the Supreme Court in particular, using primary sources and the case of Dred Scott vs. Sanford.
- Check out our Supreme Court lessons.
The First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution is about laws:
Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.
The judicial branch of the government has to make sure that any laws made by Congress follow the first amendment. Have students collect new stories on this subject: court cases about the First Amendment.
As you add to your collection of cases, decide whether it is easy to tell whether a specific case threatens free speech or freedom of religion or the freedom of the press. Does your class always agree with the courts’ decisions? Finish the study by assigning an essay on one of the freedoms listed in the First Amendment.