Design and Empathy in the Constitution: The Declaration of Independence

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Lesson At A Glance

Upon which democratic principles is the nation founded?  How were the principles of the nation incorporated into its founding documents? 


  • Students will communicate their understanding of the democratic principles incorporated into the Constitution, in particular:
    1. rights of the accused and judicial independence (EMPATHY);
    2. checks to unlimited powers and separation of powers (DESIGN); OR
    3. representative government and amenability (DESIGN AND EMPATHY)
  • Students will relate these concepts back to their 21st Century Skills (to be explained below) and to the case of a convicted arson offender on death row.

Standards Addressed

History-Social Science

Analyze the ideological origins of the American Revolution, the Founding Fathers’ philosophy of divinely bestowed unalienable natural rights, the debates on the drafting and ratification of the Constitution, and the addition of the Bill of Rights.

English Language Arts

2.5 Analyze an author’s implicit and explicit philosophical assumptions and beliefs about a subject.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading Grades 6-12

Key Ideas and Details

1. Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

Big Idea:

  • The strength of a democracy is equal to the strength of its citizens.

Essential Questions/Issues:

  • What in American history has expanded and what has constrained the democratic principles upon which our nation was founded?

Higher Order Thinking Questions: 

1. What purpose does it serve to have rights for those accused of a crime, to have powers separated out, and to have an amendable government?

2. Does the possibility of a innocent person being sentenced the death penalty:  

  • reflect that the death penalty provides excessive government power anyway?
  • reflect an unfortunate flaw in an otherwise protective system of due process?


Students will write a summary of the democratic principles, their importance, and their location in the Constitution in a model museum exhibition. Students will design an exhibit that thoroughly explains one of the principles of the Constitution to the general public through pictures, captions, and quotes.

Click here to download assessment tools

Activity Steps:

Click here to download activity steps

Hook: New Yorker Magazine cover (9/9/09) of youth teaching elderly “texting” language

  • Students fill in “6 C’s” worksheet on what they see in the cover
  • Discussion of purpose of magazine covers, of what liberal and conservative mean, of the need to identify bias; relate back to liberal and conservative perspectives on death penalty, to antifederalist and federalist positions on government

– Death Penalty Lecture

  • Review the three main themes of the coverage of the Constitution: how does it separate powers, how is it or has it been amended, and what rights does it include for the accused.
  • Discuss that death penalty relates to each of these themes
           State criminal courts issue death penalty, people can appeal to the Supreme Court
            Amendments protect death row inmates 
           Most states have a “super due process” that involves many stages before a death row inmate is executed
  • Handout “Trial By Fire” and go over the “6 C’s” of the article

    Understand that:

    – New Yorker is a somewhat liberal magazine; liberals tend not to favor the death penalty

    • Begin to read the circumstances of the case for death row inmate, Tod Wilingham

    • This will be used throughout the lesson to draw back to the themes of the Constitution and to give students a story to connect to

    Hook: “What would BdM say?”
    Give the following scenarios and students have to identify if this is an example of powers being separated and powers being concentrated in one individual.

    • A teacher must follow the school district’s rules of time limits on homework. (FEDERALISM)
    • A teacher can make a class rule, decide if you have broken it, and give you a consequence when you do break it. (LEG., EX., JUD., concentrated powers)
    • The school created the rule of no passes to lockers and security enforces it. (LEG., EX., separated)
    • Ms. Baldwin can suspend you, but you have a hearing in front of the school board if you are going to be expelled. (FEDERALISM, JUD., separated)

    – Separation of Powers Review

    • Review the Enlightenment philosopher, Baron de Montesquieu, and his beliefs about liberty and separation of powers
    • Have students diagram out the powers of each branch of government
    • Incorporate into the diagram the way in which the branches check each other
    • Federal or State? 
    • List out the powers of the federal government and the state governments and have students guess which are given to which level
    • Discuss why the power would be given to the level of government

    “Trial By Fire” connection-

    • States investigate crimes like arson, not the federal government
    • Texas might assign the death penalty in a different way or for different reasons than other states
    • Question: Can we ever correct the mistake of putting an innocent person to death?

    Hook: Police Officer Visit
    Arrange for a local police officer to come to the class and discuss with students the ways in which s/he is bound by the rights of those s/he investigates and/or arrests; have officer discuss how court and judges view officers (are they on the same side?)

    – Rights of the Accused Review (Constitutional Protections of Justice PPT)

    • Review the Justinian Code from Ancient Roman times and its protection for the accused and how these accumulate to the English Bill of Rights
    • Review the 4th - 8th Amendments and how they protect someone being accused of a crime
    • "Trial By Fire” connection
         Wilingham was given a lawyer
         Had a jury trial
         Prosecution used their evidence and investigative experts to convict Wilingham
         Has an appeals process and clemency boards
         Question: Use of jailhouse informants? Was he a sociopath as experts were claiming?  Could he effectively use his power to appeal if he is in jail?

    Hook: Be flexible or not?
    Provide students with the following scenarios and ask them if they think the teacher should be flexible or if they think the teacher should not budge.

    • Student’s phone rings in class.  Teacher’s policy is to confiscate phones used in class.
    • Student comes in late 3 days in a row.  Teacher’s policy is to give a detention on third tardy.
    • Student has an unexcused absence on a test day.  Teacher’s policy is no work can be made up on a day missed due to an unexcused absence.
    • Student curses at and calls another student names.  Teacher’s policy is to send students behaving inappropriately to the office.
    • Discussion that policies are maybe like principles; some you are able to be flexible on, others not. 

    – Amendments Review (Amendability PPT)

    • Review the philosophy of Federalists and Anti-Federalists and the subsequent compromise to include the amendments to the Constitution
    • Have students connect pictures of the Bill of Rights amendments with the correct amendment and explain the connection
    • Discuss claims that the Constitution is a flexible, or “living” document
    • “Trial By Fire” connection
           Death penalty supporters and opponents can form groups, write books
           Center on Wrongful Convictions, Innocence Project
           The Death Penalty by Stuart Banner
           Ability of Wilingham to investigate his case in jail
           Question: Is the death penalty “cruel and unusual”?  Or were there sufficient protections in the other amendments to protect Wilingham?

    Museum Project Work (Museum Project Instructions and Rubric DOCs)

    • Review instructions for the Museum Project
    • Have students write an in-class summary on one of three topics: separation of powers, amend ability of Constitution, rights of the accused
    • This will be developed further by the groups for the final draft of the summary
    • Share with students the project model.  Go through directions and have students identify whether or not the project fits the description of the instructions. 

    Special Needs of students are considered in this lesson: 

    Each of the lesson “hooks” provide for students who are not as academically inclined to have an experience to draw on that relates to the content.  The teacher can use the New Yorker article “Trial By Fire” in whatever way will suit the reading level of his/her students best; a summary of the article might be required or students could be instructed to skip over certain parts of the article.  Vocabulary could be front-loaded as well.  
    The museum project will appeal to a wide variety of skill levels and learning aptitudes.  Most effective in reaching students of all learning needs will be to provide students with models of the project.  In completing the project, kinesthetic learners (who tend to also be the students who struggle in the traditional educational environment) will enjoy the “interactive” piece of the project as this will allow them to create a relevant artifact or envision a computer program that would display the information they want to teach. 

    Extension Ideas:

    Students can research the current status of the death penalty debate in California, particularly over the issue of whether or not lethal injection is “cruel and unusual.”  Have students prepare to debate for and against California’s current practice of using lethal injection.

    Materials and Resources Needed: 

    • New Yorker Magazine cover and article, “Trial By Fire” (September 9, 2009 release)
    • “6 C’s of Primary Source Analysis” Worksheet (available as a PDF file at:
    • Computer with Keynote or Powerpoint, printer
    • Constitutional Powers and Debates, Constitutional Protections of Justice, and Amendability Powerpoint lectures 
    • Magazine Project Instructions, Rubric, and Model
    • 1 foam board (28” x 30”) per group
    • Accessible computer lab for student work time
    • Scissors, construction paper, markers, glue sticks


    • Prentice Hall’s United States History: Modern America California edition of 2008.  Throughout this lesson project, charts on pages C3 (separation of powers), C9 (Federal System), and C13 (Checks and Balances) are utilized.  
    • The New Yorker magazine for September 9, 2009 is used for the first hook activity and for the “Trial By Fire” article connections.  Your local library may have copies of this magazine edition.

    Student Handouts:

    Download student handouts here

    Outline of Unit Plan:

    This is the second part of a unit designed for 11th grade, based on the overall question: Upon which democratic principles is the nation founded?  The first part of the unit asked, What were the principles at the founding of the nation?  The second part is now asking, How were the principles of the nation incorporated into its founding documents?  The next part of the unit will be what tests to the Constitution did the early nation face? 

    Context of the lesson within the unit:

    Students already have a deep understanding of the powers of the three branches of government, of the Greco-Roman, Enlightenment, and English rights and influences on the Constitution, and of the Reasons and causes for the American Revolution.  This lesson is an assessment piece that provides a little more depth and covers the Constitution thematically and falls before the unit exam.

    Standards Addressed in the Unit: History Social Science

    11.1 Students analyze the significant events in the founding of the nation and its attempts to realize the philosophy of government described in the Declaration of independence.