Separation of Powers and the Power Grab Game

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Lesson At A Glance

This is the 3rd lesson in the United States Constitution Unit. This lesson will occur in the unit after the students have learn why the United States of America in the early 1780's needed to revise the current form of government  The students have studied the problems with the Articles of Confederation and reviewed the principles behind the Preamble of the United States Constitution.  The basis for our Constitution was to implement a new government with three equal branches that balance and check each other.  This lesson will explore those checks and balances.


  • Identify the three branches of American government. 
  • Describe the function of each branch of government. 
  • Explain how the "checks and balances" system functions to protect the individual citizen from illegal power hungry politicians. 
  • Describe how each branch of government is "separate" in its powers to the other branches of government.

Standards Addressed: 

Social Studies

12.4 Students analyze the unique roles and responsibilities of the three branches of government as established by the U.S. Constitution.

Explain the process through which the Constitution can be amended.

Discuss Article II of the Constitution as it relates to the executive  branch, including eligibility for office and length of term, election to and removal from office, the oath of office, and the enumerated executive powers.

Discuss Article III of the Constitution as it relates to judicial power, including the length of terms of judges and the jurisdiction of the Supreme Court.

Common Core State Standards for English Language Arts and Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects Grades 11-12 Students

Integration of Knowledge and Ideas

7.      Evaluate the hypotheses, data, analysis, and conclusions in a science or technical text, verifying the data when possible and corroborating or challenging conclusions with other sources of information.

Essential Questions/Issues:

  • Why did the founders of the Constitution want change to be hard in our democracy?
  • Does social capital strengthen a republic?

Higher Order Thinking Questions:

1. Even though there are three equal branches of our government defined by our constitution, do you believe that one has more power over the other two and why? (Analysis)

2. Evaluate and explain what you believe the most important power each of the 3 branches of government possess.  Which branch has the single greatest power? (Evaluation)

3. Find a time in history in which the system of checks and balances was challenged the most.  What was the result? (Application)


Students will be evaluated through informal checks for understanding, teacher observation, self-reflections, and performing an authentic task (GRASPS) evaluated by a rubric. (See rubric and GRASPS)

Click here to download the assessment tools

Activity Steps:

Click here to download student activity steps

DAY 1 

Purpose   Teacher   Students

Into (Hook)
5 minutes

Magazine Brainstorm

Pass out one magazine to each student.  Tell the students that they all have different types of magazines but all of them have one very important thing in common.  Have the students shout out what they believe is the important common trait throughout all the magazines.  After a few minutes tell them that they are all wrong and that the common important trait all the magazines have in common is that they all contain clear examples of the Articles of the Constitution within them. Will brainstorm and shout out answers to the teachers opening question.


Notes  and activity on the Articles of the Constitution.

35 minutes

However you feel best go over the seven articles of the constitution making sure to point out the key aspects of each article.  Have the students take notes.

Once you have gone over the seven Articles of the Constitution have the students get out a blank piece of paper and tell them that they will now focus on Articles 1-3. Their assignment is to thumb through the magazines and find three different examples for Article 1, Article 2, and Article 3 of the constitution. They will cut out the picture they found, paste it to their paper and then jot down the exact article they are using.  For example, if a student finds a picture of soldiers, they can cut that picture out, paste in on their paper and underneath the picture write the following:

Article II Executive Power, Section 2, Clause 1: the President is the Commander in Chief of the armed forces, and of the state militias when these are called into federal service.

The students will do 3 of these for each section. 

Students will be taking notes on the lecture of the Articles of the Constitution, following along with their own constitutions.

Students will flip through their magazines looking for pictures that represent the first three articles of Government.  They will cut them out and paste them on their blank piece of paper and write the appropriate response under the picture.


40 Minutes

See GRASPS for the Situation:

Divide the class into three groups: Executive, Legislative and Judicial branches of government. Each student should have a copy of the Constitution with them.

In each round the teacher will give each branch of government an opportunity for an unconstitutional "Power Grab". The remaining two groups have two minutes to find proof from the Constitution (amendments included) by Article, section and clause, why the power grab is unconstitutional.

When a person thinks he finds the appropriate check he yells "check". He must be prepared to respond with the answer immediately. If wrong, others may try to block the grab for power with the two minutes, alternating between branches until the two minutes are gone or the answer is correct.

When checked correctly, the branch received 10 points. If no one gets the correct answer, the branch grabbing power gets 5 points. No penalty for wrong answers.

A round is a question for each branch.

See attached sheet for Power Grabs. Once the game is over each group will be given 5 minutes to prepare a 3 minute argument to why they believe their branch in reality is the most powerful branch of our government as well as addressing the essential questions of the lesson.

The students will take on the role of a member of the executive, legislative or judicial branches of government.  They will try and locate the unconstitutional "power grab" in the time allotted to earn points for their team.

Students will group up and prepare a 3 minute presentation on why they believe their branch is the most powerful branch of our government.  They will also include within the three minute presentation their answers to the essential questions of the lesson.

Special Needs of students are considered in this lesson: 

Students with special needs are considered in this lesson as students can be partnered with another student taking into account any special needs regarding use of technology, research skills, and writing abilities.  In addition the notes given will be differentiated for EL and below grade level learners with guided notes.   On grade level learners will be given differentiated notes with the key terms listed to guide their learning.   Above grade level learners will have the opportunity to practice and use their own note taking system.

Extension Ideas:

Have the students research some of the most famous presidential vetoes, impeachments of any government official, or a Supreme Court case checking another branch of government.

Materials and Resources Needed:

  • Copies of the United States Constitution
  • White board
  • magazines
  • scissors 
  • glue sticks or tape.


  • United States Constitution

Student Handouts:

Download student handouts here

Outline of Unit Plan:

United States Constitution