Houghton Mifflin Social Studies
A More Perfect Union

Understanding Primary Sources:
Real-Life Rights

Objective: Students use creative forms of expression to communicate the rights citizens enjoy under the Bill of Rights.

What You Need:

Suggested Time:
3-4 class periods

Building Background:
At the time of the Constitutional Convention, many states already had bills of rights, designed to protect the individual liberties of their citizens. This was one reason why the drafters of the Constitution did not feel they had to include one in their document. The other reason was that they felt that the built-in checks and balances in the Constitution would prevent any branch from abusing the people's rights. During the ratification process, however, many people were concerned that the Constitution did not include a bill of rights. Several delegates, including George Mason, the principal writer of Virginia's Declaration of Rights, and Elbridge Gerry, refused to sign the document without one. Eventually, the Federalists, under the leadership of James Madison, agreed that once the Constitution was ratified, it would be quickly amended with a list of people's rights that would be protected.

What To Do:

1. Have volunteers read aloud each amendment in the Bill of Rights, then discuss its meaning. Explain that although the men who wrote the amendments tried to state their thoughts as clearly as possible, constitutional scholars do not always agree on how to interpret each amendment. Even the best-intentioned legislators could not foresee how much the country would change and how difficult it would be to apply the amendments to new situations.

2. Distribute copies of the Real-Life Rights worksheet. Have students form small discussion groups to generate scenarios of real-life situations today that specific amendments would apply to. For example, they might discuss topics such as searching school lockers (Fourth Amendment), or the right of tabloid newspapers to print false or incorrect information (First Amendment). Have students record their ideas about modern-day scenarios for the first eight amendments on the worksheet. (Amendments 9 and 10 do not deal with specific rights of individuals.)

3. After students have come up with a scenario for each of the first eight amendments, have them work in their groups to create a mock trial for one of the scenarios. Students can play the roles of a plaintiff who believes his or her rights have been violated, a defendant accused of violating the other students' rights, lawyers for each side who will argue how the amendment relates to their case, and a judge and jury who can decide whether or not the action violates that amendment.

Provide time for each group to hold its mock trial in front of the class. After all groups have present their trials, discuss the results with students.


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