Teaching American government doesn’t have to be boring or overly complicated. We all know it’s a challenging concept to teach. Government is an abstract topic that students have a difficult time making connections to all of the concepts, and the vocabulary is very difficult for upper elementary students. Fortunately, there are many ways to make this unit meaningful AND fun for students, so hopefully you will get a few good ideas from this post.
My students always enjoy a good simulation, and I find that simulations tie in perfectly to social studies. When I teach government, I use a direct democracy and representative democracy simulation to engage my students. It’s such a fun way to make a difficult concept concrete and meaningful. In this simulation, students on vote on the best way to spend money on a new playground in a direct democracy and then they vote on a student council representative in a representative democracy. Students have to decide which representative best reflects their own opinions, and they see that there may not always be a perfect fit. The simulation is a part of my American Government Unit.
I love integrating social studies and science units with reading and writing, and it’s a great way to present new content to students. I’ve created a Government Close Reading packet that I incorporate this into my social studies lessons, rather than my reading lessons. I only focus on one passage a week, so it doesn’t take us too much time to complete. Here’s a glimpse at how I use the close reading passages:
- Monday: We read the passage together. Students wrote notes and asked questions on the passage.
- Tuesday: Students answered the first read questions and cited the text evidence they used.
- Wednesday: Students reread the passage and highlighted key words and circled any words they couldn’t read or didn’t know the meaning of.
- Thursday: Students reread the passage and answered the second read questions.
- Friday: Students answered the third read question.
I think Wednesday was my favorite day, because it was so enlightening for me to see what words my students circled. There were words that I expected my students to circle, but there were also words circled that really surprised me. It’s important for me to have leveled reading passages, because this allows me to differentiate for my students. I’ve written each passage on three different reading levels.
I’ve also written three sets of questions for each passage. The first set of questions requires students to answer explicit questions using information from the text. I always have my students underline the answer in the passage.
On the second set of questions, students focus on vocabulary and nonfiction text features. This is also where students think about main idea and author’s purpose which are always challenging skills for students.
The third set of questions is where students apply informational writing strategies with a constructed response question. In this activity, students must use text evidence to support their answers.
The topics included in the reading passages are:
- levels of government
- branches of government
- government services
- rights and responsibilities
I often start my government unit by teaching about the three levels of government. I made a little PowerPoint presentation that explained the three levels of government in student friendly terms. You can download a copy of the PowerPoint presentation here.
I like to use several different graphic organizers for teaching levels of government and branches of American government. I use interactive notes, and a couple cut and paste activities where students sort the branches and levels of government, flow charts, and more!. I find that the graphic organizers help students organize their thoughts as they read material on government, and they help keep my students focused. The graphic organizers below are part of my American Government Unit.
As I present new content and students learn about different aspects of American government, students add entries to their social studies interactive notebooks. This is such a wonderful tool that allows students to take focused notes in an engaging and purposeful way. I have students add to their interactive notebooks on the day after I introduce a new topic. I like to give students an opportunity to explore and process the new information the previous day, because these are challenging concepts. You can find my Social Studies Interactive Notebook here.
I also incorporate task cards into my government instruction, because I don’t know if I can ever provide enough review for my students! We enjoying playing Scoot with our government task cards. You can download the task card here.
I think my favorite government review activity is the government review fortune teller. I’ve heard some people call them Cootie Catchers, but we always called them fortune tellers when I was in school (100 years ago). There are three different versions of the review game, and my students LOVE playing with them! These fortune tellers are also in my American Government Unit.
I write each branch of government on a different piece of paper and tape the paper into three different locations in your classroom. This is definitely the lowest prep activity I’ve ever done!
Show students which corner or area of the room represents each branch of government. Explain that you are going to give them a clue or question where the answer is one of the branches of government. Once the clue is read, students must walk to the corner of the room that reflects the answer. Once students in place, any student standing at the wrong area of the room is out and must sit down at his/her desk or table. To keep students reasonably calm, I did add a ‘no running’ rule to the game. Anytime a student ran to a corner, s/he was out. (I also had to add a ‘no sliding into the corner’ rule, but I’m going to assume that I’m the only one who’ll have that problem.) Occasionally I would count down from five and any student not in a corner was automatically out. I continued calling out questions until I had one student standing, and that student was the winner. We probably played ten rounds of this game during a 30 minute segment. As I was making up this game, one of my concerns was that students would just follow each other, and that’s exactly what they did. However, that didn’t last long. I couldn’t have scripted it better if I tried. In one of my first questions every student but one went to the wrong corner. That was perfect for me, because it A. let me know I need to spend more time talking about the General Assembly, and B. let my students know that you have to listen to your own instinct. From that point on, I didn’t have any problems with that at all. One of my best and most unexpected surprises was how my students reacted when they were out. In a lot of games, once a student is out s/he just tunes everything else out. This was not the case. My students got out their social studies interactive notebooks and started pouring over the government entries. As soon as I called out a question, they were searching for the answer in their notebook. They knew they would have plenty of opportunities to get back in the game.
I also love having a government choice board that can be used as a social studies extension project or for student centers. This choice board incorporates the higher levels of Bloom’s Taxonomy, so students will analyze, combine, forecast, expand, construct, create, explain, hypothesize, and improve. The activities included in the choice board are also a great way to integrate reading, writing, and social studies. This is also in my American Government Unit.