Civic Literacy Curriculum
Question 5: How are changes made to the Constitution?
Q5: How are changes made to the Constitution?
A. Constitutional amendments through Article V
B. An executive order from the president
C. A bill passed by a majority of Congress
D. An opinion from the Supreme Court
The Founders wrote the Constitution to ensure that the government remained bound to its principles and promises, but they recognized that to be a lasting document, it would need to be able to change. Thus, they included Article V, which describes the process of making an “amendment”—a change or addition to the Constitution—in which Congress proposes an amendment and the states ratify it.
Amending the Constitution is a two-step process. In the first step, either two-thirds of Congress proposes the amendment, or two-thirds of the states call for a national convention (the latter approach has never been successfully used, but it remains a way for states to make changes if Congress chooses not to). After an amendment has been proposed either by Congress or the states’ convention, three-quarters of the states approve the amendment, a process called ratification.
This process was not intended to be one taken lightly but instead ensure that a strong consensus of Americans supports a proposed amendment before such a momentous change is made. The high threshold for ratification, across three-quarters of the states, ensures that there is widespread support throughout the whole country, rather than just support concentrated in a few areas or regions or favored and imposed only by a narrow majority.
For the founders, deciding how hard to make changing the Constitution was a balancing act. They did not want to make it effectively impossible, as it was under the Articles of Confederation, which required unanimous approval of every state. On the other hand, the Founders rejected the idea of making the process easy, lest short-lived or narrow majorities make sweeping and permanent change to the nation’s core charter.
This activity offers students the opportunity to develop an understanding of the process involved in creating an amendment. Asking the students to develop and propose their own amendment to their classroom addresses higher-order thinking skills, as it moves them from a concrete (a pre-existing list of rules) concept to a more abstract one by asking them to consider changes based not only on experience but also by thinking about what could be.
- Divide students into groups of 3-4, mixing support, core, and enrichment students.
- Provide the group with the Directions & Worksheet handout.
- Provide each group with a copy of the Education Constitution.
- An annotated copy of the Education Constitution is available and used to help guide groups that may be having trouble coming up with an amendment.
The Teaching Materials for this exercise include an annotated copy of the Education Constitution.
- Divide the class into three groups based on level. Group A is the group that needs some extra support. Group B is the core group that has the core knowledge to complete the activity. Group C is the enrichment group who have mastered the material and are prepared to extend their knowledge. Pair those who need support (Group A) with those who have core knowledge and/or have mastered the material (Groups B and C).
- Provide each group with the necessary handouts.
- Briefly review the directions on the handout with the class. Explain to the class that they were selected to review the Education Constitution, which will govern the entire school, and determine whether or not it should be amended.
- Each group will propose an amendment to the new constitution. Provide the groups with 20+ minutes to read the constitution, determine the need for amendments, and develop reasons that their amendment should be ratified by the class.
- Circulate the room, talking to each group to make sure that they are on task and to answer any questions they might have.
- At the end of the time allotted, regroup and have one member from each group present the group’s amendment as well as the reasons it should be ratified.
- List the amendments on the board as each group presents.
- Encourage the students to take notes on the amendments.
- Once everyone has presented, lead the class in a discussion on each amendment, specifically asking if they can think of reasons why an amendment may work as well as what problems might result if it is passed (e.g. it doesn’t address the rights of all students, it only benefits a select group of students).
- Hold each amendment to a vote, reminding everyone that it will only be approved if at least ⅔ of the students vote for it.
Note: If there are multiple sections of a grade that are working on this project at the same time, you may want to work with those classes and use a two-step ratification process. This means that after your class approves the amendment(s), it will be sent to the other classrooms for the necessary ¾ approval (based on the total number students, not the total number of classrooms involved).
Below are two discussion prompts that can be used by teachers in a classroom setting.
- The first discussion prompt will be one that is designed to support students that are not really understanding the content in a way that would help them to answer the test question.
- The second discussion prompt will be one that is designed to further student understanding of the content by making real-world connections, including connections to current events, and historical events. As your class progresses through American history, feel free to return to this question as a review exercise or a summative long-form question at the end of the term.
Ratifying the Constitution was not an easy task. Once it was written, there remained the challenge of actually making it the law of the land -- under Article VII of the Constitution, nine of the 13 states needed to ratify it. While some states accepted it almost immediately others needed additional convincing. Two states, North Carolina and Rhode Island, were so troubled by the thought of too strong a federal government that they initially opted out of the Union under the Constitution and were briefly independent. The skeptics of the Constitution at the ratifying conventions agreed to back the Union if the Constitution were amended to add a Bill of Rights, clarifying the limited powers of the federal government and explicitly protecting key individual liberties.
If the Founding Fathers had not anticipated the need to make changes to the Constitution via the Article V Amendment process, we would not only not have the ability to change the Constitution in response to changing circumstances—we would not have had a Union at all.
- Why do we want to make it clear in advance how to change the Constitution with an amendment? Why is this written ahead of time, instead of assuming future leaders will agree on the process to change the rules?
- There are some who argue that the Constitution should be updated by Congress passing important statutes (which is how they change the constitution in England) or by judges making rulings interpreting the Constitution in a way that they think is best for the United States in its current circumstances, instead of using the amendment process clearly laid out in Article V. Why might we want changes to happen through Article V’s specific amendment process, instead of other easier or more flexible possibilities to update the Constitution?