Separation of Powers: Connecting the Separate Powers
Time Required: One class session
Students gain an understanding of the concept of separation of powers through an interactive approach involving role playing and questions and answers.
- Understand the concept of separation of powers.
- Recognize how the Constitution provides for separation of powers.
- Categorize public officials into one of three branches of government.
- Be sure to talk with the teacher in advance about this activity. Provide the teacher with a copy of the activity.
- In reviewing the activity with the teacher, ask for assistance in selecting two students to read aloud. This step will prevent possible embarrassment of poor or non-readers.
- Four copies of He Does It All (.pdf)
- Classroom set of the Constitution (purchase pocket-sized Constitutions or download the Constitution's text for free)
- Board (or flipchart with appropriate markers)
- Classroom dictionary
- Current pictures of national leaders
Begin the class by introducing yourself to the students. As you do so, remember when you were this age and what you might like to know about other people.
Be sure to provide a brief explanation of why you are in the classroom on this particular day. If you have an official Law Day poster, hang it where all can see it. You might consider saying the following, in your own words.
"Today, throughout the United States, we are celebrating Law Day. I believe it is very special because I work in the legal field and am very proud of the work I do. But, more importantly, it is special because it allows us to stop and think about our country, the United States of America, and the freedoms we all share. It Is also special because this day provides us with an opportunity to talk about the laws that protect us and provide us these very special freedoms."
Establish focus for the activity by writing the word "law" on the board or flipchart where all can see and asking if someone can define the word. Allow for several responses. Use a classroom dictionary to read the definition.
Law = a rule of conduct that a group of people agree to follow; a collection of established rules.
Explain that you are going to select two students to do a role play with you and that you want the rest of the class to listen carefully to see if they hear anything out of the ordinary.
Read the introduction aloud and then have the two students read their roles ("You" and "Officer"). When the students finish, be sure to thank them for their participation as they return to their seats.
Ask the class the following questions.
- Did anyone hear anything that did not sound correct? Ask for a show of hands.
- What did the officer do? (He made a new law, he enforced his new law, and he applied his law.)
- Could this happen in the United States? (Not legally.)
- Why? (People do not make up laws as they think about them.)
Write the term "separation of powers" on the board or flipchart. Below the term, write:
Legislative = Make, change, and repeal law
Executive = Carry out the law
Judicial = Interpret the law
Briefly explain the fundamentals of our country's legal system and how power is divided among the three branches of government providing for checks and balances. Explain the role of the police officer in our legal system and the relationship of the police officer to the three branches of government.
On the board, draw a tree trunk and label it "U.S. Constitution." At the top of the trunk, draw three lines radiating out of the trunk and label them "Three Branches of Government."
Ask the class, "What are the three branches of government?"
Point to the three terms you wrote earlier. As students correctly identify each branch, label a branch of the tree and explain where in the Constitution the powers of each branch are described. (First Branch: Legislative, Article I; Second Branch: Executive, Article II; Third Branch: Judicial, Article III.) Note: For another approach—reading aloud from the Constitution while labeling the tree branches—to this part of the activity, see Extension Activities below.
Review the three branches of government by pointing to each word and asking the following questions.
1. Who works there? (Senators in the Senate; Representatives in the House of Representatives)
2. What do they do? (make, change, and repeal laws)
1. Who works there? (President, Vice President, cabinet members, and people who work in departments and agencies)
2. What do they do? (carry out laws; the federal agencies and departments make federal regulations and see that laws are enforced.)
1. Who works there? (Supreme Court justices and federal judges)
2. What do they do? (interpret and define what laws mean in specific cases; determine if any laws go against the Constitution)
Conclude by explaining why separation of powers is essential to our form of government.
One by one, show pictures of your state's senators and representatives, the President, and the Supreme Court, and have the students identify the correct branch of government.
Distribute to each student a copy of the Constitution. At times, you may also wish to refer to the tree diagram you drew earlier.
Have students look at Section 1, Article I of the Constitution as you read the Section. Ask the students which branch is discussed. (Legislative)
Have the students look at Section 1, Article II of the Constitution as you read the Section. Ask the students which branch is discussed. (Executive)
Repeat the process by having the students look at Section 1, Article III of the Constitution. Ask the students which branch of government is discussed. (Judicial)
Have the students return to Article I of the Constitution. Read aloud Paragraphs 1 and 2, Section 2, asking "What are the requirements to be a member of the House of Representatives and how long is the term?" (Serve for 2 years; at least 25 years old; and a Citizen of U.S. for 7 years.)
Repeat the process with Paragraphs 1 and 3, Section III, asking, "What are the requirements to be a member of the Senate and how long is the term?" (Serve for 6 years; at least 30 years old; and a Citizen of U.S. for 9 years.)
Repeat the process with Paragraphs 1 and 5, Article II, asking, "What are the requirements for being President and how long is the term?" (Serve for 4 years; at least 35 years old; and Born in U.S.)
Have students take a minute and think about which office they would like to run for and why. Allow for several responses.
Summary & Closure
Review the concept of separation of powers. Be sure to tell the students how much you enjoyed working with them and learning more about how the concept of separation of powers protects our freedoms.
This strategy is adapted from an article in Update on Law-Related Education , Vol. 11, No. 1, published by the American Bar Association. It was taken from the Utah Law-Related Education Elementary Lesson Plan Book , and is reprinted with the permission of the Utah Law-Related Education Program.