Investigative Question

How does government work?

In Standard 2.3, students learn about governmental institutions and practices in the United States and other countries. Students continue to develop their understanding of rules and laws, the role of government, and rights and responsibilities by considering the question, How does government work? To help students deepen their understanding of these concepts, informational books about the way government is organized into three branches, such as Our Government: The Three Branches by Shelly Buchanan, may be utilized. Teachers may carry out a classroom simulation of the three branches of government to teach this concept as well as use literature books such as House Mouse Senate Mouse and other books in the series by Cheryl Shaw Barnes and Peter W. Barnes that explain the branches of government in a developmentally appropriate manner. To learn the ways in which groups and nations interact with one another and resolve their problems, the teacher may relate these concepts to familial and classroom rules and structures and how problems are solved in these more familiar settings. Teachers may also discuss situations in which rules are important at home, at school, in the city, in the state, and in the country and then ask students to explain what happens if someone on the playground refuses to play a game according to the rules. Students can select one rule and use language arts skills to create a story about why this rule is important and how life would be different without it. Teachers may discuss school rules with students and how the rules are made. Students use analytic skills to consider such questions as, Is the school too large for everyone to discuss and vote on a decision? Students may discuss the major things governments do in the school, community, state, and nation and give a basic description of government at the end of the year.
This inquiry set is designed to introduce the structure and functions of the federal government. Given that this is such a large and seemingly distant topic for students, teachers may wish to introduce the topic on a very concrete level. First, discuss why it is important to have a government and rules for citizens — for our country, our state, and our communities. As part of this introductory conversation, emphasize that ordinary people play a role in creating and approving the government. It is a citizen's job to vote in elections for the candidate or policy that best supports the citizen's point of view. Through the individual act of voting, people can help choose government leaders. After an introductory conversation, explain that the government of the United States is described in a written document called the Constitution. The Constitution explains the different roles, or jobs, of the branches of our government. Students can learn about the three branches and the role of the people using a Readers' Theater format (in the literacy strategy that accompanies this inquiry set). Visual tools found on websites like can help students see the relationship between the branches of government. The documents and the literacy strategy teach students about the Constitution, the legislative branch, the executive branch, and the judicial branch, as well as the role of ordinary people in selecting representatives and in making their voices heard. There are many opportunities for students to learn about the structures of government, though this inquiry set aims to make such seemingly far-off institutions understandable and relatable to second-grade students. For this reason, the role of ordinary people in relating to the Constitution and the three branches of government is continually highlighted in the descriptions and the suggested accompanying activities. As teachers introduce the sources in this set, they can emphasize how each image relates to ordinary people and the voice they have in making the institutions of government function. Students consider the question How does government work? by learning about the institutions of government, their relationships with one another, and the important role that citizens play in empowering the government. Additional questions that students can consider to arrive at the larger question are: How can I make my voice heard? and How do regular people influence the government?
Part I: Readers' Theater Directions:
  1. If students lack basic background knowledge about the government, a book like The U.S. Constitution by Norman Pearl introduces the constitution and three branches of government. Teachers might want to read this book out loud to frontload vocabulary and concepts.
  2. Divide the students into groups of five. Assign one reader part to each student. Allow time for each group to practice their parts, emphasizing the statements written in bold lettering that are to be read aloud in unison. Groups present to their classmates — ideally four times for significance and vocabulary — using the visual sources for each branch of government. (Note: The Readers' Theater could also be divided into sections to make the presentation more manageable. In addition, students could create their own visuals, select props, and solidify their understanding by performing the Readers' Theater for another class).
  3. Source set. It is important for students to understand and experience the role of "the people" as part of their understanding of our government. The source set includes examples of "the people" participating in government as individuals and as groups — African American men casting their vote during Reconstruction, groups demonstrating on behalf of a cause, and a 6-year-old writing a letter to the president offering his help.
  4. Literacy – writing. After examining the source set, discuss an issue that is important to students. Using the writing frame, compose a class letter to a government official stating the students' view on the issue.
  5. Preparation for lesson: a. Print Sources 1, 2, and 3 on cardstock for students to use with the Readers' Theater presentation. b. Print or display the source set. c. Make a poster-sized writing frame letter.
Part II: Writing Frame
  1. After examining the source set, determine an issue that is important to students (school issues: longer recess, better lunches, etc.; community issues: need for a stop sign or traffic signal, etc.). This is an opportunity to transition to roles and responsibilities of local governments. Teachers might say, "we have been learning about how people make laws for our whole national government. Who is someone who makes some of the rules at our school?" Discuss the person, identify an issue, then hold a class vote to determine the focus of the letter to be written. As a class, compose a letter to the proper official (principal, mayor, city councilman, President)who would be able to address the request. Encourage students to use evidence in the text to make a strong argument. The writing frame can be used as a class poster or as a Google doc so students can complete together using Chromebooks, or other devices if available.
  2. End the activity by returning to the inquiry question to provide an opportunity for students to discuss what they learned about how government works.
2.3 Government Institutions Readers' Theater Student Handout
2.3 Government Institutions Writing Frame Student Handout
2.3 Government Institutions Teacher Key
  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.
Not all students may be full citizens and not all will vote in future elections. As teachers introduce this lesson, work to make it as inclusive as possible so that all students can see a relationship between themselves and the institutions of the government.