Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

A Landmark Lesson: The United States Capitol Building


The Lesson


U.S. Capitol dome

U.S. Capitol dome

The United States Capitol is among the most architecturally impressive and symbolically important buildings in the world. It has housed the meeting chambers of the Senate and the House of Representatives for almost two centuries. Begun in 1793, the Capitol has been built, burnt, rebuilt, extended, and restored; today, it stands as a monument not only to its builders but also to the American people and their government."
— The Architect of the Capitol

What makes the U.S. Capitol "symbolically important"? Presented with a variety of archival documents, your students can answer that question for themselves. Working in small groups, the students will uncover and share the Capitol's story. The primary sources are presented to the students as mysteries, with a challenge to tie together the information in the documents or images through research.

Guiding Questions

What happens in and around the U.S. Capitol? What makes it an important U.S. landmark?

Learning Objectives

  • List events in American history that have affected the U.S. Capitol.
  • Identify activities taking place in and around the Capitol.

Preparation Instructions

  • Review each lesson in this unit and select appropriate archival materials to use in class discussions. Bookmark them, if possible; download and print out the selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Prepare the assignments for the student groups in Activity 2. Make sure to include the picture captions and questions with the assignment.
  • Establish your student groups with care. Groups of three students, if practical, work well. Try to balance the talents of the students within the group, for example, a strong reader, a computer person, and a good public speaker. If possible, assign roles to the students such as secretary, researcher, and presenter—though every student in the group should contribute to all phases of the assignment, each student can be in charge of a specific area. The Group 5 assignment can be assigned to more than one group by selecting different objects from The Capitol Project of American Studies at the University of Virginia, a link from the EDSITEment resource The Center for Liberal Arts.
  • Obtain background information on the U.S. Capitol at Building the Capitol for a New Nation, available via the EDSITEment resource American Memory from The Library of Congress.
  • The Educator Resources section of the National Archives website offers a series of worksheets for analyzing primary source documents, including written documents and photographs, that you may wish to use or adapt to help students in reviewing the materials presented in this lesson.
  • Recommended reading from the Learning Page of American Memory
    • Brill, Marlene Targ. Building the Capital City. N.Y.: Children's Press, 1996.
    • Fradin, Dennis Brindell. From Sea to Shining Sea: Washington, D.C. Chicago: Children's Press, 1992.
    • Reynolds, Patrick M. A Cartoon History of the District of Columbia. Willow Street, Pa.: The Red Rose Studio, 1995.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Introducing The U.S. Capitol

Share with the class the vintage advertisement Quaker Wheat Berries Advertisement, c. 1900, available via The Library of Congress.

Ask the students to describe the advertisement. What is the ad attempting to communicate about the product? What is the building in the ad? What does it have to do with Quaker Wheat Berries?

What do the students think about the idea of using the U.S. Capitol in an ad for breakfast cereal? The Capitol is, after all, just a building. What is it about this building that makes some people think it should be treated in a special way? Learning more about what makes the Capitol special is the focus of this unit.

Students can explore the Capitol virtually using this resource from the Architect of the Capitol.

Activity 2. What Makes the Capitol So Important?

Divide students into groups and present each group with the challenges below. With the documents, distribute the captions and questions as shown. If some groups finish earlier than others, you may wish to add or subtract questions from the groups' assignments to create better balance in their workloads.

Through the KidSpace of the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library, students can locate many relevant resources, including encyclopedias and other reference materials. Other EDSITEment resources that contain background information or documents that are potentially useful for specific challenges are listed below with each assignment.

Group 1: What Has Happened In and Around the Capitol?
Explain to the class what the following images of the Capitol have to do with important events in U.S. history. Answer any question(s) accompanying an image. Make clear to the class how these photographs show the Capitol is an important building.

Group 2: What Happens in the U.S. Capitol?
Explain to the class what goes on in the U.S. Capitol and what the following images have to do with the work that takes place there. Make clear to the class how these photographs, all from the EDSITEment resource American Memory, demonstrate that the Capitol is an important building.

For further information:

Group 3: The U.S. Capitol and Inaugurations
Show the class several of the following images of presidential inaugurations that took place at the Capitol (all available from the EDSITEment resource American Memory unless otherwise noted). What clues can you find in each of the images to indicate that a special event was taking place? What can you tell the class about the use of the Capitol for Presidential inaugurations?

For further information:

Group 4: The U.S. Capitol and Its Neighbors
Review the following images from the EDSITEment resource American Memory. What other important buildings are in the vicinity of the U.S. Capitol? Tell a little bit about what happens in them. Create a diagram showing the location of the Capitol and its neighbors and share it with the class.

For further information:

Group 5: What's Inside the U.S. Capitol?
The U.S. Capitol is said to be one of the greatest museums of American art. Tell the class about some of the art objects found there. Visit The Capitol Project of American Studies at the University of Virginia, available via the EDSITEment-reviewed The Center for the Liberal Arts at the University of Virginia. Use the FIND function in the edit menu of your browser to find an art object from your state.

Show the class the following works of art, identify the subject, and explain why you think each object has been placed in the Capitol. (Note: This assignment offers a representative list of objects found in the Capitol. At The Capitol Project Index, there is an exhaustive list of objects in the Capitol with links to images of those objects. If desired, select objects that more closely match your curriculum.)

For further information:

Activity 3. Presenting the U.S. Capitol

After their investigations, have the student groups present their findings to the class, using the archival materials as audio/visual aids. If practical, allow groups to duplicate sufficient copies of a limited number of images to make them available to class members to peruse. The purpose of the presentations is to establish what makes the Capitol an American landmark. When all the groups have completed their presentations, have the class discuss the U.S. Capitol as a national symbol. What has made it such an important building?

Extending The Lesson

The Basics

Time Required

5-6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > U.S. Constitution
  • Critical analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Discussion
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Historical analysis
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual analysis