Teacher's Guide

A More Perfect Union

An oil painting of 39 delegates who signed the Constitution in 1787. They are in Independence Hall in Philadelphia; all of the delegates shown are white men.
Photo caption

"Scene at the Signing of the Constitution of the United States" by Howard Chandler Christy (1940). 

The NEH initiative "A More Perfect Union" supports civics and U.S. history education in preparation for the 250th anniversary of the founding of the United States. This Teacher's Guide brings together EDSITEment resources in history, civics, literature, arts, and culture that promote a deeper understanding of American history and culture and that advance civic education and knowledge of the core principles of U.S. government.

Each set of resources is accompanied by a series of compelling questions and connections that invite students to reflect on broader themes and issues and to approach the idea of "a more perfect union" across the humanities.

Guiding Questions

What does it mean for a union to be made "more perfect"?

What role do the humanities play in fostering "a more perfect union"?

What are the roles and responsibilities of citizens and government in a democratic society?

American History

The Constitution and Bill of Rights

These foundational documents remain sources of profound controversies in U.S. life and governance. Learning about both their content and the historic context in which the framers wrote them is important to understanding how these documents, and interpretations of them, have shaped and been shaped by debates about who is included and excluded, and how, in the American union.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • What tensions, conflicts, and uncertainties did the founders confront as they drafted the Constitution? How did they approach these challenges? What has been the impact of their decisions over time?
  • Who was included in the union as conceived by the Constitution and Bill of Rights? What forms of exclusion appear in these documents?
  • How can artistic renderings of this moment in history, like the painting that opens this Teacher's Guide, shape our understanding of these documents and the processes that led to their creation and ratification?
    • The Media Resource Picturing America: Washington & Selma places Emmanuel Leutze's iconic painting in conversation with James Karales's photograph of the Selma-to-Montgomery march for voting rights. How does this juxtaposition complicate triumphalist narratives of freedom from England?

    • Explore questions of historical memory through art with the Media Resource Picturing America: Paul Revere.

The Early Republic: Setting Precedents

The Constitution is often vague, and the precedents set by early leaders were crucial in shaping the course taken by the institutions of government. These resources explore some of the early precedents set by figures like George Washington and John Marshall.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • "Tradition" is often associated with positive and celebratory moments, but tradition can also enshrine practices and representations that are harmful. The Media Resource Picturing America: Blackhawk & Catlin invites students to think about common—"traditional"—representations of Native Americans and what narratives of Native American life and culture they perpetuate.
  • What other precedents and traditions originated around the time of the founding? Do you think they are important to preserve? Why or why not?

Redefining the Union? The Civil War & Reconstruction

The meaning of a U.S. "union" has always been bound up with the question of slavery. Indeed, during the Civil War, the union of states fragmented over this question, the southern states unwilling to abandon slavery, many in the north pushing for abolition. These EDSITEment resources address the way people before and during the Civil War thought about the relationship between slavery and union.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • To what extent did the Civil War and Reconstruction represent "a second founding," to use the words of Civil War historian Eric Foner?
  • Why has Reconstruction often been portrayed as a failure? To what extent do you agree or disagree with this assessment?

The Twentieth Century: Lasting Debates

The debates in which the founders were embroiled—the limits of federal power, the role of the executive, how to balance the branches of government—continue to shape debates about governance, politics, and policy. These EDISTEment resources highlight some of the key moments in the twentieth century when Constitutional debates came to the fore.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • What Constitutional debates surfaced as the United States government expanded social program? As the Supreme Court declared segregation in public schools unconstitutional?
  • How have social movements and legislative change related to each other over the course of the twentieth century? Some movements to consider include:
    • The labor movement
    • The suffrage movement
    • The Progressive movement
    • The civil rights movement
    • The Chicano movement
    • The anti-war movement
    • The feminist movement
  • What have been some of the connections between the political and intellectual history of the United States and the rest of the world?
    • The Media Resource W.E.B. DuBois Papers invites an exploration of the relationship between civil rights in the U.S.and Pan-Africanism abroad, while also introducing Black intellectual history through primary sources.
    • The Curriculum Woodrow Wilson and Foreign Policy offers a series of four lessons addressing the origins and legacy of Wilsonianism, one of the most influential approaches to foreign policy, with reverberations felt to this day.
American Literature

A More Perfect Union: Civic Values in Literature

These resources connect civic education and literature, using poetry, plays, and other literary works to discuss civic values.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • What civic values are portrayed by the authors of these works of literature and poetry?
  • Do you think that literature is an effective way to express and reflect on civic ideals? Why or why not?

Identity and Belonging in American Literature

Literature, including both works of fiction and literary nonfiction, has been a powerful way to express the experiences of people and groups who have often been excluded from full membership and equal status in the U.S., including Black Americans, immigrants, and Native Americans.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • Can fiction communicate truth? How?
  • Why might fiction be an important vehicle for telling certain histories?
  • How can art and literature serve as social commentary?
  • What do literary representations of historical or current events add to our understanding of them?
Civics Education

The Branches of Government

The Judicial Branch

The Legislative Branch

The Executive Branch

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • What is the purpose of government?
  • How is the U.S. government structured? How does this relate to its purpose? To the way the government functions?
  • How does the government interact with the people it governs, and vice versa? Think about resident non-citizens, asylum seekers, incarcerated people, and residents of U.S. territories.
  • What are different forms of civic engagement? To whom are these forms of engagement available?

BackStory

EDSITEment has created learning resources to accompany these episodes of BackStory, a history podcast funded in part by the NEH. The episodes connect historical events to present-day issues and debates, and the selection below offer historical and contemporary perspectives on issues in civics education, from citizenship to colonialism.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • Which of the debates and issues raised in these episodes of BackStory continue to resonate today? What do you know now about their historical roots?
  • How does understanding the history of landmark legislation and the way it was passed affect your understanding of the legislation and its impacts, intended and otherwise?
  • There is often a disjuncture between what the law says and what takes place in practice. Can you think of any examples of such a disjuncture between law and practice? If legal measures have been taken to correct for it, to what extent have they been successful?
  • Another disconnect often surfaces between the values popularly associated with the United States and the reality experienced by many of the country's residents. Can you think of examples of this disconnect? Why might they persist?
Arts & Culture of America

Arts & Civil Rights

These EDSITEment resources explore works of art by Black artists connected to the fight for civil rights in the United States.

  • Media Resource: Jazz Ambassadors: The United States tried to leverage African American jazz musicians to bolster its international image during the Cold War, but the artists were unafraid to speak honestly about the inequalities faced by African Americans in their country.

Compelling Questions & Connections

Architecture & the American Dream

The places we live and work are bound up with our sense of self, and with reason. They shape how others see us, the communities of which we're a part, and the opportunities to which we have (or don't have) access. These lessons explore some of the ways architecture has shaped life in the United States.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • How does the growth of suburbs in the second half of the twentieth century connect to larger themes in U.S. history?
  • The Media Resource Thurgood Marshall Before the Court includes activities and questions addressing the lasting effects of residential segregation, in which suburbanization plays a major role.

The American Landscape: Art & Nature

A recurring theme in American art is the relationship between humans and nature. These resources explore the ways artists have grappled with and represented that relationship, from the euphoric to the deeply pessimistic, and offer an opportunity for students to reflect on the current state of the human-environment relationship.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • What tensions do you notice in the human-nature relationship as portrayed in these works of art?
  • What is the role of technology in this relationship? The Media Resource BackStory: Man vs. the Machine - Technophobia and American Society provides additional discussion on the place of technology and technophobia in U.S. history.
  • How are the transformations wrought by humans on the landscape been represented by artists over time? What aspects of these transformations are not visible in these works of art? The Lesson Plan The Impact of the Transcontinental Railroad (grades 6-8) provides one example of a major infrastructure project and its effects.
  • EDSITEment has a range of resources for exploring local landscapes and the forces that have shaped them: the Media Resource Exploring Local History with Clio and the Teacher's Guide Investigating Local History are good places to start.

Picturing America

Picturing America, an NEH project, brought artistic masterpieces to K-12 classrooms. EDSITEment has created a series of media resources for some of these artworks, which include comprehension and discussion questions, as well as ways to draw connections between art and other subjects. The following media resources connect to the "A More Perfect Union" initiative.

  • Picturing America: Pottery and Baskets: Learn about the art of indigenous peoples of North America and how knowledge of technique and craftsmanship is passed from one generation to the next for hundreds and thousands of years.
  • Picturing America: Saint-Gaudens & Homer: The Civil War was a devastating conflict. Hundreds of thousands of people died, and those veterans that survived the war faced the prospect of returning to "normal life." Augustus Saint-Gauden's "Shaw Memorial" and Winslow Homer's "The Veteran in a New Field" represent two artists' attempts to grapple with the aftermath of the war.
  • Picturing America: "The Sources of Country Music" and "The County Election": Study Thomas Hart Benton's "The Sources of Country Music" and George Bingham's "The County Election," analyzing their representation of American democracy and public life.
  • Picturing America: Dorothea Lange's "Migrant Mother": Dorothea Lange's photograph of a migrant woman in Nipomo, California has become one of the most iconic and easily-recognizable images of the Great Depression. Learn more about the photograph, and Lange's other work, with this video from Picturing America.

  • Picturing America: Washington & Selma: This video connects the founding of the United States to the fight for Civil Rights through the work of Emmanuel Leutze and James Karales.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • Which works of art do you recognize? Which are unfamiliar?
  • How does each work of art connect to and/or complicate the theme of "a more perfect union"?
  • What do you notice about the artists who created the works of art in the Picturing America series? Who is represented and how?
  • Who is represented, and how, in these works of art?
NEH Connections

These NEH-funded projects and collaborations connect to the "A More Perfect Union" initiative and are valuable resources for educators.

Landscapes & Local History

  • As students think about the meanings of "a more perfect union" and their relationship to it, exploring the local landscape and its connection to broader themes in U.S. history and culture can be a way for students to feel a deeper connection to place. The NEH-funded project Clio provides a way for students to explore what's around them, and contribute their own knowledge and research.
  • The National Mall is one of the most symbolically-loaded places in the national imaginary, and an important reflection of the dynamics of inclusion and exclusion that have shaped the United States for centuries. The NEH-funded project Histories of the National Mall allows students to explore the Mall, reflecting on those traces of history that have been permanently commemorated there, as well as those events, processes, and people that are not visible parts of the landscape.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • What landmarks, monuments, or other historic locations are there in your community? Are they marked?
  • Select a person, event, or place that you would like to commemorate. How would you do so? Why?

Jefferson Lectures

The Jefferson Lecture is delivered each year by someone who has made an outstanding contribution to the humanities. EDSITEment has created a set of questions and connections to help educators weave these lectures into their curricula.

  • In 2016, filmmaker Ken Burns discussed the importance of the humanities to civil discourse, mutual understanding, and civic responsibility. In a society like ours, "beset by discontinuity and disagreement," Burns believes that history can become "a table around which all of us can have a civil discourse and try to evoke those 'better angels of our nature.'"
  • In 2011, historian Drew Gilpin Faust spoke about the ways the Civil War has been commemorated and its legacies contested for over a century, with these debates about the interpretation of the war "mirroring our contemporary debates about national purposes."

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • According to Burns and Faust, what is the importance of history in the present?
  • What connection does Burns make between the humanities and civic responsibility?
  • According to Faust, how are war and the humanities entwined?
  • Learn more about Ken Burns's work with A Teacher's Guide to the Films of Ken Burns.

Digital Humanities Projects about Slavery, Self-Liberation, and Emancipation

  • Slave Voyages tracks the movements of enslaved people from Africa to destinations across the Atlantic World. It provides a visual way to contextualize the economies of U.S. slavery and can help students reflect on different ways of representing enslaved people and their experiences.
  • Freedom on the Move is a database of tens of thousands of advertisements for fugitive slaves. Intended to control the movement of enslaved people, these advertisements also provide an important source of information about enslaved people and their attempts to secure their freedom. Users can search advertisements, contribute advertisements they find, and help transcribe entries. Use of the database requires the creation of a free account.
  • Visualizing Emancipation tracks "emancipation events" to illustrate both the patterns and complexity in the collapse of Southern slavery. In addition to a geographic representation of these events, the project links to the primary source documents that recorded them.

Compelling Questions & Connections

  • What kinds of primary sources document the lives of enslaved people?
  • What challenges do these sources pose?