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Thematic Teaching


justice: activity ideas

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  1. The Justice Wheel

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subjects: Social Studies

    Ask students to define or look up the term "monarchy." What is a "monarch"? Does America have a "monarch"? If not, what is the difference between a "monarch" and a "president" like we have in America? Explain to students that when the American colonists won the Revolutionary War against England, they wanted to create a different kind of government than they'd had under the English monarchy. They wanted a government elected by the people, and a government where no one person or group had all the power. This idea of the "separation of powers" led to our current form of government, where responsibilities are shared across three branches of the federal government.

    Ask students to click through the PBS Kids: The Democracy Project site at http://www.pbs.org/democracy/kids/mygovt/capitol1.html. After they read this explanation of the branches of government, ask students to draw three equal sections on a paper plate. Explain to students that this represents the three branches of government. The plate is divided into equal sections because their powers are supposed to be equal, and they are all parts of one whole--like pieces of a pie.

    Ask students to shade and label each section for a branch of government. In that area, they should list the primary responsibilities for that branch of government, and the number of people involved (e.g., the U.S. Supreme Court has nine justices).

    Students should then explore the idea of "checks and balances." How can each branch exert control over the other two branches? Students can take a look at the U.S. Constitution to learn more about checks and balances.

    Add spinners to each student's paper plate, and ask students to pair up. One students spins and thus chooses a branch of government; the second student then spins and lands on a second branch. The second student explains to the first student how he may "check" the power of the first student--then the students switch roles and spin again.

    Online Resources

    PBS Kids: The Democracy Project
    The National Archives
    Ben's Guide to Government for Kids: Branches of Government

    More Recommended Resources

  2. Free Speech

    Grade Level: 10-12
    Subjects: Reading & Language Arts; Social Studies

    Last month, the United States Supreme Court reviewed a case that will decide whether cross burning can be protected under the First Amendment of the Constitution.

    Ask one group of students to research the First Amendment. What does it say? Who or what does it protect? What does it protect us from? What are some famous court cases that have been decided on the basis of this amendment?

    Ask a second group to research cross-burning. What is its history in America? What does it symbolize?

    Put pairs of students from each group together to form groups of four. Ask each pair of students to share information about what it learned with the other pair in the new group. As the students talk, those who researched the First Amendment should listen to the information about cross-burning and decide if they think it is free speech. Those who researched cross-burning should listen to the information about other protected forms of speech and determine if cross-burning is something similar, or something different.

    Each group should draw some conclusions and present their ideas to the class as a whole. The class might then follow up by writing letters to the Supreme Court justices or invite a local lawyer to visit the class and share his or her views on the case.

    Online Resources

    Online NewsHour
    The Freedom Forum
    USA Today
    Anti-Defamation League
    The Christian Science Monitor
    FindLaw: The First Amendment
    American Library Association

    More Recommended Resources

  3. Justice on the Small Screen

    Grade Level: 7-10
    Subjects: Social Studies; Media Literacy

    Ask your students to name courtroom dramas they may have watched on TV lately; possibilities include "Judging Amy," "Law & Order," "The System," "JAG," "The Practice," "The Guardian," or shows recently retired, like "Ally McBeal" and "Family Law." What have they learned about how justice works from watching these programs? What people or organizations are involved? How do court cases work?

    Help students develop a concept web around the following terms: prosecution, defense, judge, jury, district attorney, and public defender. Ask students about what they can conclude about the work of lawyers based upon the shows they've seen on TV. How many cases do they handle at once? How do they get paid? How much do they earn?

    Ask students to read the interviews with public defenders and district attorneys posted on the Frontline: "Real Justice" Web site. (Alternatively, students may watch this Frontline program if a videotaped copy is available.) What things surprised them about the work of DA's and public defenders? Why would this be a good career? What would be difficult about it?

    Invite local attorneys or judges in to talk to students about their work. How is their daily routine different from what is shown on TV? Students may also elect to visit the local courthouse and watch parts of a trial.

    As an extension, students might focus on other, related occupations (police officers, etc.) and determine how their portrayal on television compares to reality.

    Online Resources

    Frontline: "Real Justice"
    Inside the Courtroom: U.S. Department of Justice

    More Recommended Resources

  4. Your DNA "Fingerprint"

    Grade Level: 9-12
    Subjects: Science & Technology; Social Studies

    For many years, detectives trying to solve criminal cases relied, among other things, upon fingerprints as a means of placing someone at the scene of a crime. To learn more about the history of fingerprint evidence and to try an online game, visit American Experience: "Public Enemy #1" Web site.

    Students may learn more about distinctive fingerprint patterns and analyze their own fingerprints using this handout from A Science Odyssey Web site.

    Decades later, scientists developed a more precise tool for convicting criminals and freeing the wrongly accused: the DNA fingerprint. To learn what DNA fingerprints are and how they are used in criminal investigations, visit the NOVA: "Killers Trail" Web site to play the online DNA fingerprint game.

    Many nations, and states within the U.S., are creating computer databases of DNA records. To learn why such databases are controversial, listen to this NPR: "All Things Considered" report. How is your state handling DNA evidence and records? Find out what policies exist.

    Online Resources

    NOVA: "Killer's Trail"
    American Experience: "Public Enemy #1"
    A Science Odyssey
    NPR: "All Things Considered"
    How Stuff Works: DNA Evidence
    Crime Library: The DNA Revolution

    Print Resources

    Calculated Risks: How to Know When Numbers Deceive You by Gerd Gigerenzer

    More Recommended Resources

  5. International Justice: Facts and Figures

    Grade Level: 6-9
    Subjects: Math; Social Studies

    How do rates of crime in the U.S. compare to other nations? The United Nations Crime and Justice Information Center compiles crime statistics from countries around the world. Print out topline data (see "Tables with Key Statistics" in the data section, particularly tables labeled "victimisation in one year") from the surveys and use it to create graphs and conduct data analysis.

    How does the United States compare to other industrialized nations? (Students might pick five countries and create a graphical representation of the data.) How do developing countries fare in comparison? What are the most prevalent types of crime?

    To learn more about the justice system and rates of crime in any particular country, visit the U.S. Bureau of Justice Statistics Web site.

    What is the role of the United Nations in evaluating crime and justice around the world? Read this article from the Bureau of Justice Statistics to find out. What types of crime might fall outside the boundaries of specific countries? Brainstorm a list and see if you can find special reports about these types of crimes on the U.N. Web site.

    Online Resources

    The United Nations Crime and Justice Information Center
    The United Nations: International Law
    U.S. Department of Justice: Bureau of Justice Statistics

    More Recommended Resources

  6. It Works Both Ways: Treating People Differently

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subject: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts; Math; The Arts

    Begin this activity by reading age-appropriate books about segregation, racism and inequality. After reading the book, discuss ways people have been segregated in the past. Discuss segregation and equality today. For all learners, look at how people were affected by inequality in the past and how some people are still affected by inequality today.

    An ongoing follow-up activity that will help put all this in perspective is the following classroom experiment. Have the children discuss and sort certain attributes that make them unique. Display this list in the classroom. (Lists may be sorted by color of eyes, athletic ability, number of siblings, gender, etc.)

    For the following week (or until everyone has had a turn to be on both sides of segregation) separate children according to these attributes. For example, allow a group of girls to have 5 extra minutes of recess while others have to clean the room. The following day reverse it so the group left out receives the extra five minutes of recess. It is important to explain to the younger learner that everyone will have a chance to participate and act out both sides. This activity will help those become more empathetic to those who are treated differently due to race, color, gender, etc.

    Older students may come up with their own role-playing ideas. Allow them to work in teams and have them role-play various forms of inequality and injustice. (For example, a woman and a man in the workplace doing the same job, but receiving different compensation; another idea may focus on a person with a disability vs. a person without a disability.)

    Online Resources

    Little Rock Nine: Central High School History
    Jim Crow Laws
    The Rise and Fall of Jim Crow: Personal Narratives

    Print Resources

    The Philosophers' Club by Christopher Phillips and Kim Doner
    The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson and E.B. Lewis
    Through My Eyes by Ruby Bridges

    More Recommended Resources

  7. Our Classroom "Rules"!

    Grade Level: 3-5
    Subject: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts

    This activity gives students a better understanding of how rules differ according to circumstances and environments. It will also lead to discussions over how rules can be modified and if rules should be modified.

    As a group, review your classroom rules and hold a debate as to whether or not they could be better. Have the students visit different classrooms and ask for a copy of their rules. Compare the different rules and discuss why some work in certain areas and certain grades, while others may not. Students might even e-mail classes at other schools and compare class rules.

    Older children may want to research other learning environments, i.e. college campus rules, rules for certain academic clubs, sporting clubs, etc. Also, you may want to give the children the opportunity to challenge the people who make certain laws and write letters asking questions related to how the rule came into effect and its intention.

    Wrap up the lesson by asking the children to tell you in writing, discussion, or pictures how having a set of rules will help their class "rule!"

    Online Resources

    Between the Lions: Busterfield Rules
    It's My Life: House Rules

    More Recommended Resources

  8. Working for Justice

    Grade Level: 4-8
    Subject: Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts; Health & Fitness; Science & Technology

    This lesson will increase awareness in careers that involve justice and fairness. The learner will also create opportunities to turn any job into one that can make a difference.

    Encourage students to bring in articles, books, and photos that center on careers involving justice and peace. This type of sharing and/ or classroom display will help make the connection between classroom learning and real life experiences. Keep the sharing and student contributions on display until the end of the unit.

    You may want to begin with discussing careers in the school or those of classroom parents. Record different careers on big sheets of chart paper. Once the interest in careers is initiated, discuss and chart careers involving justice. Brainstorm and research careers in the courtroom, careers in social work and politics, careers in journalism and the media, and careers in human rights and activism.

    Extensions for the younger learner may include interviewing people who have careers in justice and/or inviting guests to the classroom to discuss how their job promotes justice and fairness.

    An appropriate extension for the older children may include taking an ordinary job and turning it into one that can promote justice. Have the students take an "ordinary" career and come up with ways in which they can turn that career into one that "makes a difference." This activity can be done independently, with a partner, or in teams. It will provide many opportunities for creative thinking and turning the ordinary into extraordinary!

    Online Resources

    Department of Justice: Kids and Youth Page
    Bureau of Labor Statistics: K-12 Page

    Print Resources

    Darby by Jonathon Scott Fuqua
    Flash! The Associated Press Covers the World By Vincent Alabiso, Kelly Smith Tunney, Chuck Zoeller and Peter Arnett

    More Recommended Resources

  9. Made By An Adult?

    Grade Level: 3-6
    Subject: Health & Fitness; Social Studies; Reading & Language Arts

    In this activity students will learn about child labor. This activity will also help students realize that they can make a difference, especially when it comes to sharing accurate information about child laborers via an email.

    Begin this lesson by asking the students where they think their clothes were made and by whom. Record their answers. Students may check tags (on their own clothing, or on the collar of a friend's shirt) to verify their guesses and note how many countries are represented. After this question and answer period, let students know that child labor is a problem in many countries of the world. Share the book Listen to Us: The World's Working Children by Jane Springer. This may be very emotional for some children so after reading the story, make sure the children are given time to voice their concerns and questions. Talk to students about the child labor laws designed to protect against unfair child labor practices in the U.S. Why have some countries failed to enact similar laws? Brainstorm some reasons why this might be the case. Conclude this discussion with ways the students think they can help these children.

    After listening and recording students' ideas, write e-mails including the students' thoughts, feelings and accurate statistics on child laborers throughout the world. Once the e-mail is written and edited, ask your classroom parents to help their child send this e-mail to five of their family and friends. Students' e-mails might ask family and friends to write their elected representatives, avoid buying clothing made in certain countries with poor human rights records, or join an organization dedicated to children's rights.

    Let the children do the math and figure out how many people they have reached with their e-mails. Have them figure out how many e-mails need to be sent to reach 1,000 people, 2,000 people...etc. This activity can include many avenues into real-life math problems.

    Have the children bring in the replies they received from the people they have enlightened. Post them on a board for the rest of the year as a constant reminder that they too can, did, and will continue to make a difference.

    Online Resources

    Free the Children
    The History Place: Child Labor in America

    Print Resources

    Listen to Us: The World's Working Children by Jane Springer

    More Recommended Resources

  10. Turn Back Time: A Look into the Lives of the Wrongfully Convicted

    Grade Level: 6-8
    Subject: Language Arts, Social Studies

    Prosecutors and detectives usually go to great lengths to make sure they arrest and try the right people for crimes, but sometimes the system fails and innocent people wind up serving time. Ask students to name the types of things that prosecutors and detectives do in order to make sure they've arrested the right person. What kind of evidence is required before an arrest can be made, or before a grand jury can indict a suspect? (Eyewitness testimony, fingerprints at the scene of the crime, a signed confession, etc.)

    Using the Frontline: "An Ordinary Crime" Web site to share a story about a wrongful conviction. For homework, ask groups of students to research similar cases and find other people that have been wrongfully convicted. Have the children share their research concentrating on action and reaction. What was the action taken to help free this so-called criminal? And what has the reaction been of the courts, the person convicted and perhaps family members?

    Follow this discussion and student findings with a math lesson. Have the class determine how many days, weeks, months, and years the person was wrongfully incarcerated. Turn back time and brainstorm together how this person could have been spent his time had he not been behind bars.

    A nice follow-up would be to write to the person wrongfully committed and include commentary from the students regarding the wrongful conviction.

    Online Resources

    Frontline: "The Case for Innocence"
    Frontline: "An Ordinary Crime"
    Northwestern Law School: Center on Wrongful Convictions

    More Recommended Resources

Published: January 2003