Lesson Plans

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Words That Hold Court

Lesson Question:

How can students learn legal terminology associated with the Supreme Court?

Applicable Grades:


Lesson Overview:

In this Social Studies lesson, students are given a brief description of a famous Supreme Court case (Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District) and are then asked to use the Visual Thesaurus and other online resources to revise the description to include legal terminology and other important details.

Length of Lesson:

One hour to one hour and a half

Instructional Objectives:

Students will:

  • learn important facts about the Supreme Court and its Justices
  • research a Supreme Court case on the Internet
  • revise a case summary to include legal terminology
  • share their case summaries orally


  • student notebooks
  • white board
  • computers with Internet access



Analyzing a quotation from President Obama regarding The Supreme Court:

  • Read aloud the following quotation from President Obama's announcement of Solicitor General Elena Kagan as his nominee for the Supreme Court.
"Of the many responsibilities accorded to a president by our Constitution, few are more weighty or consequential than that of appointing a Supreme Court justice..."
  • Elicit from students a list of reasons that could support Obama's assertion about the Supreme Court. In other words, why is the appointing of a Supreme Court justice weighty and consequential? Why is the Supreme Court so important?
  • Make a list of facts about the Supreme Court and its justices on the board. Make sure to include at least the following:
    • Supreme Court justices are appointed for life.
    • There are nine Supreme Court justices—appointed by the President and approved by the Senate.
    • The Supreme Court was established in the Constitution as the highest court in the country.
    • The Supreme Court decides if a law or ruling violates the Constitution.
    • The Supreme Court can overrule both federal and state laws.


Learning about Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District:

  • Present students with the following brief description of the famous Supreme Court case Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District:
In December of 1965, a group of secondary school students in Des Moines, Iowa wore black armbands to school to protest American involvement in the Vietnam War. When the students were asked by school administrators to remove the armbands, they refused and were suspended from school. Three of the students and their parents sued the school district for a violation of their rights, but the court dismissed their complaint. The case was eventually heard by the Supreme Court in 1969.
  • Explain to students that the previous description of how the Tinker case ended up as a Supreme Court case is vague and inconclusive. It will be up to the class to research the case further and to present a more detailed description, using legal terminology, quotations, and commentary about how the case has influenced subsequent cases.

Introducing a word bank of legal terminology:

  • Write the following terms on the white board or create a more permanent word wall to display them:
Bill of Rights   

First Amendment 
free speech 


    • Choose one of the words in the word bank and model how that word can be used to add detail to the previous description of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District. For example, you could display the Visual Thesaurus word map for appeal and point out the specific verb meaning of appeal that fits a legal context: "take a court case to a higher court for review." Then, you could have a volunteer student use the word in the context of what they know about the Tinker case (e.g., "When the students and their parents' case was dismissed, they appealed to a higher court.").


Revising summaries of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District:

  • Organize the class into partners or small groups of three students, each clustered around a separate computer if possible.
  • Instruct groups to use the word bank of legal terms, the Visual Thesaurus, and other online resources (see "Links") about the Supreme Court Tinker case to revise the original description to include important details about the court's ruling, quotations from Justices, and how Tinker has influenced subsequent court cases.
  • Advise groups that the final case summaries should be at least three paragraphs in length and should include at least eight of the legal terms from the word bank (underlined or highlighted).


Sharing case summaries:

  • Ask each group to read aloud its revised case summary of Tinker v. Des Moines Independent Community School District.
  • As each group reads aloud its summary, other groups in the class should be noting details about the case that the presenting group added in its revision. How did those details shed light on how the Supreme Court decided the case? How did the Supreme Court justices express varying perspectives about interpreting the Constitution in light of the Tinker case?
  • After groups have shared their revised case summaries, hold a final review of the legal terms from the word bank. Which words were used most often? Which words were more difficult to incorporate?

Extending the Lesson:

  • Since this class lesson models the process of researching and describing the Tinker case, ask students to choose another Supreme Court case to research and summarize independently. Keep the word bank of legal terms posted in your classroom and emphasize that students should incorporate some of those same terms in their independent case summaries.


  • Assess whether or not students are finding definitions of word bank terms that are relevant in a legal context.
  • Assess groups' online research to see if they are using reliable resources.
  • Assess groups' case summaries to see if each legal term was used appropriately and smoothly.

Educational Standards:

List of Benchmarks for Civics

Standard 15.   Understands how the United States Constitution grants and distributes power and responsibilities to national and state government and how it seeks to prevent the abuse of power.

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Understands how the first three words of the Preamble to the Constitution, "We the People...," embodies the principle of the people as the ultimate source of sovereignty
2. Understands how the legislative, executive, and judicial branches share power and responsibilities (e.g., each branch has varying degrees of legislative, executive, and judicial powers and responsibilities)
3. Understands how the legislative branch can check the powers of the executive and judicial branches by establishing committees to oversee the executive branch's activities; impeaching the president, other members of the executive branch, and federal judges; overriding presidential vetoes; disapproving presidential appointments; and proposing amendments to the Constitution
4. Understands how the executive branch can check the powers of the legislative and judicial branches by vetoing laws passed by Congress and nominating members of the federal judiciary
5. Understands how the judicial branch can check the powers of the executive and legislative branches by overruling decisions made by lower courts and ruling on the constitutionality of laws made by Congress and the actions of the executive branch

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
1. Understands how the overall design and specific features of the Constitution prevent the abuse of power by aggregating power at the national, state, and local levels to allow government to be responsive; dispersing power among different levels of government to protect individual rights, promote the common good, and encourage citizen participation; and using a system of checks and balances (e.g., separated institutions with shared powers, provisions for veto and impeachment, federalism, judicial review, the Bill of Rights)
2. Knows why the framers adopted a federal system in which power and responsibility are divided and shared between a national government and state governments
3. Understands ways in which federalism is designed to protect individual rights to life, liberty, and property and how it has at times made it possible for states to deny the rights of certain groups, (e.g. states' rights and slavery, denial of suffrage to women and minority groups)
5. Understands the purposes, organization, and functions of the legislative, executive, and judicial branches and the independent regulatory agencies (e.g., agencies such as the Federal Reserve, Food and Drug Administration, Federal Communications Commission)
6. Understands the extent to which each branch of the government reflects the people's sovereignty (e.g., Congress legislates on behalf of the people, the president represents the nation as a whole, the Supreme Court interprets the Constitution on behalf of the people)

Standard 18. Understands the role and importance of law in the American constitutional system and issues regarding the judicial protection of individual rights.

Level III (Grades 6-8)
1. Understands the importance of the rule of law in establishing limits on both those who govern and the governed, protecting individual rights, and promoting the common good
2. Knows historical and contemporary examples of the rule of law (e.g., Marbury v. Madison, Brown v. Board of Education, U.S. v. Nixon)
3. Knows principal varieties of law (e.g., constitutional, criminal, civil), and understands how the principal varieties of law protect individual rights and promote the common good
4. Understands criteria for evaluating the strengths and weaknesses of a rule or law by determining if it is understandable (i.e., clearly written with explicit requirements), possible to follow (i.e., does not demand the impossible), fair, well designed to achieve its purposes, and designed to protect individual rights and to promote the common good
6. Understands the basic concept of due process of law (i.e., government must use fair procedures to gather information and make decisions in order to protect the rights of individuals and the interests of society)
7. Understands the importance to individuals and to society of major due process protections such as habeas corpus, presumption of innocence, fair notice, impartial tribunal, speedy and public trials, right to counsel, trial by jury, right against self incrimination, protection against double jeopardy, right of appeal
11. Understands current issues regarding judicial protection of the rights of individuals

Level IV (Grades 9-12)
1. Understands how the rule of law makes possible a system of ordered liberty that protects the basic rights of citizens
2. Knows historical and contemporary practices that illustrate the central place of the rule of law (e.g., submitting bills to legal counsel to insure congressional compliance with constitutional limitations, higher court review of lower court compliance with the law, executive branch compliance with laws enacted by Congress)
5. Understands how the individual's rights to life, liberty, and property are protected by the trial and appellate levels of the judicial process and by the principal varieties of law (e.g., constitutional, criminal, and civil law)
6. Understands the effects of Americans relying on the legal system to solve social, economic, and political problems rather than using other means, such as private negotiations, mediation, and participation in the political process
7. Understands the importance of an independent judiciary in a constitutional democracy
10. Knows how state and federal courts' power of judicial review reflects the American idea of constitutional government (i.e., limited government) and understands the merits of arguments for and against judicial review

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