Topic: Laws, government, crime, punishment

Grade level: 6-8

Time: 50 minutes

Objectives: To motivate thinking about the nature of laws: their purpose, qualities that makes laws good or bad, the role of punishment, how to determine what punishments are just

Materials needed: paper and pen/pencil

Description: Start by asking “What is a law?” Allow a number of students to speak to get several ideas on the table. Likely they will talk about rules, punishments, order, peace, and the government. The central idea found in these suggestions will probably be “a rule made by the government for which there is a punishment for the person who violates it.” Ask for examples of laws. Here it is useful to elicit several kinds of examples, so students are not just thinking of laws against stealing, but also environmental laws, work safety laws, and laws that give rights to individuals and groups. A distinction between laws that limit the action of citizens and laws that limit the action of government might be fruitfully brought up here.

Ask the students to imagine the following:

  1. A new island forms in the ocean.
  2. Lots of people are going to the island because it seems like a nice place to live, so cities have rapidly developed.
  3. But the island doesn’t have a government yet.
  4. So one day, the citizens get together and talk it out and decide to make you the ruler. You get to decide upon the laws of the island.

Individually, on their piece of paper, ask the students to write down two or three laws for the island. Ask them to come up with laws that are important to them and to be creative (for the purpose of trying to get at laws beyond those against killing, stealing, etc.).

Ask for volunteers to give one of their laws and ask them questions about their laws. Why was that law important to them? Who are they trying to help with their law? What are they trying to prevent happening with that law?

Following this discussion, ask the students to get into groups of 3-4. Ask them to write a law together on a piece of paper that they all agree upon. Emphasize this last point and say they shouldn’t fake agreement just to move along with the assignment. Ask the students to be precise with their laws, to be specific to avoid any ambiguities or difficulties for enforcement. Finally, ask them to come up with a fair punishment for violators of their law. Give them 5-10 minutes to accomplish this task.

When students have finished, go around the room and have each group propose their law and their punishment. Start a list on the board representing (briefly) each law proposed and the punishment.

With the remaining time, have the students go back to their groups and to pick a law on the board they wish to amend. After 3-4 minutes, go around the room again and have groups propose their amendments to the laws on the board. During this time, the group who proposed the original law may very briefly respond to proposed amendments, accepting or rejecting them.

End by asking what makes for a good law and what makes for a bad law. Then recapitulate the laws discussed, the issues brought up, and the difficulty of finding laws and punishments upon which everyone agrees.

This lesson plan was contributed by Dustyn Addington.