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        The Supreme Court | Define and Classify the Powers Associated with Federalism: Lesson Plan

        In this lesson, students watch video segments from the series The Supreme Court as they explore how the Supreme Court defined the balance of power under federalism.

        Lesson Summary


        What is federalism? How has the Supreme Court defined the balance of power under federalism? To answer these questions students watch a video segment from the PBS series The Supreme Court, discuss the founders' debate on how much power the national government should have in comparison to the states, and categorize key national and state powers.

        This is the first of two lessons that comprise a unit on balancing state and federal authority. For the second lesson, see Analyzing McCulloch vs. Maryland Lesson Plan. For extension activities to use with this unit, visit the Supreme Court website.


        Students will:

        • define federalism
        • summarize the debate the founders of our country had over federalism and the balance of powers between states and the national government
        • classify the powers associated with federalism

        Grade Level:


        Suggested Time

        (1) 50 minute period

        Media Resources


        Before The Lesson

        • Locate a copy of the Articles of Confederation.You may want to familiarize your students with this document prior to doing the lesson.
        • Prepare the necessary materials, including student handouts, which are found using the links above. If possible, copy each of the handouts on to a different color of paper. This will help you and your students keep track of which handout they should be working with at a given time.
        • Download the Marshall's View of Federalism QuickTime Video used in the lesson.
        • If you prefer to predetermine student groups and partner sets for your class, do so.
        • Write the focus statements that appear in Part II, Step 2 on the board. 
        • Consider inviting a local, state, and/or national legislator to help you teach this lesson.

        The Lesson

        Part I: Introduction

        1.    Begin by asking students to create a three-column chart on their own paper. Project the Shared Powers Transparency. Tell students they have two to three minutes to complete the chart as they respond to the following questions:

        • What decisions do you believe your parents or guardians should make for you?
        • What decisions should you be able to make yourself?
        • What decisions should be made cooperatively?

        2.    Once students have had the chance to respond, take five minutes to discuss what they have brainstormed. After a class discussion, continue with the following questions:

        • Did every student in the class have the same perspective about who should make certain decisions?
        • Have you and your parents or guardians ever had a conflict over who gets to make certain decisions?
        • Why is it important that some decisions are made exclusively by parents or guardians?

        3.    Explain that the division of power between teenagers and parents is similar to the division of power between the states and the federal government. This division of government power is known as federalism.

        4.    Show students the definition of "federalism" on the board or overhead.

        Definition: Federalism is the division of powers among the local, state, and national governments.

        Part II: Historical Views on a Weak versus Strong Central Government

        1.    Explain the following background to students:  In the early years of our country, leaders had deep disagreements about how power should be balanced between the states and the national government. Because of this, two political parties emerged -- one that favored a strong central government and one that distrusted a strong central government and felt most power should reside with the states.  Before the Constitution was ratified, these groups were known as the Federalists and Anti-federalists. At the point in time shown in the video segment, the Anti-federalists had evolved into the Democratic-Republicans led by Thomas Jefferson. The Federalists were led by John Adams, Alexander Hamilton, and John Marshall.

        2.     Remind students that John Marshall became one of the most important chief justices in the history of the Supreme Court. His views on how power should be shared or balanced between the national government and the states shaped much of his work and shaped the country.

        3. Ask students to take out a pen and a blank sheet of paper. Before playing the video, show the following focus statements and ask students to focus on the following as they watch:

        • Identify John Marshall's concerns about federalism
        • Note what experiences shaped his opinions about federalism

        4. Play Marshall's View of Federalism QuickTime Video. Pause the video after the narrator says, "The Continental Army was nearly destroyed by the indifference of the states. The Continental Congress was powerless to help."

        5. Ask students to share ideas about of what shaped Marshall’s views. Clarify that Marshall’s opinion was shaped by the failures evident under the Articles of Confederation. (If necessary, review the structure of government under the Articles that gave states nearly all power and the problems under that government.)

        6. Start the segment again and play it through until the end.

        7. After the entire segment has concluded, prompt students to write their responses to the focus questions.  Then review their answers.

        8. Explain that as the Constitution developed, views like Marshall's were balanced with views of scholars and politicians who believed that the federal government should be weak and that most power should reside in the states. In some ways, the Constitution became a compromise document that laid out that division of power. The way power has traditionally been divided and shared between the states and the national government has shifted over time.

        Part III: Culminating Activity

        1.    Distribute the Federalism Classification Activity.  Explain that the chart they are about to complete will give them an idea of the shared and divided powers of different levels of government.

        2.    Once each student has the handout, review the definition of federalism and the directions. Ask students to classify the powers as belonging to the federal government, state governments, or shared. Students may work alone or in pairs, or you may choose to do this activity as a class. Give them 10 minutes to classify the powers. Write the ending time on the board.

        3.    Review student answers using the Federalism Classification Answer Key provided.  Encourage students to make corrections on their papers and clarify examples that were difficult for them.  Explain that even though this chart provides us with general guidelines about how power is shared under federalism, there are still numerous current debates over how the power is handled.

        Check For Understanding

        To summarize, ask students to discuss the following:

        • How do you define the term "federalism?"
        • How did John Marshall think power should be balanced between state and national governments?
        • Consider the Federalism Classification chart. Did the division of power surprise you in any way? Explain your answer.


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