How Congress Works

by Mary Ellen Daneels, Civics Instructional Specialist

How a Bill Becomes Law
from Schoolhouse Rock is always a favorite for classrooms when kicking off instruction on the legislative process. While the video’s catching tune and lyrics are engaging, it is what is “in between the lines” of the song that really helps students understand how congress works.

Dr. Charles Flanagan, Outreach Supervisor for the Center for the Legislative Archives, recently partnered with the Illinois Civics Hub to host a webinar to demystify the legislative process. A powerful lesson was shared to illustrate the process of how a bill becomes a law and analyze historic congressional documents to identify what happens at each step along the way. Participants also engaged with resources that have students collaborate to complete an oversized board game/flowchart. Access a recording on our Webinar Archives.

The National Archives is one of the dozens of civic learning partners committed to providing Illinois educators with content and pedagogy aligned to both the middle and high school course requirements and the new Educating for American Democracy (EAD) Roadmap. Two of our Illinois Civics Instructional Coaches, Corie Yow from Chatham and Matthew Wood from West Chicago, share resources they use to engage students in learning about the legislative branch. Besides the resources provided by the National Archives, Corie recommends:
  • iCivics contains lessons, WebQuests, simulations, and videos about the structure, function, and powers of the legislative branch of government geared toward middle school and high school.
  • C-Span Classroom's lesson plan “How a Bill Becomes a Law” contains video clips, slideshows, vocabulary activities, and interactives.
Matt cites:
  • Congress in Action is a great resource from This lesson is a great starter for understanding how compromise is at the core of our Constitution’s very existence and gives students a non-political, historically based way to explore this concept.
  • Committee work is where the bill-making process really gets interesting, so this Congressional Committee simulation (also from the lesson library) helps students explore the essential question “Should there be a path to legal status or citizenship for undocumented immigrants?” For this lesson, it would be wise to have a background in how best to conduct discussions on current and controversial discussions, for which the Guardians of Democracy program offers microcredentials.
The Illinois Civics Curriculum Design Toolkit has additional resources around teaching about the legislative branch embedded throughout as well as the curated educator resources on the EAD web site.

How do you teach students about how congress works and the legislative process? Please comment below. Together, we can prepare all students with the knowledge, skills, and dispositions for civic life.


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