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The Knotted Line

Evan Bissell, Author

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We the People?

Download: The Knotted Line Curriculum

Foundational Understandings 

  • Historical narratives are “authored.” History is not a neutral, objective or universal report on what happened at a given time.
  • Historical narratives are often framed by “the winner” or dominant society, and bury other stories. Anyone can be a part of creating and uncovering the other stories. 

Essential Questions

  • Who does U.S. history include?


Participants will...
...critically reflect on the founding narratives of the U.S.  
...explore how freedom has been defined in the U.S. and define it for themselves. 
...investigate the Constitutional principles in U.S. society from multiple perspectives.

Facilitator Preparation

* Review Entering the Knotted Line slideshow and workshop.
* Review Howard Zinn interview on the U.S. Constitution.
* Familiarize yourself with the painting The Scene at the Signing of the U.S. Constitution via this website:

Common Core Standards

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
Compare the point of view of two or more authors for how they treat the same or similar topics, including which details they include and emphasize in their respective accounts.
Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.
Evaluate authors’ differing points of view on the same historical event or issue by assessing the authors’ claims, reasoning, and evidence.
Integrate and evaluate multiple sources of information presented in diverse formats and media (e.g., visually, quantitatively, as well as in words) in order to address a question or solve a problem.
Evaluate an author’s premises, claims, and evidence by corroborating or challenging them with other information.
Integrate information from diverse sources, both primary and secondary, into a coherent understanding of an idea or event, noting discrepancies among sources.


Length of Time:  Two 55-minute sessions
Recommended Age Range: 11-23
Ideal Number of Participants: 15-30

Materials Needed:

Session 1

* Have the Constitution painting ready for projection
* Have the preamble text ready for projection

Part 1: Personal Connection & Reflection, Developing the Reason to Learn

Entry activity 

10 min
As participants arrive, they respond in writing to the following question: “What is the difference between a right and a responsibility?”
On the board/flipchart paper, the facilitator writes “Right” and “Responsibility” at the top of two columns. The facilitator asks for student responses and takes notes on the differences. 

Class Constitution 

15 minutes
Participants receive several pink and several green index cards (any two different colors will work). 
The facilitator explains the activity:
On the pink cards, write one RIGHT you think you should have in this workshop/class to make it the best learning space possible. You cannot create rights here that take away the rights of other people.
On the green cards, write one RESPONSIBILITY you should have in this workshop/class to make it the best learning space possible.
Once everyone has written at least one idea on each color of card, the facilitator asks participants to read them out loud and helps categorize them (rights and responsibilities). This is a good moment to clarify the differences between the ideas, using the opening activity as a reference. Tape the cards in the two columns from the opening activity. 
Go around the room and ask participants if there is anything missing, or anything that they absolutely can’t agree with (i.e. it infringes on their own rights). 
Facilitator: What we just went through is the creation of our group’s constitution. This is a “living document,” meaning that we can change it, add to it or take parts out if we find they are not working. The experience of creating it together is also important—we had a voice in this document that will govern our time together for the next two workshops. Can everyone agree to try to uphold these rights and responsibilities for these two workshops?
If there are certain ideas that don’t work, the conversation should continue. It is important to stress here that these are ideals, so this doesn’t have to fit perfectly but it gives the group something to work with.
Facilitator: I want to you to keep this process in mind as we switch to thinking about the U.S. Constitution. 

Part 2: Develop the Concept, Move from the Personal to the Theoretical

Constitutions: Compare and Contrast 

10 minutes
Look at the painting Scene at the Signing of The Constitution by Howard Chandler Christy. 

Facilitator note: Students may ask who is who in the painting. Here is a website that gives background on the painting:

Facilitator guides participants through the following steps of analyzing the image and practicing visual literacy skills:
First, we are just going to look deeply. Spend one minute just looking without talking. 
After one minute: List everything that you see in the picture. We are not trying to give meaning to anything yet, just the basic things in the painting, which might also include the colors, lighting, etc. (Facilitator note: Participants will often try to jump ahead here. It’s important to bring it back to the basics of just what they see. It is helpful to point at and repeat the things as participants name them.)
Who is in the picture? Where are they? What can you infer based on the details we just listed?
What are they doing? What do you think is the consequence of their action? What will happen next?
What do you think the artist was intending to convey by how they painted the image?
What are the differences and similarities between the creators of our constitution and the creators of the U.S. Constitution?"
What or who did the artist leave out?

The Constitution Preamble 

15 minutes
Participants receive a handout with the text of the Constitution Preamble (double-spaced):        
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.

Facilitator: We are going to go through this and break down these different words that make up the principles of the Constitution. As we go through, you should take notes on the words. So, who can explain what one of these mean? General welfare? ...
The facilitator continues to guide the group through breaking down each of the principles or words that are unclear. When finished, check for understanding.
Facilitator: So now that we know what this means, let’s go back to the first words: “We the people.” Who is included in this? Let’s start by thinking back to the painting. Who else was living in North America at that time? Who was not included in the Constitution?  
The facilitator takes notes as participants offer different people not included in the Constitution. This is everyone who is in North America who was not a white European Christian man who owned property: enslaved people, Native Americans, white women, Jewish people, indentured servants, poor white people, etc.


5 minutes                                
Introduce the assignment:
Assignment: Read Langston Hughes’s poem, Let America Be America Again.
Write 2-3 sentences about what you think this has to do with today’s activity. 

Facilitator: To close, choose one principle from the Constitution that you think is important. We will go around the room and everyone will say their choice. 
In our next session, we’ll begin to interpret the Constitution even more.

Session 2

  1. Have The Knotted Line Constitution painting ready for projection.
  2. Pre-load and click “launch” on the homepage. 
  3. Print or make an example piece for the final activity.

Part 3: Active Experimentation with New Knowledge and Concepts     

Entry activity 

10 min
Participants view the following painting from

In pairs, participants use the visual thinking questions from the previous workshop to analyze the painting (these questions should be visible in the room):
Observation: List everything that is in the picture.
Representation: Who is in the picture? Where are they? What can you infer based on the details we just listed?
Action: What are they doing? What do you think is the consequence of their action? What will happen next?
Meaning: What do you think the artist was intending to convey by how they painted the image?

Facilitator: This image is from The Knotted Line. The painting on the bottom is from 2003 when President Bush signed the Partial Birth Abortion Act into law, resulting in a fine or imprisonment of anyone performing a late-term abortion. Why do you think the artist connected these images? Who is the law about? Who is signing the bill? 
What does this have to do with the Langston Hughes poem that you read?

Facilitator transition: We are going to practice thinking this way, across history. We are going to make historical connections to the principles of the Constitution that we looked at previously.

The Knotted Line 

30 minutes
Facilitator note: If participants have done the Entering the Knotted Line; the X-Y axis slideshow and/or Creating the X-Y Axis, this will largely be review. If the participants haven’t had a chance to work with the X-Y axis, the following steps are meant to walk participants through creating the X-Y axis. 
Facilitator note: If you are working on computers, it is most efficient to pre-load and click “Launch.” 

Hand out X-Y Axis worksheet. The facilitator should have a large version (either drawn or projected) that they can fill out during the following steps.
Facilitator: We are going to use these worksheets and to explore how historical moments have been in line with, or in conflict with, the principles of the Constitution.

Step 1: 
Write “The signing of the Constitution” and the principle you chose at the end of the last workshop in the X-Moment section. For example, my principle is “form a more perfect union.” (Facilitator adds this to the large version)

Step 2:
On the Y-Axis, we will use the Knotted Line and your knowledge of history to find y-moments in which people’s actions were in line with, or in conflict with, the principle. On the top, we write moments that are in line with the principle. For example, in 1917 women’s rights activists are imprisoned while fighting for the right to vote. This would go above the X-Moment line because women were fighting for this principle (Facilitator adds this to the large version). 

An example for below the X-Moment line might be in 1942 when all persons of Japanese descent are ordered by the U.S. government into internment camps during World War II (Facilitator adds this to the large version).
Check for understanding and questions.

Step 3
You are now going to begin creating your own X-Y Axis. (Participants should access or work with print versions of the paintings.) For the first 5-10 minutes, just explore and play with the site. Then begin filling out your Y Axis with moments that relate to your chosen principle from the X-Moment.

Part 4: Integration of Concepts & Experience, Learners Representing New Knowledge in their Own Voice

Time Travel Writing/Drawing

10 minutes
Participants are given an 8.5x11” sheet of blank paper. 
Facilitator: Fold the piece of paper in half, hamburger-style. On the top, you will draw or write about your chosen principle as it is imagined in the Constitution. 
On the inside of the folded paper, you will create a drawing, letter, journal entry or poem from the perspective of someone from one of your Y-Moments. The piece should be about how the principle relates to them (Example).
Facilitator note: This can be extended as needed and completed at home or in a separate session. 


5 minutes                                
3-5 participants share their in-process or completed pieces.

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