Adding Friction: How to Design Deliberate Thinking into the Research Process

Adding Friction: How to Design Deliberate
Thinking into the Research Process
How do I teach students to cite U.S. federal laws?
By Debbie Abilock
A teacher asked, “How do I teach students to cite U.S. federal laws? Even I
can’t cite them!”
A federal law is arguably one of the most common primary sources used in
high school history essays. Teaching students to cite legal sources has less to
do with the complexity of the actual citation than with building background
civics knowledge—ours and theirs. Once we and our students understand
the numbering conventions, have working definitions for several commonly
used terms, and recognize the official access points, students (and we) can
feel confident identifying and citing U.S. federal laws.
View these short videos produced by the U.S. Congress on how a bill
becomes a law: An enrolled bill
is the final copy of a bill, enacted (passed) by both the House and the Senate,
and signed by the president. The example in Figure 1, printed on parchment
paper and stamped Public Law 88-352, shows that it was the 352nd law
passed by the 88th Congress. The text on the enrolled bill indicates it was
Fig. 1: An MLA citation (color coded to match the labeled image): United
States. Cong. House. Civil Rights Act of 1964. 88th Cong., 2nd sess. H. 7152.
Washington: GPO, 1964. National Archives. Web. 21 Dec. 2013. http://research.
passed during the second session.
The Office of the Federal Register (OFR), a body within the National
Archives and Records Administration (NARA), is charged with archiving and
disseminating federal laws (also called statutes or acts). Citizens, lawyers,
and students use laws in various ways, so OFR provides immediate access
by date and, somewhat later, cumulative access by content. Statutes are
published in three forms: slip laws, session laws, and codified laws.
The first official version of a statute, called a slip law, is published as both
a print and online pamphlet when enacted. By the end of 2014, Congress.
gov plans to be the single official access point for current Congressional
information and legislation, aggregating information from the U.S.
Senate, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the Government Printing
Office. Until the site is out of beta, students can find slip laws from recent
Congressional sessions at the GPO website:
Fig. 2: MLA citation (color coded to match the labeled image): Civil Rights
Act of 1964. Pub. L. 88-352. 78 Stat. 241-68. 2 July 1964. US Government
Printing Office. Web. 20 Dec. 2013.
STATUTE-78-Pg241.pdf. In this citation 78 Stat. 241 locates the act in volume
78 of the Statutes at Large beginning on page 241.
Initially most of us use the popular name of a law fixed through common
usage, but officially statutes are referred to by a full title or by a short
Congress conducts business over a two-year period: a first session and a
title, a legally assigned alternative name. Public Law 88-352, which barred
second session. Slip laws of each session are published in numbered volumes
discrimination based on “race, color, religion, sex, or national origin,” can
by Congress as part of the United States Statutes at Large, along with other
officially be cited by its short title, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, as indicated on
documents (e.g., resolutions, amendments, and proclamations) from that session.
the first page of the act (Fig. 2) in the United States Statutes at Large.
A session law is considered an authoritative version of a law. Students can
In addition to the full title and short title, a session law (Fig. 2) includes the
use it as primary source evidence in history papers to reconcile disputes
public law number, the statute at large number, the date the bill was enacted,
about legal wording, confirm enactment and amendment facts, and
and additional contextual information as marginal notes (e.g., bill number,
determine if a law was in force during a particular historical period.
citations, Congressional actions taken).
May/June 2014
How to Locate an Online Copy of an Official Federal Statute at Large
If you know
the volume or
Congress # . . .
. . . or the year
the law was
enacted . . .
. . . you will find the official text
of your federal statute at the
corresponding site below.
Volume 1-18
(1-43 Congress)
A Century of Lawmaking for a New
Nation, Library of Congress,
Volume 19-64
(44-81 Congress)
Constitution Society’s United States
Statutes at Large,
Volume 65(82- Congress)
Government Printing Office’s
Federal Digital System (FDsys),
The chronological arrangement of session laws makes it difficult to find
all the laws on a particular topic. To address that need, session laws are
topically arranged or codified. At the federal level the Office of the Law
Revision Counsel (OLRC) of the U.S. House of Representatives publishes
the United States Code,
Fig. 3: One section of a public law cataloged by topic in the United States
Code. MLA citation (color coded to match the labeled image): Civil Rights
Act of 1964. 42 USC. Sec. 2000a-1. 1964. United States Code. Web. 21 Dec. 2013.
action?collectionCode=USCODE, which should be cited whenever possible
(The Bluebook 111). The Code topically arranges laws, sections of laws,
amendments, repeals, and text changes into fifty-one categories, broken
Strategic educators anticipate student misconceptions and the need for
down into title (subject), chapter, and subchapter.
background before beginning research. To add friction at an appropriate
time, prepare support materials. For example, students are likely to use and
Since most laws are negotiated collections of disparate provisions, it is
cite third-generation copies of laws from questionable sites if you don’t
common for sections of an act to be arranged under different subjects.
include instructions for locating official sources of federal legislation with
Thus one section of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 is classified with other legal
an assignment. However, when they understand the legislative publication
information about public welfare and civil rights in public places (Fig. 3).
sequence, they will look for the appropriate version of a law related to the
focus of their research (i.e., slip law, session law, or codified law). Add this
Codified law is especially useful to students who need a holistic view of the body
column to your curated resources or prepare a visual to help students
of federal legislation on a topic, perhaps in order to understand the purpose of a
decode numbering conventions and define legal terms used in history/social
bill introduced in Congress or differing opinions in a Supreme Court case.
studies nonfiction and primary sources like federal statutes.
Nationally more than half a million students, mentored by their teachers,
The MLA, APA, and Chicago style manuals offer limited advice on citing U.S.
participate in the National History Day contest each year. Indeed, two
federal statutes and even less about the multitude of state publications. The
award-winning NHD projects centered on federal statutes: The Voting Rights
handbooks defer to the Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation, a source
Act of 1965: One Vote, One Voice (Ramamoorthy et al.) and The 1956 Federal-
used by legal professionals. Good citation software will code the various
Aid Highway Act: The Turning Point That Reshaped America (Frackleton
Bluebook abbreviations and apply each handbook’s style to make it easy to
et al.). Common Core State Standards charge teachers with assigning more
correctly cite both state and federal publications in any style. Short of that,
history/social studies nonfiction reading and writing. Prepare in advance, so
students must locate the relevant format and then remodel the citation to
you will feel confident supporting reading and writing.
align with MLA, APA, or Chicago/Turabian style.
Works Cited
CC6-8RH/SS4 Determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text,
including vocabulary-specific to domains related to history/social studies.
CC9-10RH/SS1 Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and
secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.
CC11-12WH/SS/S/TS8 Gather relevant information from multiple authoritative print
and digital sources, using advanced searches effectively; assess the strengths and
limitations of each source in terms of the specific task, purpose, and audience; integrate
information into the text selectively to maintain the flow of ideas, avoiding plagiarism
and overreliance on any one source and following a standard format for citation.
May/June 2014
The Bluebook: A Uniform System of Citation. 19th ed. Cambridge: Harvard Law Rev. Assn, 2010. Print.
Frackleton, Riley, et al. “The 1956 Federal-Aid Highway Act: The Turning Point That Reshaped America.”
National History Day. National History Day, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2013.
Ramamoorthy, Priya, et al. “The Voting Rights Act of 1965: One Vote, One Voice.” National
History Day. National History Day, n.d. Web. 26 Dec. 2013.
Debbie Abilock, a former school administrator and school librarian, co-founded and directs
the educational vision of NoodleTools, Inc., a full-service academic research teaching
environment which has answered over 40,000 questions from educators and students.
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