Wednesday, September 24, 2014

8 Ideas for Teaching the Declaration of Independence: Text, Storytelling and Long-term Significance

One of the criticisms about the Common Core as it applies to the teaching of history is that the standards emphasize reading of texts over understanding of context. Thoughtful implementation of the standards should minimize this problem, but it is a fair criticism. Good history teaching should always be about the context of the sources, whether primary or secondary. Even the first standard, which is very text-based, refers to context. Note what I have italicized in this standard, below:


Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources, attending to such features as the date and origin of the information.

So yes, students should read the text.  They should read the actual Declaration of Independence--even though the language is challenging-- and not just read about it. Middle schoolers, too, not just high school students.

But, as my dear friend and former colleague used to tell me over and over again when I was a beginning teacher and frantic about what I should teach tomorrow...
Tell them a story….

So here is your chance.

I am not advocating that history teachers go back to the “sage on the stage,” style of teaching that is so often criticized. But a recent rewatching of Robin Williams's performance in Dead Poet's Society reminds me that there is merit to this approach when used effectively and in moderation. Because one thing that teachers can do that our textbooks and Google cannot is tell a great story. (Perhaps not as well as Robin Williams, but standards for dramatic performance for the screen are different from those of the classroom). Great stories are what makes Ken Burns's documentaries so compelling and why we love to show the film Glory in the classroom. The history comes alive because it is about human beings. This is why when I find a great sentence, or paragraph or chapter in a narrative-style history book or a first-person account of an historic event, I like to read it aloud or have students read it aloud. There is power in oral storytelling that cannot be recreated in private reading.


What to teach when teaching about the Declaration of Independence idea #1:Tell them a story...

That Thomas Jefferson and John Adams, who both served on the committee responsible for writing the declaration, died on the same day which happened to be July 4, 1826--the 50th anniversary of Declaration is just too good to be true.  Except that it is true.  Use this story to bookend your lesson.  Use it as your seductive introduction.  Use it to tie everything up at the end of your lesson.  Where to find more info on this:
Click here for the basic story.
Click here for some interesting observations about why they might have both died on the same day.
Click here for some information on the friendship and enmity of Adams and Jefferson.

Make it even better by going on to discuss Jefferson’s views on the legacy of the Declaration. (see ideas #2, 6 & 7 below)

Idea #2: Jefferson’s view of what the Declaration of Independence was about.

See the section on Jefferson’s legacy on the Library of Congress website, and then look at the 3rd document which you can read more fully here. A year before his death, Jefferson wrote, in a letter to Henry Lee, that the whole point of the Declaration of Independence was to NOT to say something new or revolutionary, but, “to place before mankind the common sense of the subject, in terms so plain and firm as to command their assent, and to justify ourselves in the independent stand we [were] compelled to take."
You could start your lesson with that idea and then have students read the document to see for themselves the “terms so plain.”

Except, of course, 18th century language is not at all so plain for 21st century students.  So...

Idea #3: Reading the Text

Help students understand the organization behind the Declaration: this is the part of the lesson where you really delve into The Text. This will meet Common Core Standards. Here is the handout I used most recently with seventh graders. (Yes, it was a challenge for them, and yes, they rose to the challenge. It will work nicely for high school students, too.)

a. intro paragraphs - always a good idea to work through these, “translating” the document into language they understand.
b. the reasons - useful to give students a copy of the Declaration on which they can take notes. I like to have them number all 27 of the grievances (it takes only a minute) and then students can see how each of the 27 complaints matches up to an actual event they have studied. You don’t need to go through all 27 of them, but pointing out a few examples will help them see, oh yeah, we talked about the quartering act and here it is in grievance #14.
c. we have done everything we can - go through the next 2 paragraphs- what have the colonists done?
d. therefore, we are going to declare independence

For a fun way to explain the structure of the Declaration, try explaining the Declaration of Independence as a breakup letter. This is very nicely done by a couple of teachers here from Worth a look.

Idea #4. Clear up a few misconceptions.

The website below does a great job of explaining why July 4 is a national holiday, even though independence was voted on by the Continental Congress on July 2, and it wasn’t even signed by everyone until August.

(Incidentally, this is a great website for a lot of things about the Declaration and the Constitution--two key American documents that students (and adults) too often confuse.

Idea #5: Slavery, the Elephant in the Room

One of the key reasons July 4 is the date associated with the Declaration and not July 2 is that Congress debated some of the clauses in it between those dates.  During that time, the clause blaming King George for slavery was omitted. This is a Pretty Big Deal, if you ask me. Of course, students know that in a few months you will get to the Civil War, but they may not realize that the seeds can be found right here.

Below is the omitted paragraph:

He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating it's most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere, or to incure miserable death in their transportation hither. this piratical warfare, the opprobrium of infidel powers, is the warfare of the Christian king of Great Britain. [determined to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold,] he has prostituted his negative for suppressing every legislative attempt to prohibit or to restrain this execrable commerce [determining to keep open a market where MEN should be bought and sold]: and that this assemblage of horrors might want no fact of distinguished die, he is now exciting those very people to rise in arms among us, and to purchase that liberty of which he had deprived them, by murdering the people upon whom he also obtruded them: thus paying off former crimes committed against the liberties of one people, with crimes which he urges them to commit against the lives of another.

(You can also have students examine a complete rough draft of the Declaration.)

You could have an interesting discussion with students about the contradiction between the most famous lines of the Declaration, “that all men are created equal” being so completely at odds with the decision to omit slavery.  There is a nice analysis of this at the University of Richmond’s History Engine website. Check it out here.  You could start by seeing if students could figure out on their own why the grievance about slavery was omitted.  Other questions: to what extent does this diminish the significance of the Declaration of Independence? Does it make it “hypocritical”? Or is that ahistorical to think about it that way?  Is it possible for a document to foment revolution in people’s thinking, even if the full expression of that idea (equality) doesn’t come about for another 100 years? or more?

For an elaborate lesson plan that expands this idea to a 3-4 day lesson, check out this lesson from the Library of Congress website.  It has students conducting a trial of Jefferson around the use of the phrase “all men are created equal” and slavery: was it compromise or was it hypocrisy? I’m not sure I would take 3-4 days to do this, but it is worth checking out.  The topic lends itself well to helping students understand the problem of presentism in the study of history: judging slavery and equal rights in the 18th century with our 21st century standards is problematic. Be sure to check out the primary sources that have been selected for this activity.  You can find those here, even if you don’t want to use the whole lesson.

Idea #6: The legacy of the Declaration: What it means to future generations

Jefferson was invited by Roger Weightman, the chairman of a proposed Independence Day celebration in Washington to be attend the ceremonies.  In his response, Jefferson declined the invitation due to his poor health.  It is the last existing letter he ever wrote.  It was dated June 24, 1826, less than two weeks before his death.  In it he offers his view of what the 4th of July should come to mean.

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government.  That form which we have substituted, restores the free right to the unbounded exercise of reason and freedom of opinion.  All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man.  The general spread of the light of science has already laid open to every view the palpable truth, that the mass of mankind has not been born with saddles on their backs, nor a favored few booted and spurred, ready to ride them legitimately, by the grace of God.  These are the grounds of hope for others.  For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

You can read the whole letter here. Also, note that this letter was selected as one of the 50 Core Documents, along with the Declaration itself, which is a project of Read about that here.

What to do with this quotation? I’d read it aloud--it’s so beautifully put. Of course, not every student will understand every word, but you can work on that by cutting it a bit, explaining a few vocabulary words, giving them the document to follow along with--one with vocab explained in the margins.  And then you could discuss what the main idea of the passage is? What does Jefferson believe is important about the Declaration 50 years later? How does that compare/contrast with what we believe is important about it now?

When I read it aloud to my seventh graders, I edited it as follows and read aloud:

“May it be to the world, what I believe it will be (to some parts sooner, to others later, but finally to all), the signal of arousing men to burst the chains under which monkish ignorance and superstition had persuaded to bind themselves, and to assume the blessings and security of self-government. . . . All eyes are opened, or opening, to the rights of man. . . .These are the grounds of hope for others.  For ourselves, let the annual return of this day forever refresh our recollections of these rights, and an undiminished devotion to them.”

And then (if you have 120 minute long periods or a few days…I never said you should try to cram all of these ideas into one 45 minute period.) you can go to...

Idea #7: What the Declaration means to the rest of the world: Was Jefferson right? Would the Declaration become “a signal of arousing men (and women) to burst the chains"?

Distinguish between the immediate historic purpose of the Declaration: an explanation of why the Colonies were declaring their independence and the larger, future significance: that the words would become an inspiration for oppressed peoples around the world. You can have students look briefly or in more depth at documents that echoed the Declaration of Independence
such as:

Idea #8: Don't Forget to Make it Human

And lastly, in the interest of making history a study of real people, most students (I always get a little nervous when I say “most,” perhaps safer to say “many”?) know that Thomas Jefferson was the author of the Declaration of Independence. If you want more background on the red-headed author, you can find lots at the Monticello website.

And if you want to have a little fun with John Hancock’s famous signature, click here for some odd details. Unfortunately, the story about Hancock signing his name so big so that the King could read it without his spectacles does not seem to be true. See here and here. You’ll have to stick with the Adams-Jefferson story.

July 2017 update:
Last but not least, check out another post I did on "Patriotism for Grown-ups." It is a little dated now, but there are still some good links worth checking out within it.

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