Making the Declaration of Independence Come Alive
Lesson Objective: Connect the Declaration of Independence to the American identity
Grades 9-10 / History / Independence

Thought starters

  1. Why is the break up letter an effective way to engage students?
  2. What strategies do Ms. Katznelson and Mr. David use to support students in constructing their own knowledge?
  3. How are the four themes developed throughout the lesson?
77 Comments
Wow, what an amazing lesson!
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Love this idea. Here's a teacher who did this and posted a video in 2008. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ChiHRns2Hvk
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I am going to use this with my students next year.
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Brilliant idea!
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Love this idea! Can't wait to use it with my students.
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Transcripts

  • 1:00:00 Great Lesson Ideas –
    Declaration of Independence

    Emma (VO) EMMA:
    Any time you can get the students helping to construct their own

    1:00:00 Great Lesson Ideas –
    Declaration of Independence

    Emma (VO) EMMA:
    Any time you can get the students helping to construct their own knowledge the more engaged they’re going to be. If I was just standing in front of the classroom lecturing them about what the Declaration of Independence said, I’d probably have 95 percent of them asleep by the end of the classes, scintillating as I like to think I am. That’s a great challenge. It’s sort of making it come alive, making them care about it. Like why should they even care about something dead men wrote years ago?
    TOUGH TO TEACH [music]
    Emma (INTV)
    EMMA EMMA:
    I’m Emma Katznelson, and I teach 9th and 10th grade Humanities at Wildwood School.
    Jason (INTV)
    JASON JASON:
    My name is Jason David. I teach 9th and 10th grade with Emma Katz Nelson.
    Emma (VO)
    Review EMMA:
    In the lesson, we will ask students to spend some time journaling and responding to the question, what do you know about the Declaration of Independence? Jason will walk them through an historic overview, 100 years or so, leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, and students will work in their table groups to collectively go deeper into one particular section in the preamble so that they’re sort of all sharing ideas and building off of one another.
    01:01:09 Jason (VO) JASON:
    With the group that’s just coming in after lunch, we know we need a fast start, or else we’ll lose them.
    Emma (VO) EMMA:
    We’re going to make it appear like we are not ready to dive into the lesson.
    Emma, Jason, Students EMMA:
    So, Jason and I want to talk to you about something that, um, kind of is bothering us a little bit. Now this feels really awkward to do in front of television cameras but, um, when we finished class yesterday we found a note on the ground that a student was passing to somebody else during our lesson. This is like a serious pet peeve of mine.
    Emma (VO) EMMA:
    Being able to figure out how to make learning about a document that’s 300 years old exciting to a 15-year-old who would rather be texting can be challenging. The letter in the beginning is a big hook.
    Emma, Students EMMA:
    I’m not sure how to start this letter, but I feel that we need to talk. I’ve been thinking about us a lot lately. I really thought we would be together forever, but then things changed.
    Jason (VO) JASON:
    We use this as a little bit of an invisible theatre to get our students sort of jumped up, to get them going, and that’s our launching point.
    Emma, Students EMMA:
    I feel like you started to take me for granted, misspelled, on a side note, but that’s okay. You just started to do whatever you wanted and never asked me about anything or how I felt. I’ve been thinking about this for a while, and I don’t want to hurt you, but I think it’s time we broke up.
    Jason (VO) JASON:
    We know that we are getting at the theme of the Declaration of Independence of people breaking up with a former governmental power.
    Emma, Jason, Students EMMA:
    I need some time by myself to see what it is like on my own. Sorry, but us is over, and now I feel… I mean, I guess we can say who wrote it. Is that like…?
    JASON:
    Let me see it again.
    EMMA:
    Okay, don’t hate me forever, but I’m going to tell you who wrote it. It’s signed the 13 colonies. This is a breakup letter, is it not? Yes? And we’re about to study the greatest breakup letter in the history of mankind. Are you ready?
    01:03:10 Jason (INTV) JASON:
    From there, we then had them move back into a routine that we’re used to. So, a journal entry.
    Emma, Students EMMA:
    We would like you to spend some time in your journals writing about what you know about the Declaration of Independence. So, you’re just going to write for two or three minutes, and then we’re going to give you an opportunity to share first in your table groups, and then with the whole class.
    Emma (VO) Then they’ll have an opportunity to share with a partner.
    Students STUDENT:
    Philosophy. Liberty and justice for all.
    STUDENT:
    They drew on ideas from John Locke. That was like a main thing. I know that.
    Emma (VO) EMMA:
    They’ll share that out with the whole class, and Jason and I will take turns fielding the responses from the students.
    Jason, Students JASON:
    Griffin?
    GRIFFIN:
    The majority of it was written by Thomas Jefferson.
    STUDENT:
    He based, ah, based a lot of his ideas about writing it off the Enlightenment, which I think had to do with, ah, John Locke. Yesterday in class we learned about him, so all the philosophies and his beliefs I guess all are sort of incorporated into the Declaration.
    01:04:05 Students JASON:
    We’re really going to study this document from a place of looking at the ideals and the principles and the values that it represents, but we got to look at it in a historical context.
    Emma (VO) EMMA:
    Jason will walk them through a historic overview, 100 years or so, leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence, provide students with some prior knowledge about the historical context that the document was written in so they don’t just get it all of a sudden and not understand what was going on in the world when it was created.
    Jason, Students JASON:
    I know for me it’s really helpful when I’m reading history to have some visual aid, to sort of understand how much time passes. So, what you’re looking at is a really rough timeline of events, starting in 1607. All of a sudden, salutary neglect is over. Now, England is calling upon the colonists to pay heavy taxes, to put soldiers in their homes. They’re sort of imposing on them while the colonists are feeling like we have no representation in this government to decide these things. And then you really get the first Continental Congress. And what’s the first Continental Congress?
    01:05:00 Students STUDENT:
    It was just a congress, um, all 13 colonies were present except for Georgia. Georgia came with the second. They all came together so that they could draft a declaration claiming that the intolerable acts were, um, unconstitutional.
    Jason, Emma, Students JASON:
    I want to ask a follow-up question. Who didn’t write it? Who wasn’t present?
    STUDENT:
    They were all white.
    EMMA:
    Thank you.
    STUDENT:
    Yeah, there were no women either.
    EMMA:
    Thank you.
    Emma (VO)

    SOCIAL CONTRACT
    RIGHT TO REVOLUTION
    POPULAR SOVEREIGNTY
    NATURAL RIGHTS EMMA:
    Then we will hand out the Declaration of Independence itself and remind students of the themes that we want them to be thinking about by looking at the graphic organizer that we’re going to hand out with the Declaration of Independence. That highlights four themes in particular, the social contract, the right to revolution, popular sovereignty and natural rights.
    01:05:44 Jason (VO) JASON:
    And then as a class we model how do you read and annotate one part of this document?
    Students STUDENT:
    Hobbes said that men are all created equal but they make their own differences. Laying its foundation on such principles.
    Jason, Students JASON:
    Just in this one sentence, point out some really specific words, passages, phrases and what connections you’re making to them? Paige?
    PAIGE:
    It becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another. Ah, it’s, that connects to the right to revolt.
    STUDENT:
    I’d circle where it says just the first time when it says the course of human events because it makes it sound like it’s going to happen no matter what. Like there’s no way of avoiding it. It’s just a way to, how like human nature is.
    Emma (INTV) EMMA:
    I think the lesson really works is because the students, almost the whole class, are actually the ones that are, um, constructing their own knowledge and sharing what they know and teaching one another.
    Emma, Jason, Students STUDENT:
    They’re asking for their independence that’s, you know, no walk in the park. I’ve, you know, written uh, an email to someone before to apologize. I don’t just say, “Oh, I’m sorry. I hope you’ll forgive me.” You’re… You know, you’re spelling everything out. You want to show your sincerity, and I will, in that letter, in my email, I showed my sincerity in a sad way. But they’re showing their sincerity that they really, they mean business.
    01:07:03 Student STUDENT:
    I don’t like it any more. I don’t want to be involved like another second. I don’t like you because you did this, this, this, and so I don’t want to be affiliated with you anymore.
    Emma, Jason, Students EMMA:
    They’re severing their ties to them completely so that they can, as you were saying, like so they actually can create their own forms of government, their own political bands, their own political ties. So, this is basically them saying we want to break our reliance on you as our government. You, meaning Great Britain. We’re breaking up with you.
    STUDENT:
    Okay.
    EMMA:
    I can’t think of a better way to say it.
    STUDENT:
    Got it.
    EMMA:
    We’re breaking up with you, okay, that’s what they’re saying here, right.
    01:07:38 Emma (VO) EMMA:
    I absolutely think giving them small pieces and really guiding them, especially through the introduction, through the complex language, so they start to feel like they’re understanding what is happening thematically and, um, linguistically in the piece, so they’re actually understanding the vocabulary in it, ah, is important. I think the way, um, the lesson, such as the one that we did, really works is because the students, almost the whole class, are actually the ones that are um, constructing their own knowledge and-and sharing what they know and teaching one another.
    Emma EMMA:
    So this is a remarkable document, a momentous occasion in history, and at the same time not entirely just, because it’s leaving out some voices.
    Emma, Students EMMA:
    We’re hoping how we can extend the lesson that we did today is to invite students either to write a response from England; also to add to the letter to include the actual grievances but make them, you know, modernized.
    Jason, Students JASON:
    We would like you to just very briefly write how did today’s examination of the Declaration of Independence influence your thoughts, inspire any thoughts about our essential question?
    01:08:44 Emma (VO) EMMA:
    By talking about what does it mean to be an American, I think that helps connect to this document.
    Jason (VO) JASON:
    When you get at the themes, when you get at the content they’re able to make those connections pretty quickly.
    Emma (VO) EMMA:
    And so I think that really makes the lesson successful and keeps them engaged.
    01:09:00 With special thanks Emma Katznelson, Jason David and the staff and students at Wildwood School
    CREDITS
    Wingspan Pictures Logo [music]
    01:09:10 Fade to black

School Details

Wildwood School
11811 West Olympic Boulevard
Los Angeles CA 90064
Population: 713

Data Provided By:

greatschools

Teachers

Jason David
Emma Katznelson

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