Resources for Teachers

We're asking educators from across the country to share their stories of teaching the Declaration of Independence!
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Laurie Delaney Teacher Profile

How did Laurie teach the Declaration of Independence? "I began by providing my students with parchment copies of the Declaration. I pointed out 's' looking like an 'f,' signatures, anything that caught their attention. I collected the parchment copies, and distributed to each student a typed copy, 4 pages, back to back. I also provided 4 highlighter colors. With the first color, we highlighted most of the first paragraph and then labeled it, Intro. Through guided discussion, we determined that it was Jefferson's topic sentence: When one group of people must break away from another group, common courtesy requires that they announce why they are doing so. With another color, we highlighted key phrases in the next paragraph and labeled it, Ideals. In a perfect world, Jefferson believed that all people are equal, they have rights given by God, and the purpose of governments is to protect those rights. Those rights cannot be taken away. In a third section, labeled Logic, we highlighted the lines that explain that it is our duty to change a government that harms or denies our rights time after time. In fact, it is our duty to do so. This is the first time that Jefferson names names, identifying the 13 colonies and Great Britain. In Complaints (new color), Jefferson goes on to prove it by listing a host of wrongs committed by the King. I asked students to highlight the intro of each wrong: each 'He has' and each 'by.' They were to count them and should have found 27 complaints. That should prove Jefferson's long train of abuses. I selected several complaints and we discussed their meanings or origins, such as quartering, taxation without representation, etc. Back with the Ideal color, we highlighted the key phrase that follows the complaints, that the King is unfit to be the leader of a free people. Finally, with the Intro color again, we highlighted the Conclusion, where Jefferson makes his grand, final announcement that the colonists are free from England. In fact, he says it three times! I divided the class into five groups, corresponding to the five sections: Intro, Ideals, Logic, Complaints, and Conclusion. Each group wrote their section in their own words (keeping complaints to 5). When ready, one student would dictate the section to me, while I transcribed it on a long sheet of butcher paper. If possible, I showed the Declaration signing scene from 1776, then invited students to come forward to sign their class copy. I displayed the scroll appropriately. To check for understanding, I prepared a worksheet with phrases in the Declaration and asked students to explain or rewrite them."


Jennifer Egas Teacher Profile

How does Jennifer teach the Declaration of Independence? "I have students dissect the document in small groups after providing the context of the Enlightenment, Great Awakening, Deism, etc. I am looking for new ways to teach the document, too!"


How Bruce Giles Teaches the Declaration of Independence

How does Bruce teach the Declaration of Independence? "We read the Declaration of Independence through the phrase that 'all men are created equal'. I then ask students whether Jefferson understood that black slaves were human beings. Many students will believe he did not. Then I provide 4 pieces of evidence for them to consider: 1) I tell them the story of Sally Hemings, her children, and the DNA testing that proves she had children with Jefferson. 2) I map out how, under colonial Virginia law, you would remain a slave even if your father, grandfather, and great grandfather were white. 3) They read the passage on slavery Jefferson wrote in the Declaration of Independence that was removed after debate. 4) We read a passage from Query XVIII of Jefferson's Notes on the States of Virginia (beginning with 'There must doubtless be an unhappy influence on the manners of our people produced by the existence of slavery among us'); I have students identify 12 words they or their classmates may not understand, and we write them on the board and brainstorm on synonyms. I then ask if any students have changed their mind — and many have, agreeing that Jefferson understood blacks to be human beings. So I ask why he did not give his 140-odd slaves freedom. As a class, we calculate the value of a slave. We do so in modern dollars, agreeing on a wage ($10 per hour is easy), days and hours worked, and probable productive life span. I then introduce them to the time value of money, to adjust for the income being produced over the person's lifetime. They will come up with a number well over a million dollars per slave. Even dividing in half to account for age differences, they will understand that Jefferson had many millions of dollars worth of slaves! So, why did he not release them?"


Ken Hoin Teacher Profile

How does Ken teach the Declaration of Independence? "I'm a strong believer in using the Declaration as the principle foundation of my 10th grade Civics class. Within the first weeks of class, I will briefly cover the Enlightenment and set up the brewing conflict with Great Britain. I will use a couple of scenes from the John Adams HBO series and then I will have my students work in pairs to paraphrase/rewrite the entire Declaration (except the list of grievances). The same groups will then be given one of 12 primary source documents that feature people or groups invoking the Declaration to advance their political or social causes (examples include Frederick Douglass' 'What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?' speech, Martin Luther King Jr.'s 'I Have a Dream' speech, the Occupy Movement manifesto). Students share their written responses to each document on a collaborative Google Doc and discuss each document in class. Each student then writes a five paragraph DBQ essay based on the following prompt: How is the Declaration an expression of the American mind?" Click to read Ken's Lesson Plan.


Kevin McElveen Teacher Profile

How does Kevin teach the Declaration of Independence? "I have my students read the Declaration for themselves. We then break down each part into modern language. We have a group discussion about why Jefferson makes the arguments that he does and then talk about what was changed and omitted from his original writing. We talk about 'All men created equal', what it meant then, what it means now. We then look at its impact around the world. We end the entire lesson with the video that is set to 'Apologize' and then they write a reflective essay."


Mark Oglesby Teacher Profile

How does Mark teach the Declaration of Independence? "In AP Government, I take an entire class to teach the Declaration even though it is not a key component of the curriculum. In regular government, I spend more time. After we have discussed Aristotle, Montesquieu, Locke, other philosophers, and the English experience in previous class(es), I utilize the Morgan Freeman video, then identify the historical and philosophical references in the document, and finish up with quotes from people in history who have used the Declaration to support their causes. I also like to bring in the Virginia Declaration of Rights for a comparison."


How Brittany Rawson Haeg Teaches the Declaration of Independence

How does Brittany teach the Declaration of Independence? "Before we read the Declaration, we read a piece from Peter Kolchin's American Slavery on slavery during the Revolutionary era. It includes an extended look at Thomas Jefferson's views on, and actions relating to slavery, and how both shifted throughout his life. This reading offers a frame for our discussions moving forward. I have the students work in sections to prepare 'reader's theater' presentations of the Declaration. After they present, we have a Socratic discussion of the values presented in the document. They next read an excerpt from William Wells Brown's novel Clotel, or the President's Daughter, which features a fictional story of a slave daughter of Jefferson's being sold at auction. The students research Jefferson and Wells Brown to five further context to the piece. Finally, students read Phillis Wheatley's 'To His Excellency, George Washington' and Washington's response, and use all five sources to write a paper on the contrast between our founding ideals vs our founding realities. It's always a highlight of the fall semester."


How Jeff Scott Teaches the Declaration of Independence

How does Jeff teach the Declaration of Independence? "I have students work in colonial committees. Students will be in groups and given a colony and must analyze the wording of the Declaration and meaning in ways that would justify/not justify their colonies' support for the Declaration of Independence. Hence, the students must research their given colony as well as the colonial representatives. By doing this deep study of the Declaration of Independence, students become more aware of just how difficult and important the wording of the document becomes."


Gregory Verch Teacher Profile

How does Gregory teach the Declaration of Independence? "I try to introduce the students to the importance of Abigail Adams to John Adams (personally and professionally). I constantly weave my teaching with clips from the miniseries John Adams, and Abigail was such a strong central character for John that I thought all my students (especially young women) needed to know about her. I use documented correspondences they sent each other (from Massachusetts Historical Society) and after going through each letter, I ask the kids to translate the letters into today's language... texting and emojis! It's a fun activity and the kids really enjoy it! The entire presentation, I have been setting up the premise that John Adams was robbed of his place in history. He was a great statesman who just didn't have the look or proper temperament to rise above such luminaries as Washington and Jefferson. I sed the point where Adams gives up control of being the primary writer of the Declaration of Independence to Jefferson as the ultimate display of unselfishness. One slide has the quote of Adams explaining to Jefferson why he should write the Declaration instead of Adams himself. I tell the kids that Adams gave up a chance at immortality because he knew Jefferson was better equipped to do the job. To give the kids a proper comparison, I called Adams 'America's Dark Knight', the hero who does his work in the shadows. I even use a clip from the final few minutes of the movie The Dark Knight. I could see the kids really connect with this comparison because many love Batman and the movie." Click to download Gregory's Slideshow as a PDF or Powerpoint


Project Example: Teaching the Declaration Through Reflection