5th Grade Declaration of Independence Inquiry Why Do Countries Declare Independence?



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Content, Practices, and Literacies


A strong inquiry interweaves factual content with the social studies practices and skills students must use in order for meaningful learning to occur. The formative performance tasks in this inquiry are designed to build students’ content knowledge about the Declaration of Independence and other such declarations in the Western Hemisphere. Collectively, the four formative performance tasks call on students to work with a variety of social studies practices as they deepen their understanding of the Declaration of Independence and other such declarations in the Western Hemisphere. All four formative performance tasks call on students to engage in the social studies practice of Gathering, Using, and Interpreting Evidence as they examine the structure and ideas within the Declaration of Independence. The fourth formative performance task also prompts students to use the practice of Comparison and Contextualization as they examine other declarations of independence in the Western Hemisphere and consider the similarities and differences between those declarations and the United States Declaration of Independence.

Teaching with complex primary source documents requires a balancing act between historical authenticity and relevance to students’ lives, especially in elementary classrooms. The Declaration of Independence as the source for these formative performance tasks puts that balancing act in stark relief. The words in the Declaration of Independence are inspirational and iconic. However, the text is intellectually dense and includes words and phrases students might not understand on a first read. Complicating matters, classroom teachers must deal with a wide range of student skills, background knowledge, and reading levels. The words in the Declaration of Independence matter, but if the complexity of those words prevents students from understanding the ideas, little is gained. Thus, while this inquiry includes the full text of the Declaration of Independence in its original form, teachers are encouraged to consider modifying text to meet the needs of their students.

Evident across the formative performance tasks is increasing complexity of thinking. The first task prompts students to describe the philosophical ideas of national sovereignty and natural rights found in part 1 of the Declaration of Independence. The second task asks students to rank the grievances found in part 2. In the third formative performance task, students deepen their understanding again, this time by rewriting the argument made in part 3 of the Declaration of Independence in their own words, while incorporating the basic structure and key ideas from the original text. The fourth formative performance task asks students to apply what they have learned about the United States Declaration of Independence in an examination of other independence declarations in the Western Hemisphere.

The New York State P–12 Common Core Learning Standards for English Language Arts & Literacy offer social studies teachers numerous opportunities to integrate literacy goals and skills into their social studies instruction. The Common Core supports the inquiry process through reading rich informational texts, writing evidence-based arguments, speaking and listening in public venues, and using academic vocabulary to complement the pedagogical directions advocated in the New York State K–12 Social Studies Framework. At the end of this inquiry is an explication of how teachers might integrate literacy skills throughout the content, instruction, and resource decisions they make.


Staging the Compelling Question


Compelling Question

Why do countries declare independence?

Featured Source

Source A: Breakup letter from the American colonists to King George III

This staging activity requires a bit of playful subterfuge on behalf of the teacher. To introduce students to the notion of independence as a breakup of sorts, the teacher may write out a fake handwritten breakup letter modeled after the three-part structure of the Declaration of Independence (the text of such a letter is supplied as Featured Source A). The letter will likely grab students’ attention and get them thinking about the act of breaking up.

Before students enter the room, the teacher should crumble up the handwritten letter and place it inconspicuously on the floor as if it were accidently left by a student. After the students arrive, the teacher should then pretend to discover the note and then read it aloud as if a student in the class wrote it. After reading the note to the class, the teacher can then reveal the real author of the note—the American colonists—and explain the nature of the Declaration of Independence as the most notorious and influential breakup letter ever written. Teachers may encourage students to view the document through the context of this breakup letter throughout the inquiry.

As an additional staging, the teacher may have students complete a pre-reading guide to the Declaration of Independence. The guide (found in Appendix C) makes use of a think-pair-share structure to activate students’ knowledge through the use of prediction.

Staging the Compelling Question


Featured Source

Source A: Eric Langhorst, a fabricated breakup letter from the American colonists to King George III, “Teaching the Declaration of Independence as a Break Up Letter - Podcast and Video,” Speaking of History blog, October 30, 2008.

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