Lesson Plan: Declaration of Independence; the Unanimous Declaration of Our Classroom Primary Source

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Lesson Plan: Declaration of Independence; the Unanimous Declaration of Our Classroom
Primary Source: Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776
Understanding Goal: Public declarations spark change.
Investigative Question: How and what does the Declaration of Independence communicate?
Overview: Investigate the Declaration of Independence through inquiry-based learning, and apply newly learned concepts through a modeling-based exercise, creating your own Classroom Declaration.
Student performance tasks:

- Students will examine and present group conclusions about specific sections of the Declaration of Independence.

- Students will apply new knowledge and write their own Classroom Declaration of Independence.
Time Required:

Two forty-minute class periods.

Standards Covered:

Virginia Standards of Learning:

Virginia Studies:

VS.1—The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis and responsible citizenship, including the ability

(d) to draw conclusions and make generalizations;

(e) to make connections between past and present;

VS.5 (a) —The student will demonstrate knowledge of the role of Virginia in the American Revolution by identifying the reasons why the colonies went to war with Great Britain, as expressed in the Declaration of Independence;

United States History I:

USI.1—The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis and responsible citizenship, including the ability to

(a) identify and interpret primary and secondary source documents to increase understanding of events and life in United States history to 1865;

(b) make connections between the past and the present;

USI.6—The student will demonstrate knowledge of the causes and results of the American Revolution by

(a) identifying the issues of dissatisfaction that led to the American Revolution;

(b) identifying how political ideas shaped the revolutionary movement in America and led to the Declaration of Independence;

(c) describing key events and the roles of key individuals in the American Revolution, with

emphasis on George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, and Patrick


Virginia and United States History

VUS.1 (a) —The student will demonstrate skills for historical and geographical analysis and responsible citizenship, including the ability to identify, analyze, and interpret primary and secondary source documents, records, and data, including artifacts, diaries, letters, photographs, journals, newspapers, historical accounts, and art, to increase understanding of events and life in the United States;

VUS.4 (b) —The student will demonstrate knowledge of events and issues of the Revolutionary Period by evaluating how key principles in the Declaration of Independence grew in importance to become unifying ideas of American democracy;

Virginia and United States Government

GOVT.2 (e) —The student will demonstrate knowledge of the political philosophies that shaped the development of Virginia and United States constitutional government by

analyzing the natural rights philosophies expressed in the Declaration of Independence;
National History Standards:

Standard 1A— Compare the arguments advanced by defenders and opponents of the new imperial policy on the traditional rights of English people and the legitimacy of asking the colonies to pay a share of the costs of empire.

Standard 1B—The student understands the principles articulated in the Declaration of Independence.
Teacher Actions (Class Period 1):
*For the handouts that go along with this lesson see the PDF lesson plan.
1. Review the events that led up to the summer of 1776. Fighting had been underway for over a year by that point. The Americans felt the need to articulate to the world the reasons behind their fight for independence. The Continental Congress selected a committee to work on such document. Members included Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Roger Sherman, and Robert R. Livingston. Jefferson was selected by the committee to compose the first draft, which was then edited by the members of the committee, and then by the Congress. The final document was the Declaration of Independence.

2. Divide the class into four groups. In order to create full participation, assign each student a role within the group: a) a reader to read the section aloud; b) a recorder to write the group's answers to the questions; c) a presenter to tell the class about their findings; d) vocabulary reader who will read off the definition of unknown words using the vocabulary sheet provided, and; e) an illustrator to create a picture of what is being discussed (i.e., a king, the colonists, symbols of independence or oppression).

3. Distribute to each group a different section of excerpted version of the Declaration of Independence included with this lesson—(1) Introduction/Preamble, (2) Indictment of the King, (3) Denunciation of the British People, and (4) the Conclusion. If you need an additional group, the Indictment of the King section can be divided between two groups. Because it is shorter, the Denunciation of the British People section can be used with students who may struggle with reading comprehension. In addition to the excerpted handouts, each group will also receive a “Positive and Negative” Word Chart.

4. Have students investigate their section of the Declaration. Each group should start by reading their section aloud, completely through the first time. The second reading can be conducted one sentence at a time. During the second reading, the recorder can write the definition of the unknown words, provided by the vocabulary reader, on the handout. Students should seek to interpret and discuss what is being described. Other reading strategies such as annolighting or think-pair-share will assist in addressing unfamiliar concepts.

5. Using their “Positive and Negative” Word Chart, the students should begin to select both negative and positive words and phrases from the document, and record them on the chart. Next they will need to come up with answers to the summary questions at the bottom of the sheet. Students should be aware that it is the information on that sheet that the presenter will be responsible for sharing.

6. Once the students have begun to make their list, pass out to each student the Declaration of Independence Summary Worksheet. Students should find the questions on the worksheet that pertain to their section of the Declaration of Independence.

7. Next the students will take turns presenting their findings. They should address the balance of negative to positive words on phrases they were able to identify in their sections. Who was the intended audience? Describe the language being used. The spokesperson will also provide for the class the answers on the Declaration of Independence Summary Worksheet that pertained to their section. All students should be individually responsible for recording this information. Once completed, the completed Declaration of Independence Summary Worksheet can serve as a study guide.
Teacher Actions (Class Period 2):

1. Begin the class with activities that will reactivate the knowledge the students gained in the previous class period. Start by reminding the class of the Understanding Goal and Investigative Question. Display an image of the painting Declaration of Independence by John Trumbull, which is in the U.S. Capitol Rotunda (http://www.aoc.gov/cc/art/rotunda/declaration_independence.cfm) and the painting of Thomas Jefferson by John Adams Elder, available on the “Shaping the Constitution” website. Also, reference Thomas Jefferson’s quote from the Jefferson Memorial:

I am not an advocate for frequent changes in laws and constitutions, but laws and institutions must go hand in hand with the progress of the human mind. As that becomes more developed, more enlightened, as new discoveries are made, new truths discovered and manners and opinions change, with the change of circumstances, institutions must advance also to keep pace with the times. We might as well require a man to wear still the coat which fitted him when a boy as civilized society to remain ever under the regimen of their barbarous ancestors.
2. Put three columns on the board: Tyrant, Abuses, and Rights. Returning to the groups from the previous day, ask students to brainstorm and come up with a list of “tyrants” and/or “abuses” that they have to contend with in their lives or in the school, and from whom they want to declare their independence. What do “abuses” involve? What are the “rights” they feel should be protected? The best examples will be based on social justice issues. For example, students could declare independence from bullies, polluters, cheaters, etc.

3. After bringing the brainstorming session to a close, have the students share their lists. Guide the discussion in order to help them to come to a consensus about which of their ideas should fill in the blanks for a Classroom Declaration. Write these ideas in the Abuses and Rights columns. At the end of the activity, only the agreed-on Tyrant, Abuses, and Rights should remain on the board.

4. Using either the text of the Classroom Declaration Worksheet or your own interpretation of the Declaration of Independence, write the text of the class's declaration. Tell the class the Declaration of Independence went through several revisions before the final product was completed. Have students edit the Classroom Declaration in order to come up with a final Classroom Declaration.

5. Once the class has agreed on the final Classroom Declaration, have students sign it, and post/publish the Classroom Declaration for all to see (either on classroom or school wall, the school newspaper, or classroom or school Web site).

6. After publishing the Classroom Declaration, select a student to read the final document to the school or class to give its first public reading (the first public reading of the actual document was in Philadelphia on July 8, 1776, where there were shouts, the ringing of bells, firing of guns, and removal of British symbols, etc). How will students in your school celebrate their Classroom Declaration of Independence?

7. To conclude, reflect on the Understanding Goal and the Investigative Question.


Now that the students have demonstrated an understanding of the Declaration of Independence by creating their own Classroom Declaration and applying concepts to a new situation:

1. What can this knowledge tell us about the lives, decisions, philosophies, and political ideas that led to self-government? How is their classroom Declaration similar to the Declaration of Independence, how is it different?

2. What observations did the students make through the process?

3. What did they learn about the decisions Thomas Jefferson and other political leaders chose to make? Did the Framers of our government have an easy task, why or why not?

4. Would you have wanted to be one of the gentlemen who wrote, or approved, the Declaration of Independence? What were the risks that they faced?

5. What kind of responsibilities did the men take on in completing this task? What are the ramifications of their decisions?

6. How are Americans today affected by what happened in 1776? What does the Declaration of Independence symbolize to present-day Americans?

For Further Reading/Study (Upper-Level Students):
Instead of using the excerpted text of the Declaration of Independence, present the students with the full text transcription and vocabulary words.
Have students research documents that set a precedent for the Declaration of Independence such as:

  • Thomas Jefferson, A Summary View of the Rights of British America

  • Richard Bland, An Inquiry into the Rights of the British Colonies

  • Thomas Paine, Common Sense

  • George Mason, Virginia Declaration of Rights, available on the “Shaping the Constitution” website

  • John Adam, Thoughts on Government

  • John Randolph, Considerations on the Present State of Virginia

  • Robert Carter Nicholas, Considerations on the Present State of Virginia Examined

  • John Locke, selected works

  • Charles-Louis de Secondat, Baron de La Brède et de Montesquieu, selected works

Use these readings as small group research projects. Give students the opportunity to compare and contrast the men’s ideas that influenced the Declaration of Independence.

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