Being An American ELL

The Declaration of Independence (ELL)

Clock Two fifty-minute class periods

In this lesson, students will explore the structure, purpose, and significance of the Declaration of Independence. Students will analyze the concepts of inalienable or natural rights and government by consent to begin to understand the philosophical foundations of America’s constitutional government.

Founding Principles

Consent of the Governed image

Consent of the Governed

The government's power is only justified when its power comes from the will or approval of the people.

Equality image

Equality

Every individual is equal to every other person in regards to natural rights and treatment before the law.

Inalienable / Natural Rights image

Inalienable / Natural Rights

Freedoms which belong to us by nature and can only be justly taken away through due process.

Liberty image

Liberty

Except where authorized by citizens through the Constitution, the government does not have the authority to limit freedom.

Overview

In this lesson, students will explore the structure, purpose, and significance of the Declaration of Independence. Focusing on the most famous phrases of the Declaration, students will analyze the concepts of inalienable rights and government by consent. Finally, students will begin to understand the philosophical foundations of America’s constitutional government.

Quotes

The object of the Declaration of Independence … [was] not to find out new principles, or new arguments, never before thought of, not merely to say things which had never been said before; 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 are compelled to take. - Thomas Jefferson (1825)

On the distinctive principles of the Government ...of the United States, the best guides are to be found in...the Declaration of Independence, as the fundamental Act of Union of these States. - James Madison (1825)

Critical Engagement Questions

Why is the idea of “consent of the governed” so important in the Declaration of Independence? What does the idea of “consent of the governed” tell us about American beliefs?

Objectives

Students will:

  • Examine the famous phrases of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Understand the purpose and structure of the Declaration of Independence.
  • Understand that individuals inherently have rights.
  • Understand that legitimate government depends on the consent of the governed.
  • Appreciate the constitutional principles of liberty and government by consent.

Materials

Handouts may have two versions. Version 1 is at a higher level than Version 2.

  • Handout A: The Declaration of Independence
  • Handout B: Key Excerpts (Version 1 and 2)
  • Handout C: Structure of the Declaration
  • Handout D: The Declaration, the Founders, and Slavery (Versions 1 and 2)
  • Handout E: Slavery Essay
  • Handout F: Comparing the Second Civil Treatise of Government by John Locke and the Declaration of Independence (Versions 1 and 2)
  • Handout G: Glossary
  • Handout H: Close Reading Test

Background 10 minutes the day before

  1. Tell students that you will focus on some of the most famous phrases of the Declaration of Independence. Distribute and display Handout B: Key Excerpts.
  2. Have students read the excerpt individually or in small groups, and ask them to underline what they believe are the key terms and/or phrases. Then discuss the questions as a large group.
  3. Resources for extending discussion on questions 7 and 8 from Handout B can be found on Handout D: The Declaration, the Founders, and Slavery.

Warm-up 20 minutes

Divide the class into pairs or trios. Distribute Handout A: The Declaration of Independence and Handout C: The Structure of the Declaration to each group.

  1. Assign each group one section of the Declaration to focus on. Additionally, all groups should do the signature section. Note: You may wish to divide the Indictment section in half between two groups because of its length.
  2. Have students skim their sections of the Declaration and record the key ideas for their sections on the Handout in their own words.

Activities 60 minutes combined

Activity I – 30 minutes

  1. Use an enlarged copy of Handout C: The Structure of the Declaration (Version 1) on the board or interactive white board, and ask students to share their responses. Once the chart is complete, ask students:
    • What is the purpose of each section?
    • What is a grievance?
    • Why include a long list of grievances?
    • What was the reason for pointing out that the colonists had tried to get the King to change the way he treated them?
    • Which do you believe is the most important section? Why?
  2. Have students read and complete Handout D: The Declaration, the Founders, and Slavery (Version 1 or 2) and/or Handout E: Slavery Essay.
    • Hold a class discussion about the role of slavery in the Founding Era.

 

Activity II – 30 Minutes

  1. In small groups, have students complete Handout F: Compare John Locke’s Second Civil Treatise of Government to the Declaration of Independence (Version 1 or 2).
  2. After the activity is complete, have a large group discussion about the questions students answered on Handout F. Ask students if the ideas of liberty, equality, property, and consent of the governed change over time? If so, how? If not, why not?

Wrap-up 20 minutes

  1. Ask students to share their personal responses to the Declaration by answering the following questions on a sheet of paper as a “ticket out the door” activity:
    • As Americans, should we be proud of the Declaration? Why or why not?
    • Are the principles of inalienable rights and government by consent in the Declaration outdated, or are they still true today?
    • Do these principles matter to you? If so, how and why?
    • What have you learned about other historical documents and people that have been influenced by the Declaration of Independence?
  2. Have students complete Handout H: Close Reading Test.

Homework

  1. Using Handout A as a guide, have students draw an illustration for each section of the Declaration of Independence. Illustrations should symbolically represent the section’s content and purpose.
  2. Have students select a signer of the Declaration of Independence. Have them research the person’s biography and prepare that person’s resume to share with the class. Students can begin their research at: www.BillofRightsInstitute.org.
  3. Have students discuss the significance of the Declaration of Independence with their families and write a paragraph about what they discussed.

Extensions

  1. Have students read Abraham Lincoln’s “Gettysburg Address,” the Declaration of Sentiments, and/or Martin Luther King’s “I Have A Dream” speech. How do these documents show the ideas of the Declaration of Independence’s influence throughout American history?
  2. Have students work in groups of three to investigate ways in which the Declaration of Independence has been embraced by later individuals throughout American history. How have leaders like Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Frederick Douglass, and others referenced the Declaration as they worked to expand the blessings of liberty? Groups should create a Declaration timeline to highlight historical documents and events in which the Declaration played a part.

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