Analyzing "The Declaration of Independence," Day One of Three

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Students will be able to determine central ideas by analyzing "The Declaration of Independence" as a whole class.

Big Idea

Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness--analyzing "The Declaration of Independence."

Biweekly Work Habits and Learning Reflection

10 minutes

This is a classroom routine which is detailed in this lesson. On our second round, students give great honesty, asking for more practice on skills they find challenging and reflecting on their own effort as a source of success or, in some cases, a source of trouble.

Do Now: Human Rights Quick Write

15 minutes

Today's Do Now is a thematic warm-up for our work with "The Declaration of Independence." I ask students to write about human rights--what are they? What can we do when they are violated?

I field an interesting question while students write: when do rights begin, conception or birth? Whew, this could lead to a heated discussion. I try to answer without leading students to my beliefs, saying simply that the question is one of great debate. I encourage my student to make her own decision.

After four minutes (it's a quick write, after all), I ask the class to arrange themselves in a large circle (which really looks more like a square--perhaps we need to revisit geometry). Groans sound, but I remind students that discussion works best when we can see each other, face to face.

I introduce our discussion helper for the day, a globe stress ball. My class can be chatty about the issues we discuss, to the point of devolving into ten small group discussions. The world, as I call the globe stress ball, will help us stay focused together. Only he (or she) who holds the world may speak (cue the "whole world in my hands" song). The speaker shares and then chooses the next "victim" to share, and I encourage them to send the world to students who have not yet participated.

We hear from nearly half the class before I call the world back. A variety of perspectives float around the room: rights as universal or specific to the United States; fighting or fixing the government; rights at conception or at birth; rights in relation to other people's rights, and more. We probably could have continued on, but the last student offered such a beautiful segue, I couldn't help but move them on. He referenced wording from "The Declaration" in his reasoning, and so we moved on with thoughts of rights ripe in our heads.

Analyzing "The Declaration of Independence"

20 minutes

I would imagine every student in the United States learns about "The Declaration" starting in elementary school, giving them the belief that they "already know it." Experience, though, says otherwise. Year after year, my students find the text of the "The Declaration" to be more challenging than expected and their memories not quite so good at pulling what was important as they thought. The result? I take my time when reading the text, allowing students to process one of our most important foundational texts slowly and thoroughly. They need to know its ideas and proof, rhetoric and purpose.

For an overview of the reading strategy I use for tough text, check out the following video:

I ask students to open the text in a note-taking app (pen and paper notes will also suffice) so they can mark up the text, and I explain that after each paragraph, I want them to write a brief summary (what's the paragraph about) and make a comment (ask a question, make a connection, analyze a quote, or offer an opinion). We'll use these quick notes to help make a full understanding of the text.

I read the opening paragraph, putting emphasis on key words with volume and tone, and ask students to take four minutes to write their notes. I meander to check for engagement as they write. Some students have the "lost and confused" look, so I pause to ask how I can help.

"I don't get it."

"Did you try applying the reading strategies," I ask.

"Well, no, but I don't get it."

"Apply the reading strategies," I say with a smile (inside I might be shouting a little--there was a reason we reviewed reading strategies at the start of the year, after all). With some further grumbling, they apply the reading strategies.

After four minutes, I ask for hands off iPads. I explain that we're working together to make meaning--it's okay if we only share small bits of information at a time. This takes some pressure off students who feel unsure of their responses. I pass the world (see the Do Now for the scoop on the world) to a student who has not yet spoken during class, and we begin our discussion of the paragraph.

Some students are only able to pull a key noun, so I ask others to build or add on. They add nouns to nouns, ideas to nouns, and, eventually, ideas to ideas. After five minutes, the key ideas have all been aired. I pull the world back to synthesize their shares, instructing students to write down the ideas they didn't yet have.

Paragraph two, repeat the above.

We only read two paragraphs today, mostly due to time constraints. Of course, even if we had more time, I would have moved us onto another activity. Twenty minutes on one challenging activity is enough; any more time can lead to feelings of ill will, and ill will does nothing positive for a classroom. Avoid the ill will. Mix it up.