Declaring Independence with Style & Collaboration

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SWBAT objectively translate the complex sentence structure and language of the Declaration of Independence into simpler, more modern language by working collaboratively on a shared whole-class Google Doc.

Big Idea

Using collaboration to analyze the Declaration of Independence, one of the greatest collaborations of all time, is an irony not lost on me!

Lesson Overview

Last period, students gave me some extremely insightful suggestions for improving their participation and understanding of complex texts, so today we're going to try out a few of those strategies as we analyze the Declaration of Independence!  We are finishing up our unit on the literature of the early Americans, and we have built a substantial base of reading strategies, learning habits, and student confidence along the way.  While it's always a little nerve-wracking to try things that are completely new and different, I am confident that today's use of a collaborative Google Doc to take notes while reading in class will help students focus more on the task at hand and allow a deeper level of critical thinking.  The best case scenario for today is increased student comprehension and class participation, along with a reduced sense of stress for me as students step up to take more control over the discussion and more accountability for their learning.  The worst case scenario is that the collaborative document idea maintains our current path of success but improves class commitment to learning since I was willing to take a leap of faith, listen, and put into action their suggestions on how to improve the class.  No risk, no reward, right?


25 minutes

Students will begin this hour by taking a department-mandated benchmark test.  This year we are collectively preparing to meet the challenges of the PARCC assessment in the coming year, and we are still navigating the best ways to gather and utilize data to inform our curriculum on a larger level.  Our online textbook, The American Experience: Prentice Hall Literature Online, Common Core Edition, offers beginning of the year, middle of the year, and end of the year assessments and twelve benchmark assessments.  Grades 9-12 use this series of text, so we decided to try using this data to increase student achievement.  This year these assessments are not entered into the gradebook for student progress, but they are used to measure progress formatively and inform departmental discussions on how to improve instruction.  I use the information to give me a better idea of skills that need to be retaught or as preassessments, depending on when they are administered.  

Motivating students to take these assessments seriously has posed a challenge for some of my colleagues, since students are aware that their numeric scores have no value in terms of academic grade.  However, with the large focus on learning styles, personalized study habits, and student involvement in guiding instruction in my classroom, my students are much more receptive of these assessments.  I will introduce this first benchmark assessment by being honest and open about the purpose and value of such assessments.  Then, I will explain that I will be using the feedback to guide what I teach them in the future.  I will employ humor (as I usually do!) to further encourage them to do their best, because "they better [they] do, the less I talk!"  This has previously worked like a charm, and I expect it will do so again.  When I get their results, I will also review their growth indicators with them to continue helping them understand where their personal strengths and weaknesses lie.  

Since students will finish this assessment at different speeds, I will place the codes for students to join my ClassDojo class on my website for them to use to create accounts and personalize their avatars.  Students will be able to track their participation goals in real-time using this application, and I will have an easy-to-access record of student participation and behavior to share with parents at conferences as a talking point.  If students finish this project early, they will be encouraged to look at the Collaborative Google Doc we will be using today to "translate" the Declaration of Independence and add rules that they think will be useful for guiding our collaborative behavior.


Building Knowledge

45 minutes

Once all students have finished their required benchmark assessments, we will come together as a class to discuss the rules that have been posted so far in the Declaration of Independence Collaborative Google Doc.  I will allow the students who suggested rules to explain their rules, and the rest of the class will agree upon the rule or modify it so they do.  Duplicate rules will be deleted, and we will add consequences for rule-breaking as necessary.  This entire activity was created in response to student suggestion, so I want to make sure they are in the driver's seat for setting up the terms of this activity.  I will also make sure that I agree with the rules, as ultimately, I will be the one delivering the more severe consequences for improper participation or behavior.  From our discussion last class period, however, I feel very comfortable going into this activity that students are ready to own the structure and rules of their discussions.  The Common Core asks students to participate in a variety of discussion contexts, but it also wants students in charge of creating and enforcing rules for keeping those discussions fair, so this assignment will be great practice for taking this kind of individual accountability and ownership in a group project.

Once the framework for the Declaration of Independence Collaborative Document has been created, I will explain my idea for structuring student participation for today.  As usual, students will be required to both read aloud, suggest summaries, and answer questions related to the text.  However, since the sentences are so incredibly long at the start of the Declaration, I will only ask students to read part of a sentence for translation to avoid overwhelming students.  Also, while I usually employ popcorn reading, readers will be selected in an alternating order, row by row.  with one student reading a portion of the sentence phrase sectioned off with punctuation and the next student summarizing that section of the text and typing it into the collaborative document.  I want to make sure that students will be able to practice reading fluency and that my summarizing students are able to have ample time to note their translations with the wording they choose.  I am excited about the potential for all students to have a beautiful translation of the document, structured participation opportunities, and mental freedom to address the deeper questions posed in response to the text rather than using their mental energy to simply copy material.  After clarifying these expectations, we will watch a brief clip from the History Channel, "America the Story of Us: Declaration of Independence," to activate prior knowledge and give students a better framework to understand the gravity of the document, the scope of the effects of the work, and the audience in which it is directed.  They will use this information to better inform their discussion of the work later in the period.  This video also does a nice job of exposing students to words like "inalienable" which would otherwise trip them up while reading.

The collaborative document addresses one big area that students suggested they needed help with last time (less distracted note-taking), but this activity is also structured to provide students with repeated modeling and practice of reading strategies to address complex text.  Over and over again, students will determine how far they can (or should) read to maximize comprehension using structural elements like commas, colons, and semi-colons to guide their dissection.  They will then practice translating the text piece by piece to make it easier to input and process mentally.  At the end of each paragraph, I will ask the class to summarize the main idea of that paragraph (verbally only, not written within the document) to demonstrate the difference between translating documents and creating a concise summary of the main idea.  

While students only have to verbally participate twice and will probably only have to type ideas once or twice, I really believe this method will better mentally-engage students.  It's what I will explain as the "Jeopardy! Effect," which is the idea that when questions are asked and you are waiting for someone to answer it, you almost can't help yourself but to contemplate the answer yourself.  This happens to me with the silly radio games all the time on the way to work.  This has a duplicitous effect--students are all actively considering the text, and students are also likely building confidence in their answers, as I think we are all a little more confident in our thoughts when we're not on the proverbial "hot seat" for an answer!  Even students in the "hot seat" benefit from this activity because they get the immediate coaching they need to decode text, and all students benefit from listening to the process repeated over the duration of the class.

In this manner, we will read up to the lengthy paragraph about "combin[ing] with others" to take "jurisdiction" over the colonists.  Along the way, I will ask students a variety of questions and encourage students to ask their own questions to the text and to their peers so that we can discuss them.

  • Why do you think the sentences in this are SO long?  Does it hurt the argument?  Why or Why not?
  • Does it surprise you that they decide to list the reasons that they are separating from Britain?  What does this suggest about the audience?
  • What does "prudence" mean?  How do you know?
  • How about "transient"?  What does that mean and how do you know?
  • Who is the intended audience for this declaration?  What evidence leads you to believe this?  Use information from both the declaration and earlier video to support your reasoning.
  • Who is the "He" which starts off every line in the middle section?
  • Who is being referred to as "we" or "us" or "our" in this section?
  • Why does it make sense that the King isn't allowing people to travel to the colonies?
  • How is our government set up to prevent a leadership situation that would allow the judicial branch to be controlled by the President?
  • What is special about how Supreme Court justices are elected and how they serve their terms?  Why is this?  Do you think this is necessary?  Support your case with examples or comparisons to other offices.
  • What type of argumentative structure do you see employed in what we've read so far?
  • Can someone point out an example of repetition in this section?  How about restatement?  How do these devices effect the reader differently?
  • Can you point out examples of anaphora?  Any rhetorical questions?
  • Why does it make sense that there are no rhetorical questions in this document, but there are a million of them in the Patrick Henry speech?
  • Why is it so important that parallelism is used in this document?  Use examples to illustrate your point.


15 minutes

After our group translation and discussion, students will have the remainder of the hour to work independently on this assignment.  In order to do this, students will use the "Make a Copy" feature within Google Docs to add a copy of the collaborative translation to their shared folders, then begin working independently in the same manner employed throughout the hour.  I will emphasize that this is a translation, not just a summary, meant to better aid students' comprehension of the text.  I will suggest that students mentally summarize each paragraph or main ideas of the declaration in general before coming to class next time.  


5 minutes

In the last minutes of class, I will ask students how they felt about today's instructional methods.  My goal is to gather feedback about the implementation of their suggestions from last class period and to determine if they felt like their suggestion for the collaborative document was ultimately effective for increasing class participation and student comprehension.  I will encourage students to be open and honest in this closing so that I can alter plans and make adjustments if they need to be made.  

Next Steps

For homework, students will complete reading and translating the Declaration of Independence.  They must make sure this document is in their shared folders, complete, and reviewed before they arrive to the next class period in order to participate from the very beginning of the lesson.