Analyzing a Primary Document: Declaration of Independence

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TSWBAT examine the Declaration of Independence using a Written Document Analysis resource.

Big Idea

Historical documents are meant to be studied, not just admired!

Warm Up

10 minutes

Viewing Video Short of "John Adams"We are on the brink of concluding our "Colonists in Crisis" unit at the onset of this activity, and the students have been irritated throughout.  Between the unfair (and relentless) taxing in the classroom, and the 'never seemed to stick' repeal of taxes (causing false celebrations), they are primed for this activity.

I begin by discussing the role the Declaration of Independence played in the American Revolution.  When the question is initially posed, some of the responses I get are surprising.  A lot of kids don't realize that Declaring independence is wholly different than Gaining independence.  This distinction leads to rich discussion as they become aware that THIS is the reason we had to have a war.  Although the colonists were angry at many things, including "Taxation without Representation," The fact that we decided we WANTED to be free of England, but COULDN'T be free of England, really began to resonate.

I have the kids complete Writing Out Personal T-Charts a T-Chart  with the categories:

What I Want      -------      How I Gain It

cell phone                   good grades

<Student Contributing to Warm Up Students come to Smart Board Warm Up Classand give about five ideas> T-Chart Student Example #1...T-Chart Student Example #2

I then relate the T-Chart to colonists declaring their independence from England and the fact that they couldn't just "DECLARE," they had to "WIN" that independence.  I write it on the chart.

*Independence from England*                   *Go to war with England* 

At this point, I determine their comprehension then introduce the video short of "John Adams" from the HBO miniseries.  Viewing Video Short of "John Adams"


I remind them that these delegates were doing nothing short of committing treason, and it was a very tense situation as they voted for or against supporting a declaration of independence.

A short discussion follows the video short (along with cries of, "Please show another part!!") Pointing out the fact that usually when something is voted on with a 12-0-1 tally, there are cheers of success.  Instead, in this video the delegates are extremely quiet and solemn.  I pose that question to the students and feel satisfaction when they parrot back to me the fact that these men were putting their lives in danger as they committed this treasonous act.  We are truly "warmed up" for the main part of the lesson.


30 minutes

With transcribed copies of the Delaration of Independence on-hand, the students are ready to tackle the document with the Written Document Analysis resource. Here is a second version.  The students work in their groups Working Collaboratively or independently Working Independently if they wish, to analyze the words Analyzing the Document of the Declaration of Independence; write Writing Preliminary Information and share ideas about what they're looking at. 

I expected them to have a lot more questions than they did because this was the first time we analyzed a document.  After going over some of the initial questions, however, they were fine on their own.  For lower level readers, an excellent alternative is using The Declaration of Independence by Sam Fink, which presents them with the words, but includes illustrations, and definitions in an engaging way.  I moved around to the groups of kids and monitored their discussion and responses.  Some of them preferred to use the version in their textbook. Using a Textbook Copy to Analyze The most difficult issue was answering multi-question problems.  A few of the questions had more than one thing in the same question.  Usually, this isn't a big deal...I think the second part of a question probably went unanswered because the students were concentrating on how to read the sometimes difficult wording in the document.  Student Document Analysis Example

As a conclusion to the application, I invite students to stand in front of the Declaration of Independence Discussing the Analysis and share their findings.  There were fewer volunteers than usual, and fewer still who wanted to be videotaped as they presented.  This is atypical for the group by this time in the year, so I attribute it to the uncertainty of not knowing, "if they did it right," since it's a new activity for them.


15 minutes


The final activity is for the kids to come up to the life-sized copy More Signers Lining Up of the Declaration of Independence for the opportunity to sign Signing the Declaration of Independence (parchment paper is taped below it) with a fully plumed quill and ink.  They fully enjoy signing Signing the Declaration after The Spill although if not careful, the ink will flow...  This is open to my Patriots and Loyalists alike.  If a student does NOT wish to sign the Declaration, Oh, no! Will he remain loyal to King George III? the alternative is to sign the letter to King George III Decision Made! reassuring their loyalty to England.  This is written on plain white copy paper and signed with a regular pen.  It's my best attempt to get the whole class to sign the Declaration of Independence, although there have been years when my Loyalists will absolutely NOT commit treason.

The students need to feel the purpose of developing skills to navigate through a primary source document.  I encourage them to try and see things from the historical point of view of the time by reminding them that each of the colonial leaders were men desperately wanting to change things, but doing so at their own peril.  (To simulate this, I should have threatened to take away recess or something else that wouldn't get me in hot water if they signed.  I will do so next year.)  This activity increases engagement, ownership, and understanding of the content.

After they sign, they complete the final entry in their Colonist Journal Beginning Colonist Journal July 4th Entry and describe what it was like to sign either of the "documents."  This, of course won't be the historically accurate moment I was going for in most of their journal entries, but it's a neat experience that I want them to record.


To mimic the format of the Founding Fathers Declaration of Independence vote, ours was:

24 signed Dec of Independence        2 remained loyal to KGIII       2 students absent


It was a worthwhile activity that challenged my students on how to read a historical document, enriched their understanding of the importance of the Declaration of Independence, and gave them confidence in their ability to be successful with the experience.