“We just gloss over the Declaration of Independence at our school. The words are just too hard for my 5th graders to understand.” I’m sure you can imagine the look on my face. It was a mixture of shock and sadness. The Declaration of Independence is more than a dusty old document. It’s a time capsule full of information about how early Americans were treated badly and taken for granted by King George III and England. Teaching the Declaration is one of the highlights of my school year! It’s a document that was written in the midst of a turbulent time and helped to develop a new nation. Thomas Jefferson took on the monumental task of crafting a document that listed the colonists’ justification for breaking away from the Mother Country. The Second Continental Congress approved and signed this document after they had tried every manner of reconciliation with England but received nothing in return. I always have fun teaching American history but the Declaration of Independence is certainly one of my very favorite topics. I sincerely hope that you gain some new ideas and teaching strategies that will help you to bring this document to life in your classroom!
Break the Preamble into small, meaningful pieces!
The Preamble to the Declaration of Independence explains why the document was written. It is also the most recognizable part of the document. If you present the entire preamble to students at once, they are undoubtedly going to feel overwhelmed. To make my students feel successful with the Preamble, I create a chart with them and we discuss the meaning of each phrase, one at a time. We use interactive notebooks, so we created a chart together in our notebooks. However, this would also make an amazing anchor chart.
I do point out to my 5th graders that the phrase, “All men are created equal,” meant something different to our founding fathers than it means to us. I emphasize that TODAY, we interpret this phrase as everyone, all men and women, are created equal, no matter their race, religion, etc. Our founding fathers had a very narrow view of “All men.” Their interpretation of this phrase was “All free, white men who owned property.” African Americans, women, Native Americans, indentured servants, poor white men, no one else was included. I do point out the irony of this document. While complaining that they are not being treated fairly, many of the men who signed this document owned slaves. It creates quite a class discussion.
Discuss the grievances contained in the Declaration of Independence
A “grievance” is a complaint and the colonists certainly had a plethora of complaints against Mother England. In fact, the majority of the Declaration of Independence contained complaints. Remember, this document was a justification to the world of why the colonists had every right to sever ties with England. When discussing grievances with my 5th graders, I choose the ones that will make the most connections to their lives and/or what we’ve learned about so far in the year. There are some grievances with complicated meanings, so I only choose a few to discuss with students. In my opinion, 5th graders need a firm understanding of a few of the important grievances to help them grasp the meaning of the entire document. Create this chart with your students to help them learn about some of the grievances and see the connections between what happened in colonial days and why each grievance was included.
One more thing… to make the word “grievance” an everyday word, I start to use the word myself. If you’ve worked with 5th graders at all, you know that they have complaints about various things from time to time, or maybe all the time, depending on the mix of personalities in your classroom. I just throw the word “grievance” in there when helping students to resolve their issues. “Rebecca, Jake has a grievance against you. He says you took the lead from his mechanical pencil without asking. How will we resolve this grievance?” Yes, they’ll look at you like you have two heads, at first, but then they’ll start using the word themselves. The best way for students to learn new vocabulary is by integrating their word into their everyday language.
Show a music video
Seriously, guys, this short music video is a treasure. I get goose bumps when I watch it. “Too Late to Apologize” is a song parody that features Thomas Jefferson singing about the Declaration of Independence and the reasons he wrote it. I show this video the first time and stop every little bit to explain things, like why they make King George III look so “yucky.” I point out the stamp from the Stamp Act. We try to guess which founding father each guy is portraying. For example, Sam Adams is the one with the beer mug because his family owned a brewery. Then, I show the video the second time all the way through without stopping. Students will beg me to watch this video every day for the rest of the year. We do watch it many more times because I love it and it does a good job reinforcing the strong feelings of our founding fathers.
The Declaration of Independence is a break-up letter!
I have yet to meet a 5th grade class that doesn’t love a bit of drama. I will admit it… I have more fun with this activity than a teacher probably should! However, I can promise that you will have all eyes and ears when you share this pretend break-up letter with your class!
After discussing the parts of the Declaration, I start the next class with the break-up letter. I use the text on the letter below. However, I write out the letter on a sheet of notebook paper and crumple it to make it look like a student-written note. In an irritated manner, I inform the class that I found a note on the floor and I don’t appreciate students passing notes in my class…blah…blah. I tell them that since I’m tired of them writing notes, I’m going to start reading them aloud, starting with the one I found. When I read the note aloud, a hush falls over the room and students hang on every word. They are trying to figure out which of their classmates authored the note and to whom.
After reading the letter, I pretend I’ve had an epiphany… this note reminds me of the Declaration of Independence! I launch into a review of the parts of the Declaration. I always have 100% of my students’ attention.
Some years I will admit that it’s a fake note and other years, I never fess up. Have fun!
Signing the Declaration of Independence was a serious, somber event.
The signers of the Declaration didn’t wake up and say, “Yippee, I get to sign the Declaration of Independence today!” Students need to understand that the decision to sign the Declaration was gut-wrenching and difficult. These were the most wealthy, powerful men in the colonies. They had a lot to lose if the colonies were defeated in their attempt at Revolution. Signing the Declaration was treason and the men who signed it would be hunted and executed by England if the Revolution was lost. While discussing this truth with students, I introduce them to Ben Franklin’s famous quote, “We must, indeed, all hang together or, most assuredly, we shall all hang separately.” This makes a great journal entry in which students are asked to explain what Ben Franklin meant by this quote and why it was important for the leaders of the colonies to stick together during the American Revolution.
Show some pictures!
The Declaration of Independence is stored and protected in the National Archives Museum in Washington D.C., specifically in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom. Show students a picture of where the Declaration is kept. Talk about the armed guards and the thick glass that protects one of our most precious documents.
I also like to show my students a picture of Independence Hall in Philadelphia. We talk about how hot it was during the summer when the Second Continental Congress met and the Declaration of Independence was signed. There is a plethora of information and pictures on the site linked below. Just click on the image of Independence Hall.
After teaching students the basics of the Declaration of Independence, I break them into small groups and ask them to look through the following book together. This book puts the Preamble and many of the grievances into modern language. I usually use groups of 3-4 per book. There are many amazing books that teach the Declaration of Independence, so look around and find a great resource for your students!
These resources from my Teachers Pay Teachers store are very helpful in teaching the Declaration of Independence. If you are interested, click on the images to view the products in my store!
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