Understanding the Declaration of Independence with Fourth Graders

February 17, 2010 by bgaskins · No Comments · history, social studies

I look for opportunities to teach in classrooms! But now I am a district office person and I think teachers have a new perception of me. I have always prided myself on being a teacher, but it is actually weird being away from the classroom and dealing with adults. Part of my job, I am fortunate enough to have opportunities to teach kids. It had been on my calendar for a couple of week to teach in a fourth grade classroom; however, being in my position, I am expected to do a “model” lesson. In my planning I work hard to demonstrate deliberately a lesson that integrates literacy skills. Since they were studying the American Revolution, I decided to do a lesson on the Declaration of Independence.


I found this lesson at Edsitement.neh.gov called Declare the Causes: The Declaration of Independence. As I read through the lesson plan, I decided I would approach the teaching of the lesson as a model writing for a persuasion essay. Prior to the lesson, the teacher had the students to brainstorm and chart a list of arguments.

When I arrived, I announced to the class that I was there listen to their complaints and the student presented me a chart with 12 complaints including the “teachers are too boring”, “more recess time,” “too much homework,” etc.


Then we visited the National Archives in Washington, D.C.- (Virtually). Then we all stared at the virtual copy of the Declaration of Independence and each student had the opportunity to take a close look and try to read the first few lines.


Then I gave each student a transcript of the document. I told them to skim the page and look at how it was arranged.


I ask the students to imagine that, in hopes of effecting some changes, they are going to compose a document based on their complaints to be sent to the appropriate audience. As they begin to compose their document, they should consider the following questions.


· To whom would you send your complaints? Why? What reasons would you give for your decision to write out your complaints? (Preamble)

· What makes you think your complaints are worthwhile? Aren’t there good reasons why things are the way they are? Why should things as they are be changed? Would it be possible to summarize the thinking behind your desire for change in a single sentence? (statement of beliefs, or the thinking behind the complaints)

· Is there anything in particular the reader should notice about your complaints? Is there anything you need to keep in mind to make sure your audience understands and appreciates your complaints? What kinds of events inspired your complaints? (the list of complaints)

· Have you already tried to make any changes in the treatment of young people? In what way? (prior attempts to redress grievances)

· Is it possible to say in a single sentence what it is you really want to happen? It would take time to change the system to accommodate all of your complaints. What should happen right away? (declaration of independence)


Then we looked carefully at each of these parts in the Declaration of Independence. We talked about each part carefully. I had them underline words they did not understand, had questions about, or something they liked. Then we discussed those parts.


We paid particular attention to the style in which was written and carefully looking at the complaints they had against England. Then we talked about their complaints.

I worked with them in phase one of this and their teacher allowed them to compose their writing in a letter to the principal the next day using the Declaration of Independence as there model of writing.


In this lesson, we set the stage for the teacher to teach the fourth grade standard and indicator prescribed the state of South Carolina. We attempted to make learning authentic; roles played a real situation, and get them to think about what was on the signers of the Declaration of Independence mind. We talked about the 50 plus drafts the writers went through to get the document just right and how time consuming that process was. We talked about the processes of writing and the thinking writers must go through to get writing exactly right before publication. We made lots of inferences and they engaged as writers.


It was not the perfect lesson because I was not sure if I was able engage every student in the lesson. If this were a 21st century classroom, I may have had students write reflectively and post thoughts at a site similar to Wall Wishers. I could have given kid sticky notes to post their thoughts. I could have built time for students to write reflectively at the end of the lesson, but I did none of this. I keep looking for ideas to engage every student in a lesson. Phase two of the lesson would engaged every student and every student would have left evidence behind of their thinking and understanding.


In the process I hope I modeled a lesson to a teacher showing her how to use historical thinking to engage students and model how students can show their understanding through writing.

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