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The Declaration of Independence by Thomas Jefferson

Teacher Guide by Kristy Littlehale

Find this Common Core aligned Teacher Guide and more like it in our High School ELA Category!
Don't forget to check out the history-based Declaration of Independence teacher guide.

Student Activities for The Declaration of Independence By Thomas Jefferson Include:

Perhaps one of the most defining documents in history, The Declaration of Independence is a literary masterpiece just as much as it is an historical one. Thomas Jefferson believed strongly in the power of language to influence politics, so it made him the right choice to pen the document. In it, Jefferson lays out the many grievances held against King George III, and sets out a new and daring course for the thirteen colonies on the other side of the Atlantic. It reads very much like a break-up letter, in which the colonies assert their rights, lay out their problems, and declare a future apart from England. Jefferson’s writing harnessed the powers of different rhetorical persuasions, including ethos, pathos, and logos. In addition, The Declaration of Independence focuses on the themes of injustice, the strength of the ruled over rulers, the justifications for a war, and the inalienable rights of all people. These themes are still held dearly today, and students can make connections to current events that highlight these ideals.

By the end of this lesson your students will create amazing storyboards like the ones below!




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What is a Grievance?

A grievance is a formal complaint, usually filed as the result of something viewed as wrong or unfair, especially in the workplace. Common kinds of workplace grievances include:


Why are Grievances Important?

Grievances, if left unaddressed, have led to larger actions such as union strikes, firings, lawsuits, and even… war. Some of the most important revolutions in history were caused by unaddressed grievances, including the American Revolution. Have students look up the causes of some of the major revolutions in history, such as the French Revolution, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Cuban Revolution, and the more recent Arab Spring. What were the issues that sparked these events? How could a revolution have been avoided if the people’s grievances had been addressed?


Essential Questions for The Declaration of Independence

  1. What is a grievance?
  2. What happens when people feel their voices aren’t being heard?
  3. What are some common steps people take to fight injustice?
  4. Why is equality such an important concept to citizens?
  5. What are inalienable rights, and why are they important to all people?
  6. How can language be used to persuade a nation to fight in a war?

Check out our History Teacher Guides for more information and activities about the American Revolution!


The Declaration of Independence By Thomas Jefferson Lesson Plans, Student Activities and Graphic Organizers

Rhetorical Strategies for The Declaration of Independence


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In high school, the ELA Common Core Standards require students to develop formal writing skills, creating essays and arguments that are well-thought-out and syntactically varied. They also require students to effectively use persuasive writing strategies to defend a claim or point of view. The ability to dissect and validate, or debunk, other arguments is key to strong persuasive writing. This requires a basic working knowledge of rhetoric. A great way to enhance students' understanding of effective arguments is to teach the Aristotelian concepts of Ethos, Pathos, and Logos. Students can then identify and analyze the effectiveness of these strategies in a work of literature, a speech, or a letter.

The Declaration of Independence was written to officially announce the colonies’ break-up with England; however, it also needed to formally outline why they had done so not only to King George III, but also to the citizens of the colonies, and to the world. It needed to be clear, show that all steps had already been taken to avoid this, and persuade the people that this was the right decision. Have students examine the text and come up with quotes from throughout the document of Ethos, Logos, and Pathos rhetoric. Have students illustrate these examples in a storyboard. The following example shows two examples of each strategy.


ETHOS (ETHICS / CREDIBILITY)

Example 1

When in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the laws of nature and of nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.


Example 2

We, therefore, the representatives of the United States of America in general congress assembled, appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions, do in the name and by authority of the good people of these colonies, solemnly publish and declare that these united colonies are and of right ought to be free and independent states…


LOGOS (LOGIC)

Example 1

...that to secure these rights, governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed; that whenever any form of government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the right of the people to alter or abolish it, and to institute new government…

Example 2

He has obstructed the administration of justice, by refusing his assent to laws for establishing judiciary powers.


PATHOS (EMOTIONS)


Example 1

He has plundered our seas, ravaged our coasts, burned our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.

Example 2

A prince whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a tyrant is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.


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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that shows examples of ethos, pathos, and logos from the text.


  1. Identify two examples of each rhetorical strategy: ethos, pathos, and logos.
  2. Type the examples into the description box under the cell.
  3. Illustrate the examples using any combination of scenes, characters, and items.


(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Themes in The Declaration of Independence


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Themes come alive when you use a storyboard. In this activity, students will identify key themes of The Declaration of Independence, and support their choices with details from the text.

The Declaration of Independence Themes and Ideas to Discuss

Injustice

An important theme of The Declaration of Independence is injustice. The document lists not only the grievances held against King George III, but the grievances against a tyrant. In George’s tyranny, he has dissolved representative governments, restricted currency, levied unfair taxes, and taken away territory. In every step, King George has treated the people of the colonies not as citizens of England, but as petulant children. By doing this, King George has robbed the colonists of their rights as English citizens, which is unjust.


The Strength of the Ruled over the Rulers

Another important theme raised in The Declaration of Independence is the strength of the ruled over the rulers. With the rise of the Enlightenment and the merchant class, the belief in the Divine Right of Kings had been slowly fading anyway; however, few people realized the power that they held over their government. With this document, the colonists were forging a new path in history by creating their own government, because the one King George III was running was corrupt and tyrannical. For the first time in history, the people were deciding their futures, and throwing away the ideas of traditional rulers.


Justifications for a War

An additional important theme in The Declaration of Independence is the justifications for a war. War, ideally, should always be a last resort. The grievances outlined by Jefferson in the document prove that all necessary steps were taken in order to prevent war from becoming a reality. In doing so, Jefferson also shows all of the inappropriate, tyrannical ways that King George has responded to those steps, leaving no other option but to declare and then fight for freedom from an unreasonable tyrant.


Inalienable Rights of All People

A final important theme found in The Declaration of Independence is the inalienable rights of all people. Jefferson outlines them: all men are created equal, and they have the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. The document doesn’t just outline a list of complaints; for the first time in history, it declares that everyone is born with rights that cannot be given or taken away by anyone except, well, God. A king or queen has no right to interfere with the people’s liberty, and if they do, the people have the right to cast them away. For the first time in history, the people are made equal to the monarchs by their inalienable right to equality.



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Student Instructions

Create a storyboard that identifies recurring themes in The Declaration of Independence. Illustrate instances of each theme and write a short description below each cell.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Identify the theme(s) from The Declaration of Independence you wish to include and replace the "Theme 1" text.
  3. Create an image for examples that represent this theme.
  4. Write a description of each of the examples.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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TWIST-ing The Declaration of Independence


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that examine Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, and Theme. This activity is referred to with the acronym "TWIST". In a TWIST, students focus on a particular paragraph or a few pages, to look deeper at the author’s meaning.



Using an excerpt from The Declaration of Independence, students can depict, explain, and discuss what the purpose of the document is, while analyzing Jefferson’s voice.

Nor have we been wanting in attentions to our British brethren. We have warned them from time to time of attempts by their legislature to extend an unwarrantable jurisdiction over us. We have reminded them of the circumstances of our emigration and settlement here. We have appealed to their native justice and magnanimity and we have conjured them by the ties of our common kindred to disavow these usurpations which would inevitably interrupt our connections and correspondence. They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and of consanguinity. We must therefore acquiesce to the necessity which denounces our separation and hold them, as we hold the rest of mankind, enemies in war, in peace friends.

TWIST Example for The Declaration of Independence

T

TONE

Jefferson’s tone in explaining that appeals made to the British citizens have failed, too, is forthright, authoritative, and sincere.
W

WORD CHOICE

warned, reminded, appealed, conjured, deaf, enemies
I

IMAGERY

"They too have been deaf to the voice of justice and consanguinity.”
S

STYLE

Jefferson’s approach to these many appeals to British brethren is logical. He outlines each step the colonists have taken, and then ends with how the British citizens have turned their backs on the colonists.
T

THEME

This passage highlights that the colonists have not only been abandoned by their king, but by their fellow English citizens. The passage shows the colonists’ sense of abandonment, and then their resolve: either you are with us, or against us.

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Perform a TWIST analysis of a selection from The Declaration of Independence. Remember that TWIST stands for Tone, Word Choice, Imagery, Style, Theme.


  1. Click "Use this Template" from the assignment.
  2. Choose any combination of scenes, characters, items, and text to represent each letter of TWIST.
  3. Write a few sentences describing the importance or meaning of the images.
  4. Finalize images, edit, and proofread your work.
  5. Save and submit storyboard to assignment.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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Break-Up Letter for The Declaration of Independence

The Declaration of Independence is, in essence, a break-up letter from the thirteen colonies to England. It has a very set form: it begins with a declaration of rights; it establishes how England should have treated them; then it moves on to the grievances that have led to this document; and finally, it ends with a formal declaration of independence. Students can connect to the idea of a “break-up letter” by writing their own.

Have students imagine it is their senior year of high school, and they are breaking up with their school. Have them craft a letter that:

  • Declares their rights
  • Outlines what a perfect relationship with the school should have been like
  • Lists three grievances against the school that has “messed up” the relationship
  • Ends with a formal declaration of independence from the school, and what it means for the future

After completing the writing for the assignment, have students storyboard the different parts of their letter. See the example below.


Dear USA High School,

(Cell 1) The time has come to declare my independence as an adult. I am 18 now, and I no longer need you to structure every moment of my life during the week. I am a free-thinking individual, and I will make my own decisions from now on. We could have lasted forever if you had just let me make more of my own decisions, but you were always interfering and letting me down.

(Cells 2-4) You never let me use my cellphone any time I want. What if I was waiting for an important call from my mom? You never cared about that. Then, you had disgusting options on the menu for lunch - nothing was ever fresh or good! Expired milk? Hello! Finally, you always made me late for class because your halls are too narrow for all of these students, and you didn’t give enough time for passing between classes! I was always in trouble when Spanish was on one end of the school, and gym on the other. That wasn’t fair!

(Cell 5) I’m sorry, USA High School, we are over. I am officially breaking up with you and going off to college, where I can decide my own menu, my own schedule, and look at my phone when I want to. We are over, and I will probably never visit you again.


Sincerely,

Elizabeth Flanning, class of 2016

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The Declaration of Independence Vocabulary Activities


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Another great way to engage your students is through the creation of storyboards that use vocabulary from The Declaration of Independence. Here is a list of a few vocabulary words commonly taught with the document, and an example of a visual vocabulary board.


The Declaration of Independence Vocabulary Activities

  • unalienable (inalienable)
  • perfidy
  • magnanimity
  • despotism
  • consanguinity
  • rectitude
  • abdicated
  • disavowed
  • insurrection
  • rectitude
  • usurpations

(These instructions are completely customizable. After clicking "Copy Assignment", change the description of the assignment in your Dashboard.)


Student Instructions

Demonstrate your understanding of the vocabulary words in The Declaration of Independence by creating visualizations.


  1. Choose three vocabulary words from the text and type them in the title boxes.
  2. Find the definition in a print or online dictionary.
  3. Write a sentence that uses the vocabulary word.
  4. Illustrate the meaning of the word in the cell using a combination of scenes, characters, and items.
    • Alternatively, use Photos for Class to show the meaning of the words with the search bar.
  5. Save and submit your storyboard.



(Modify this basic rubric by clicking the link below. You can also create your own on Quick Rubric.)





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•   (English) The Declaration of Independence   •   (Español) La Declaración de Independencia   •   (Français) La Déclaration D'indépendance   •   (Deutsch) Die Unabhängigkeitserklärung   •   (Italiana) La Dichiarazione di Indipendenza   •   (Nederlands) De Onafhankelijkheidsverklaring   •   (Português) A Declaração de Independência   •   (עברית) הצהרת העצמאות   •   (العَرَبِيَّة) إعلان الاستقلال   •   (हिन्दी) आज़ादी की घोषणा   •   (ру́сский язы́к) Декларация Независимости   •   (Dansk) Uafhængighedserklæringen   •   (Svenska) Självständighetsförklaringen   •   (Suomi) Itsenäisyysjulistus   •   (Norsk) Uavhengighetserklæringen   •   (Türkçe) Bağımsızlık Beyannamesi   •   (Polski) Deklaracja Niepodległości   •   (Româna) Declaratia de Independenta   •   (Ceština) Deklarace Nezávislosti   •   (Slovenský) Deklarácia Nezávislosti   •   (Magyar) A Függetlenségi Nyilatkozat   •   (Hrvatski) Izjava o Neovisnosti   •   (български) Декларацията за Независимост   •   (Lietuvos) Nepriklausomybės Deklaracija   •   (Slovenščina) Deklaracija o Neodvisnosti   •   (Latvijas) Neatkarības Deklarācija   •   (eesti) Iseseisvusdeklaratsiooni