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The Declaration of Independence "In Our Own Words"

Introduction

The Declaration of Independence is one of America's most famous and often-quoted documents. With these carefully-chosen words, the delegates declared the colonies free and independent of Britain, pledging their lives and honor to the cause of American independence. And, lest anyone wonder why this action was taken, the Declaration includes a long list of reasons why the split from the Crown was necessary.

This lesson is best used after a unit covering the colonies' reasons for declaring independence. In this lesson, students will translate the Declaration of Independence into modern language. They will consider how the Declaration is still being used today and will discuss the relevance of the document on modern life.

Materials

    Download Lesson Materials (PDF)

  • First paragraph of the Declaration of Independence (for projection)
  • Divided Declaration of Independence
  • Dictionaries (one for each group)
  • Large sheets of paper (one for each group)
  • Markers

Strategy

  1. Ask the class to recall why the Declaration of Independence was written. What was its original purpose? What do students remember about how the Declaration was written? Briefly review the key facts with the class. If desired, ask if students know any phrases from the Declaration from memory—some may know "all men are created equal" or "life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness."
  2. Tell the class that the Declaration of Independence has been meaningful to Americans ever since it was written. For instance, Lincoln referred to it in his Gettysburg Address as an example of how important it was to keep the union together. The women at the Seneca Falls convention used the language of the Declaration to declare the rights of women. Various abolitionists used the principles in the Declaration as examples of why the practice of slavery was wrong.
  3. Indicate to the students that they will be rewording sections of the Declaration into modern language. This should not be a word-for-word translation—instead, each sentence or paragraph should be rewritten in a way that is easy for students to understand. Display the overhead transparency of the first paragraph of the Declaration. Select a student to read the text.
  4. Reword the paragraph on the transparency with the class.
  5. Divide the class into six groups.
  6. Give each group a section of the declaration, a dictionary, a large sheet of paper, and a marker.
  7. Each group should reword their section into modern, everyday language. They should find their rewording becomes shorter than the original, but it should retain the same meaning. Circulate between the groups to explain and assist as needed.
  8. Have each groups read their translations to the class in order.
  9. Discuss with the class how the Declaration can still be used today. Is it still relevant to our idea of being American?

Lesson Extensions

  1. There were three men who did not sign the Declaration: Robert R. Livington of New York, John Dickinson of Pennsylvania, and Thomas Willing of Pennsylvania. Students may be surprised to discover that although these three men did not sign the Declaration, they were not loyalists. Assign a third of the class to each man. Ask students to discover why each man chose not to sign the Declaration and what happened to him after the Declaration was signed.
  2. Have students research why Jefferson was chosen to write the Declaration (you may wish to have them read the feature article "We Hold These Truths to be Self-Evident"). Students should then write letters to Jefferson explaining why he should write the Declaration of Independence.


This lesson was written by Gloria Moeller, El Cajon, CA, and Shawn Cunlisk, Vancouver, WA, with contributing editor Claire Gould.

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