Published Online: February 25, 2014

Using Historical Documents to Spark Student Voice

John Trumbull's painting of the presentation of the Declaration of Independence in Independence Hall, commissioned for the United States Capitol rotunda.
—Wikimedia Commons

Where do you see a need for revolutionary thought or action in our world? In our educational system?

My students answer these questions in a variety of ways. Some see an immediate need to change gender equality in high school athletics—while others seek an overhaul of global philosophies, such as how people judge each other based on stereotypes.

Giving students the chance to think about these ideas has become one of my favorite parts of teaching a sophomore unit on revolutionary thought and practice throughout history.

Most great revolutions begin with a declaration of rights written by oppressed peoples to highlight their grievances and demands.

My students are not an oppressed people (at least in my assessment, though they might disagree). However, in an effort to address one of the tougher Common Core State Standards to meet in a world literature classroom (standard RI.9-10.9), my teaching partner and I designed a lesson asking students to read a set of revolutionary declarations as model texts for writing their own declaration of rights.

Stage One: Reading and Analysis

Anchor standard R.9 requires students to compare two or more themes or ideas in informational or literary texts. In the 9th and 10th grade informational literacy band, this standard specifically asks that students compare seminal U.S. documents, a text type that has not traditionally been a part of a world literature curriculum.

Thankfully, I work at a school that combines social studies and English into a two-hour block class, team-taught by a teacher from each subject area. Given the overlap of ideas related to the American and French Revolutions, we were able to address the skills of this standard across both subjects through historically relevant texts.

Students read and analyzed three declarations (the Declaration of Independence, the Declaration of the Rights of Man, and the Declaration of Rights and Sentiments). For each document, they tried to determine what rhetorical appeal or strategy the authors utilized.

For the first part of the activity, I created a chunked version of each declaration so students could respond to questions about specific sections of the text. For example, for the Declaration of Independence, I asked students to analyze Thomas Jefferson's use of the third-person singular "he" as a means of accusing King George of tyranny.

Additionally, we've been studying the rhetorical appeals of ethos, pathos, and logos since the beginning of the year, so I asked students to pay specific attention to where authors were using each of these appeals with their intended (and unintended) audiences.

Stage Two: Synthesis of Style

Students then compared and contrasted the three declarations to come up with a set of characteristics common to this type of writing. To do this, I asked students to create a color-coded synthesis that combined observations about the organizational structure, word choice/style, and message of each declaration.

These syntheses looked very different for each group. My more linear thinkers created Venn diagrams or three-column notes, while my abstract thinkers created mind maps. However, by the end of the comparison activity, all my students had a clear sense of what was similar in each document (logical flow from grievances to solutions, use of pronouns to connect to audience, etc.) and were ready to write their own declarations.

Stage Three: Writing Process

We then had students move into established small groups (teams of four, based on mixed-ability grouping strategies) to create a list of grievances and demands directed at the "dictatorial" powers in their educational lives (school administration, the school board, teachers, etc.). Using a Google document and a classroom set of Chromebooks, we compiled all of these grievances and then composed an introduction as a class.

Stage Four: Declaring Students' Rights to the World

Some of my students' ideas were very practical:

They, the educational system, have taken away the healthy and good food that is reasonably priced and have replaced it with junk food that is overpriced. These awful lunches contain bad items that make it harder to focus on schoolwork in and out of school.

We, the students, resolve that, in order to be successful in school, we need better and healthier lunches that are reasonably priced and are good for our health. With this healthier lunch, we will be able to focus more in school, graduate, and become useful citizens of the world.

Other declarations were challenging (in a really great way):

They, the board of education, do not require relevant subjects in school.

We, the students, should have life-applicable curriculum; in order for this to happen, we need to have more choices in what the students want to learn rather than what the school board wants us to learn.

They, the board of education, base the definition of our educational success on memorization and grade point averages.

We, the students, believe that education should incorporate skills like social development, organization, time management, money management, and specific skills in areas where we excel.

I have to admit, I was pleasantly surprised by the candor of my students' writing, especially the real and poignant reminders of changes they know will benefit them. Inspired, I took the first step to advocate on their behalf by publishing all of their ideas here.

Stage Five: Implications for My Practice

This lesson makes me think about how I can allow more learning opportunities like this into my classroom. Thankfully, I've had many opportunities to collaborate with others as I've worked to embed the common standards into my daily instruction. This particular lesson came from this collaborative process. It is part of a larger unit of study I've been working on as a part of the Master Teacher Project, a joint effort between the NEA and CC.BetterLesson.

This particular unit requires students to analyze the nature and patterns of revolutions. For history class, they continued to read and analyze historical documents as representations of patterns and stages of various revolutions of the 1700s and 1800s. In English, we moved from analysis of informational texts to a study of A Tale of Two Cities, by Charles Dickens. Students applied their analytical skills to deconstruct Dickens' style and purpose. They looked for evidence of his historical perspective and authorial choices and examined how these two elements worked together to create a commentary on revolutionary ideas.

Of course, the educational system doesn't need a revolution filled with violence, à la the French Revolution. But my students' declarations demonstrate their lack of confidence in an outdated system—and gesture toward changes that would be transformative. Their ability to successfully navigate complicated texts and ideas proves that they are ready to take on any challenges we are willing to give them.

So I leave you with these questions: How can we make sure that we're not just paying lip service to students' critical thinking and communications skills, which are developed and sharpened by units like this one? If we want them to be active 21st-century citizens, shouldn't we find ways to take their ideas seriously, right now?

I'm pretty sure if we adults take the time to answer these questions, it will spark something truly revolutionary.

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