The Declaration of Independence Rhetoric Unit

One of my favorite units of the year is one I just finished–where I use the Declaration of Independence to teach about rhetoric, along with reading, writing, and speaking skills.

I start with the text, asking why exactly this document was written and for whom. Nobody ever knows. Then we read it looking for answers (attachment 1 below). I point out aspects of persuasion in it, then we go back to the big questions. That’s about half a day, on a block schedule. The other half day I use to go over this rhetorical analysis worksheet that I like with them (attachment 2). I really want them to understand this as an argument–we look for ethos, pathos, and logos in the declaration, for example (use this video if those concepts are new to students).

Putting this color-coded version on the projector to immediately review also reinforces the most salient points.

Another day we look at the handout that compares drafts (attachment 3), and we talk about the writing and revision process–what changes were made and why, and if they’re better or not. We relate this to their own work. I also tell them about the anti-slavery paragraph that the southern colonies made Jefferson take out–none of them have heard that before, so I put it on the projector and read it to them. Fun! That’s just a small part of a day.

I also make sure to point out that it’s the FINAL draft of the declaration that has the treasure map on the back. That always elicits a few giggles from the group.

A third day is to give them the speech outline (attachment 4), so they can see how the four parts work together and practice using these tools for something useful and realistic.

I ask them to imagine something that they would want to be free from. If they can’t think of anything unique, “school” and “parents” are the most common targets (they always think they’re being so edgy when they say that…).

I caution them not to do something vague or generic, like “society” or “expectations,” because it will be too hard to be specific and original with that, much less persuasive. Besides, they’re clichés.

It also needs to be something that they personally have experienced and have control over–declaring yourself free from, for example, “all the haters” is just virtue signalling and doesn’t even make any sense.

Bad habits are often a good idea to use for this: “laziness” or “procrastination” are good examples. A kid did “nosepicking” once. Got a big reaction from the room.

Sometimes kids will get really serious. One year, a girl did hers on an eating disorder and it made her cry. So be aware of sensitive topics.

Anyway, I give them half a day or so to draft their declaration, using the outline. When they don’t know what to put, I tell them to find that section in Jefferson’s original and use that for inspiration.

I try to stress that this needs to complete, formal, and persuasive. The audience is their peers (when they’re being serious) and their parents–they need to make the audience agree that they’re doing the right thing, that they’re justified, and that they can be successful. We discuss what kinds of tone and diction will work with this audience, and what wouldn’t be appropriate.

And of course, a fourth (and maybe fifth) day for delivering speeches and evaluation. After all, I tell them, it’s not really a “declaration” until you DECLARE it! :)

The biggest thing I tell them is to be enthusiastic–nothing is persuasive without passion. If they say they don’t care, I tell them that faking passion for boring chores is an important life skill :) Besides, if we have to do this anyway, why bore each other?

The grade sheet (attachment 5) is the rubric I use for this; for them, it’s just for participation points, and to give them something to get them focused on each other. After the whole class is done, I ask them to discuss which ones were best and why. It’s good to try to steer discussion back to ethos, pathos, and logos. I try not to gloat that their answers (“She was really prepared and into it and had good reasons”) are the same things I told them all to focus on in the first place.

1. Declaration of Independence outlined text

2. SOAPS Rhetorical Analysis Worksheet

3. DoI draft comparisons

4. Declaration of Independence speech outline

5. Declaration evaluations

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