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.

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Nothing New Under the Sun

The bulk of the Declaration of Independence–the entire body section–is devoted to a laundry list of complaints against the failures of British rule, meant to justify to the world why the colonies were revolting.  Among the intolerable items that pushed our Founding Fathers over the edge was this:

“He has erected a multitude of new offices, and sent hither swarms of officers to harass our people, and eat out their substance.” 

Whoa.  Can you imagine that?  Being subject to a powerful, sprawling, bureaucratic federal government with infinite departments staffed by busybody stooges with nothing better to do than persecute law-abiding citizens, robbing them of their property?  Living in a nation like that would truly be a nightmare.  No wonder our forefathers had to rebel against it.  I know if I lived in similar circumstances, I’d want to change the system. 

Luckily, nothing like that exists anymore.