Understanding the Declaration of Independence

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Lesson At A Glance

This lesson is the first lesson introducing the system of government in the United States. This lesson focuses on the Declaration of Independence. Students already have an understanding of the events leading up to the signing of the Declaration including the idea of “taxation without representation” as well as the Boston Massacre and the growing tension between the Colonies and England.


  • Students will gain an understanding of the ideas in the Declaration of Independence through the use of writing, illustrating, as well as dramatization.

Standards Addressed:

History Social Science

8.1 Students understand the major events preceding the founding of the nation and relate their significance to the development of American Constitutional democracy.

8.1.2  Analyze the philosophy of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence, with an emphasis on government as a means of securing individual rights.

Reading Comprehension

2.4 Compare the original text to a summary to determine whether summary accurately captures the main ideas, includes critical details, and conveys underlying meaning.

Visual and Performing Arts

2.1  Creative Expression—Create short dramatizations on selected styles of theatre.
5.1 Connections, Relationships, and Applications—Use theatrical skills to present content or concepts in other subject areas.

Common Core State Standards for ENGLISH LANGUAGE ART S & Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Reading Grades 6-12

Key Ideas and Details

1.  Read closely to determine what the text says explicitly and to make logical inferences from it; cite specific textual evidence when writing or speaking to support conclusions drawn from the text.

2.  Determine central ideas or themes of a text and analyze their development; summarize the key supporting details and ideas.

Craft and Structure

4.  Interpret words and phrases as they are used in a text, including determining technical, connotative, and figurative meanings, and analyze how specific word choices shape meaning or tone.

Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity

10.  Read and comprehend complex literary and informational texts independently and proficiently.

College and Career Readiness Anchor Standards for Writing Grades 6-12

Production and Distribution of Writing

4.  Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience.

Big Ideas:

  • The strength of a democracy is equal to the strength of its citizens.
  • E, Pluribus Unum: Out of Many, One

Essential Questions:

1. What does it mean to be an American citizen?
2. Does social capital strengthen a republic?

Higher Order Thinking Questions:

  • If you were a colonist, would you be a loyalist or a patriot? Give reasons to support your answer, comparing and contrasting views of each. (Analysis and Evaluation)
  • What are some of the ideas about government that are implied in the Declaration of Independence? (Analysis)



Students will demonstrate their understanding of the Declaration of Independence through authentic assessments in the areas of writing, drawing, dramatization, as well as teacher observation.

Quality Criteria: 

The quality of the students’ work will be determined based on the rubric given to each student. The areas included in the rubric include criteria for the accuracy of the section interpretation, skit storyboard connection to the written interpretation, a creative interpretation in the dramatization of their section of the Declaration of Independence, as well as a short written assignment. 

Click here to download assessment tools

Activity Steps:

Click here to download activity steps

1. Hook: Provide each student with a few sticky notes. Write the question, “What are some things that kids your age complain about?” on the board. Have students write down one complaint on each sticky note. Give more if needed. As they write on their notes, have students come place them under the question on the board. Discuss.

2. Pass out a “break-up” letter to students written in the form of the Declaration of Independence. After the students read the letter independently, discuss with students what each section of the letter is trying to convey to the reader.

3. Explain to students that the components of this letter can also be seen in the Declaration of Independence. Just as they broke down the ideas in the break-up letter, they will interpret the language used in the Declaration of Independence in small groups and then create a storyboard of a skit to share their interpretations with the class.

4. Break students into small groups, and give each group one of the five sections of the Declaration of Independence to translate into common language.

5. Monitor students as they work together to translate their assigned section.

6. When students have successfully translated their section, provide each student with a blank storyboard to create the outline of the skit they will perform for the class.

7. Once students have successfully created the storyboard including captions and thought/voice bubbles, provide an opportunity to create props and costumes to enhance the class’ understanding of their section of the Declaration of Independence.

8. Students perform skits.

9. Students conduct a debriefing with the class for their portion of the Declaration to ensure understanding.

10. Students revisit the “break-up” letter presented at the beginning of the lesson and are  asked to connect the part of the letter to the corresponding part of the Declaration.

11. Students answer the following question about the Declaration of Independence:

  • What ideas did the framers of the Declaration of Independence express in the document?
  • Why did some colonists want to remain under British rule?
  • If you were a colonist, would you be a loyalist or a patriot? Give reasons to support your answer.
  • What are some of the ideas about government that are implied in the Declaration of Independence?

Special Needs of students are considered in this lesson:

The five parts of the Declaration of Independence allow for differentiation throughout the lesson. This lesson was designed to meet the needs of GATE identified, Special Education students, and students with different learning styles. GATE—Students were given the second part of the Dec. of Independence to translate, as it is the most verbose and requires a depth of understanding. These students were monitored, but guided to answer questions on their own.
Special Education—These students were given a section the requires literal translation instead of a deeper interpretation. They were also assisted by the Resource Specialist throughout the entire lesson.
Learning Styles—Students whose strengths are more kinesthetic and or artistic are given the opportunity to show what they know through drama and art.

Extension Ideas:

  • Students could create a “claymation” activity instead of a skit.
  • Each student could do research on one of the important framers of the Declaration of Independence and present their findings to the class or write an essay on the figure.
  • Students could compile their storyboards into a children’s book to share with younger students.

Materials and Resources Needed:

  • Declaration of Independence (divided into its 5 parts)
  • Dictionaries 
  • Break-up letter written in form of the Declaration of Independence
  • Skit storyboard worksheet
  • Props and costumes for dramatization

Student Handouts:

Download student handouts here

Outline of Unit Plan:

This lesson is one component in a unit designed to teach students how the Declaration of Independence, the United States Constitution, and the Bill of Rights have created the system of government that we have in our country today.

Standards Addressed in the Unit:

History Social Science

8.1.2  Analyze the philosophy of government expressed in the Declaration of Independence, with an emphasis on government as a means of securing individual rights

8.2.2  Analyze the Articles of Confederation and the Constitution and the success of each in implementing the ideals of the Declaration of Independence.

8.2.3  Evaluate the major debates that occurred during the development of the Constitution and their ultimate resolutions in such areas as shared power among institutions, divided state-federal power, slavery, the rights of individual states, and the status of American Indian nations under the commerce clause.

8.2.6  Enumerate the powers of government set forth in the Constitution and the fundamental liberties ensured by the Bill of Rights.

8.3.6  Describe the basic law-making process and how the Constitution provides numerous opportunities to monitor and influence government.

8.3.7  Understand the functions and responsibilities of the free press.