As a 9th and 10th grade World History teacher, sometimes I struggle with making history relevant to my students. This year, thanks to the Bill of Rights Institute’s We the Students Scholarship Contest, I didn’t have to, the $5,000 top prize was more than enough to motivate my students. They were eager to struggle with questions like: What are the ideals in the Declaration of Independence? What are the ideals of America? What are some of your personal ideals? The vast majority of my students wrote two hand-written drafts before typing three pages double-spaced to meet the early bird deadline of November 15.
The essay prompt: In 800 words or fewer, please answer the following question: “Since you were born, has America moved closer to or further away from the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence.”
Dr. Strojny helped me brainstorm some prewriting tasks that would make this assignment easier for students. First, what are the ideals outlined in the Declaration of Independence? For this class activity students were split into 13 groups of three or four where they had to close read the Declaration and translate what it actually said. Each group then brought their “translation” up to the document camera, projected it to the class and explained it. Then we compared them to a simplified list of grievances. The students copied the 22 grievances into their binders before leaving class.
For homework, I asked the students do a 15 minute quick write about which ideals, or grievances they thought would be most important, or easy to relate to issues today. We had a quick discussion that went like this: Life, liberty and pursuit of happiness – they have all heard about this —but don’t know what it means? Examples to think about: Right to Life: Death penalty, abortion rights/right to life, food assistance for poor families, access to healthcare aka Obamacare.
Liberty: Civil rights, such as right to be free of unreasonable search and seizure, freedom of movement and freedom from government surveillance (think about Edward Snowden, the internet), incarceration rates and three-strikes laws for non-violent offenders such as drug users, freedom to vote and new voter ID laws.
Right to Happiness: What does it mean to be happy? Access to employment, secure jobs, student loans, drug laws, expansion of marriage laws to same-sex couples.
That government derives its powers from the just consent of the governed: Do our voter turnout numbers suggest that we consent to being governed by today’s leaders? What about Scotland’s recent referendum? What would happen if people in the U.S. wanted to secede, like the anti-Obama secession petitions in Texas?
Do students understand that the framers were morally compelled to violent revolution because all men have the moral duty—the OBLIGATION– to rebel against governments that do not fulfill these natural laws—the Occupy movement, School Walkouts in CO, acts of civil disobedience. Do we have a moral duty to rebel against bad laws? What does it mean when we don’t vote? When we don’t attend protests? Etc. Do young people today feel this obligation?
It was an exhilarating assignment. Could I keep the excitement going through numerous drafts? More in my next post.