Dissecting the Declaration

In this lesson students will explore the Declaration of Independence. They will observe the primary source document and record observations. The students will also interpret the text of the Declaration of Independence.

Lesson Objective

Students will be able to interpret the Declaration of Independence and determine the purpose of the document, by summarizing the colonists’ intent in an exit card.



  1. Tell the students that the colonists were fed up with the King and they wanted to become their own country and not follow the king’s laws. They should write down all the reasons why they should be an independent state.
  2. As a class brainstorm the reasons why the colonists are unhappy with the King. Make a list on chart paper of all the students’ ideas. If students are struggling to come up with ideas, remind them of all the different acts that they previously studied (e.g. Intolerable Acts, Quartering Act, or the Stamp Act)
  3. Pass out the replica of the Declaration of Independence. Have students use the primary source document sheet to record what they observe about the Declaration of Independence.
  4. In small groups students are observing the declaration of Independence and recording their observations. Pass out hand lenses if available for students to use while observing.
  5. Circulate the room while the students are observing and ask questions to get them thinking about the document. Questions could include: Do you recognize any of the names from the signatures at the bottom? When was the document created? Why do you think this document is so important? Do you notice anything different about the text?
  6. After about 10 minutes bring the class back together and have a few students share some things that they observed from the document. Collect the primary source document sheet to use for data collection.
  7. Students are working in small groups for this activity. There should be 10 groups since the text is divided into 10 sections. Pass out the text for the Declaration of Independence and student translation sheet. (the text is the original text on one side and modern day translation on the other)
  8. In their small groups students should try to interpret the meaning of their section of the Declaration of Independence. Inform each group that they will be sharing their interpretations with the class.
  9. Closing activity: students should complete the exit card independently and it should be collected for data purposes.
  10. Extensions: Watch the Liberty Kids Episode #13-“ The First Fourth of July” The episode can be watched on the Liberty Kids DVD or on youtube. Pass out the Liberty Kids capture sheet for the students to complete as they watch. Have students create a cartoon image of famous colonist with speech bubbles. In the speech bubbles the students should write the colonists grievances with the King. This can be used as a bulletin board display.


Assessment: All the worksheets can be collected and analyzed for assessment. Students will also be assessed by teacher circulating the room during the activity. In addition the exit card is a good assessment tool.


“Declaration of Independence, July 4, 1776.” Yale Law School: The Avalon Project. http://avalon.law.yale.edu/18th_century/declare.asp (assessed March 15, 2013)

“Declaration of Independence.” The Charters of Freedom.
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/declaration_zoom_1.html (assessed March 15, 2013)

The First Fourth of July. Liberty’s Kids.