Lesson Plans

Colonial America & Revolution

Understanding the Declaration of Independence

Author: Pamela J. Gernerd

School: Mountain View Elementary

Grade Level: 4th

Time Estimated: 3 days

Historical Background

The events that occurred in American history between the end of the French & Indian War in 1763 and the passage of the American Prohibition Act signed into law by King George III on December 22, 1775, ultimately led the Continental Congress to approve the Declaration of Independence on July 4, 1776. After the French & Indian War, England was in substantial debt and the people in Britain were already heavily taxed, so the Parliament began passing taxes on the colonies to raise additional revenues.

The colonists resented the new taxes levied by Parliament and King George III. The colonies had no elected representative in the Parliament and believed they were being taxed without their consent. Unrest and rebellion grew within the colonies. The tension culminated in armed fighting between British soldiers and colonial Patriots on April 19, 1775, at Lexington and Concord, Massachusetts. Thomas Paine’s booklet “Common Sense” was printed in January 1776, and provided the average colonist with a clear argument for independence.

When the Continental Congress met in June 1776, Virginia delegate Richard Henry Lee proposed a resolution that stated, “These United Colonies are, and of right ought to be, free and independent States. . . ” The Continental Congress appointed a committee to prepare a written document announcing independence. Thomas Jefferson emerged as the primary author of the document. The Declaration included a list of the colonists’ grievances against the King, their previous attempts to address their grievances, and a statement of their desire to dissolve their political bonds with Britain and create a “separate and equal station” among the nations of the earth. After three days of debating Jefferson’s draft, the Declaration was officially approved by the Continental Congress on the evening of July 4, 1776.


Students will:

  1. Identify the colonists’ grievances and concerns for unfair treatment by the British King and Parliament.
  2. Examine the purpose of the Declaration of Independence as identified in the document.
  3. Demonstrate cause and effect relationships.
  4. Identify and interpret a primary source document.
  5. Sequence events in Virginia history.
  6. Interpret grievances and concerns stated in the Declaration of Independence.
  7. Design a poster that will describe each part of the Declaration of Independence.

Essential Understanding

  • Conflicts developed between the colonies and England over how the colonies should be governed. The Declaration of Independence gave reasons for independence and ideas for self-government.
  • Virginians made significant contributions during the Revolutionary War.

Essential Knowledge

The colonists and the English Parliament disagreed over how the colonies should be governed.

  • Parliament believed it had legal authority in the colonies, while the colonists believed their local assemblies had legal authority.
  • Parliament believed it had the right to tax the colonies, while the colonists believed they should not be taxed since they had no representation in Parliament.

SOL Skills

VS.1 Students will develop skills for historical and geographical analysis including the ability to:
a) identify and interpret artifacts and primary and secondary source documents to understand events in history;
b) demonstrate cause and effect relationships;
c) compare and contrast historical events;
d) draw conclusions and make generalizations;
f) evaluate and discuss issues orally and in writing;
g) interpret ideas and events from different historical perspectives.

Oral Language
4.1 The student will use effective oral communication skills in a variety of settings:
a) Present accurate directions to individuals and small groups;
b) Contribute to group discussions;
c) Seek ideas and opinions of others;
d) Use evidence to support opinions;
e) Use grammatically correct language and specific vocabulary to communicate ideas.

4.7 The student will write effective narratives, poems, and explanations:
a) Focus on one aspect of a topic;
b) Develop a plan for writing;
c) Organize writing to convey a central idea;
e) Utilize elements of style, including word choice and sentence variation.

SOL Content

VS.5 Student will demonstrate knowledge of the role of Virginia in the American Revolution by:
a) identifying the reasons why the colonies went to war with England as expressed in the Declaration of Independence.



Day 1 Document Analysis: “The Declaration of Independence”

Explain to the students that they will be doing an investigation using the primary source the “Declaration of Independence.” In the investigation they will work in both teams and as a whole group to understand the document in terms of the grievances of the colonists, the authors’ beliefs about the roles of government, and the solution proposed by the colonists in the Declaration.

Note: This lesson plan includes excerpts of the Declaration for students to read and use. A transcript of the entire Declaration is attached. Italics, boldface, and underlining have been added to emphasize key points.

  1. Hook: Begin a discussion by asking students the following question.
    “What rules do your parents have which you do not like?” Have a discussion with the students about how they might be able to address their concerns and complaints.
    Make a list on the board of students’ thoughts and ideas. (3 – 5 minutes)
  2. Introduce the word “grievance” by writing it on the board or have it printed in large print and post it on the board. Ask the students what they think the word means. Briefly discuss their ideas, and then go over the definition with the class. (2 – 3 minutes)
  3. Now, briefly brainstorm about how people address grievances. (2 to 3 minutes)
    You may can write their ideas on the board or simply have a discussion.
  4. Initial Examination: Pass out copies of the Declaration of Independence on parchment paper, questionnaire (Student Activity Sheet: Initial Examination), and magnifying glasses/hand lens. Have the students work in small groups of 4 to 5. Direct the groups to examine the Declaration of Independence using the magnifying glasses/hand lens as they focus on the document in its original form. (10 – 15 minutes)
  5. Redirect the students to have a class discussion about their observations with the following questions. (3 to 5 minutes)
    What did you see?
    What surprised you about the document?
    What else do you want to know?
    What words do you want to look up?
    What questions do you have about this document?

Class Analysis of the Different Sections – Small Group Activity

  1. Give each group member a copy of the Declaration of Independence: Part I – the Preamble (Student Activity Sheet: Part I - the Preamble) and Part II – the Statement of Beliefs (Student Activity Sheet: Part II - the Statement of Beliefs).
  2. Hand out a copy of the definitions for the following terms: submit, station, impel, course, dissolve, declaration, entitle and unanimous (Handout: Definitions for the Preamble Discussion) and/or have student classroom dictionaries available for each group. Students will be using the definitions to help understand the content of the Preamble.
  3. Instruct the groups to read through the Preamble and the Beliefs, then discuss and answer the questions on the Student Activity Sheets. (10-15 minutes)
  4. Reassemble the groups for a debriefing of each group’s findings. Restate the questions from the Preamble and Beliefs and allow students to share their information.
    Post questions on board. (5-10 minutes)

Wrap up: Conclude the day by going through the directions for their project “Poster - Advertisement” (Poster Project Directions) about the Declaration of Independence. Give the class time to begin a draft for the design for poster on loose-leaf paper. They will want to work on the sections covered today. Students can continue working on this for homework. (5 minutes)

Day 2 Document Analysis continued: “The Declaration of Independence”

  1. Hook: Begin the day with a brief discussion of the previous day’s investigation of the Preamble and Beliefs. Use the following questions to lead the discussion.
    (2 – 3 minutes)
    “What is a grievance?”
    “Who is stating the grievances?”
    “Why are they writing the Declaration of Independence?”
    “Why do the writers feel it is necessary to separate from Great Britain?”
    “What rights are the writers claiming that they have?”
    “What is the purpose of the government?”

    Encourage students to use their notes from the Day 1 to help with discussion points.
  2. Small Group Activity: Hand out to each student a copy of the Part III – Complaints (Student Activity Sheet: Part III - Complaints). Begin by going over the directions that are written on the bottom of Part III. Direct the students to reread and follow the directions on the Part III – Complaints to prepare for their portion of the whole group debriefing. Have classroom dictionaries available at each group.
    (10 minutes)
  3. Whole Group Activity: Regroup the students for their group sharing of the List of Complaints. (10 minutes)
  4. Continue in a whole group environment with the teacher or selected student reading aloud Part IV –Grievances (Student Activity Sheet: Part IV - Grievances) to the class for clear understanding of all words. Students should underline any words they would like to discuss. These words may need clarification or definitions looked up and discussed. (Handout: Definitions for Grievances Discussion)
  5. Continue with Part V – Declaring Independence (Student Activity Sheet: Part V - Declaring Independence) with the teacher again reading the passage and leading the discussion.
    Prior to group discussions of Parts IV and V, you may want to suggest the students write down important points for future use in their final poster project. (10 – 15 minutes)

Day 3 – “My Understanding of the Declaration of Independence” Finish Investigating the Declaration of Independence

  1. Review the major understandings learned about the Declaration of Independence in the first two days.
  2. Continue the whole group discussion with Part VI – The Signatures (Student Activity Sheet: Part VI - The Signatures) – Using the questions provided with “The Signers of the Declaration of Independence” lead a class discussion prompted by the questions stated below the signatures. (5 to 10 minutes)

    Share the following passage with the class prior to the discussion on the signers of the Declaration of Independence.

    Dr Rosie Zagarri, “The stakes were very high. What people didn’t like to think about is that these delegates were becoming outlaws. They were operating outside of the official rules that governed the legal system of Britain. They were establishing a separate nation. Looking back, we can put this patriotic halo around it. But from Britain’s point of view, what the colonists were doing was disloyal, wrong, and treasonable.”
  3. Allow the students time to reflect on the day’s discussions and draft their ideas for use on Day 3 when they complete their final Poster Project. Each student will produce his/her document investigation by designing their own Poster – Declaration of Independence. Follow the directions stated in the Poster Project Handout.
    (10 to 15 minutes)


  1. By grouping the children with varying reading abilities and learning styles, the teacher sets up a situation that will allow stronger students to assist fellow students in developing an understanding of the content of the sections of the document. Flexible grouping will help all learners express ideas clearly through the modeling process, while developing an understanding of their group’s ideas and opinions.
  2. Have available a variety of resources on varying reading levels for independent reading about the Declaration of Independence during free reading time.
  3. By providing students with simplified definitions while investigating the Declaration of Independence, the teacher will help all learning styles develop a better understanding of vocabulary and their meanings within the context of the document.


Design a poster to advertise what each part of Declaration of Independence means. Follow the project description (Project Poster Handout) and review the evaluation process by reading through the description and rubric provided.

Additional Evaluation for oral communication: End with whole group portion of the lesson with each group reciting paragraph one and first line of paragraph two of the Declaration of Independence. Or assign this passage as an oral presentation. Allow a week to memorize the passage.

“When in the Course of human events, it becomes necessary for one people to dissolve the political bands which have connected them with another, and to assume among the powers of the earth, the separate and equal station to which the Laws of Nature and of Nature's God entitle them, a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.
We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.—“

References: Web

Interview with Dr. Rosie Zagarri on the Declaration of Independence, Center for History and New Media, George Mason University
This interview with Professor Zagarri provides historical context about the Declaration of Independence and helps explain the meaning and significance of the document.
Columbia Press, "Declaration of Independence," Yahoo! Education, Yahoo!, 11 Dec 2006.
Yahoo – Education is an easy to use on line resource for the inexperienced web surfer. The web searcher can quickly reference a topic and receive short direct answers. The site provides the searcher with additional on line and off-line text materials for additional resources. This is a student friendly site.
"The Charters to Freedom, A New World is at Hand, the Declaration of Independence," The National Archives and Records Administration, 28 Jan 2007
The National Archives site is an immense site designed to foster learning and discovery of educators, general public, and novice historians. This particular page details the Declaration of Independence and the history behind the document.
Roux, Larry. "History of the French and Indian War." French and Indian War - History Parts I, II, IV (2000) 1 - 2. 28 January, 2007.
This web page was (it has since been taken down; access provided via Internet Archive) associated with Syracuse University. Members of the University community create and publish personal Web pages of personal interest. This site is maintained by Larry Roux. I found it to be informational, state forward and an on going project describing the history behind the French and Indian War.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Incorporated, 2006-2007, 27, Jan. 2007.

References: Books & Media

Eric Foner and John A. Garaty, The Reader's Companion to American History, New York: Houghton Mifflin Co., 1991 (271 - 272).
The Reader’s Companion to American History is an outstanding desk reference to have available at all times in the classroom setting for teacher use. The content level of this reference is beyond the fourth grade students’ reading level. Topics covered in the reference go further than basic American History textbooks and include everyday life in American History.

Additional Resources to Extend the Study of the Declaration of Independence


American Revolution Simulation, by Roseann Fox
This is a wonderful simulation to help the students relate to the colonists, their grievances, and concerns. Queen Yuckabella stimulates the thinking process.

Video Resource:

Disney: School House Rock, America Rock, View section titled: "Declaration of Independence."
To many students, music can be the turning point for learning. Watching and singing along with this educational video will stimulate a drive to understand and remember history.

Guided Reading Resource:

If You Lived at the Time of the American Revolution, by Elizabeth Levy
This book is written in student language, easy to read, with wonderful illustrations. It gives the students a picture of history that is on the average fourth graders reading level. It can be used as independent reading or as a guided reading text.