Archives For Declaration of Independence

All students should be familiar with our nation’s founding documents, but the 18th-century writing style of these primary sources can be a difficult read for many students. Take for example The Declaration of Independence. While Thomas Jefferson’s masterpiece is only 1337 words, the content specific vocabulary (tyranny, usurpation) can be unfamiliar. One way to prepare students before or during reading is to use a free digital program called Word Sift which was designed to  “help teachers manage the demands of vocabulary and academic language in their text materials.”

The entire text of the Declaration of Independence can be pasted onto a page on WordSift.org in order to quickly identify selected words that are repeated in the text. These words can appear alphabetically or as a word cloud:

A WordSift.org word cloud of the Declaration of Independence (see above) visualizes how frequently Thomas Jefferson repeated words to emphasize or clarify an idea. While he used the word “people” ten times, the Word Sift program contextualized “people” as “person”, which clearly amplifies the focus on individual rights   The next most frequent words highlighted words, “right” (ten times), “law” (nine times) and “power” (eight times), are part of the legal claim for the American colonies to separate from England.  Teachers can prepare students for reading the Declaration of Independence by reviewing the vocabulary in advance and by showing the connection between a message and repeated language.

While word cloud programs are common on the Internet, theWordSift.org program offers a feature to identify and sort different lists of words according to academic discipline (math, science, ELA, and social studies). In addition, the words from any document can be sorted for English learners according to the New General Service List (NGSL). The words on the NGSL are most important high-frequency words of the English language, and knowing the 2800 words on the NGSL list will give more than 90% coverage for learners trying to read general texts of English.

A word sift of the Declaration of Independence identifies 57 words from the 2800 words of the NGSL (ex: injury, declare, purpose, circumstance). These words are highlighted in blue in the illustration below:

 

For all learners, anotherWordSift.org feature is an embedded Visual Thesaurus® with a limited image-search feature. TheWordSift.org site explains that the “most frequent word in the text is displayed under the Visual Thesaurus word web.” For example, a screenshot of the Visual Thesaurus illustration of the word “right” is below (NOTE: visualization of selected word is interactive only on the WordSift.org site):

The Visual Thesaurus can quickly show different meanings of the same word. The program also provides relevant examples from the selected text.

Once the students are introduced to the language of the Declaration, they could review the similarities between Jefferson’s structure and the five-paragraph essay. Most students are already familiar with this structure.

The introduction of the Declaration of Independence is 71 words, a paragraph of only one sentence, which addresses the audience (King George, colonists) and presents his purpose in a thesis of separation:

“… a decent respect to the opinions of mankind requires that they should declare the causes which impel them to the separation.”


The second section or Preamble is 272 words. This first body paragraph details Jefferson’s central claim about equal rights:

“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.”

The third section indicts King George III in a paragraph that lists the (27) complaints against the monarch. This extended list begins:

“The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute Tyranny over these States.”

The fourth section is a one paragraph accusation against the British people who did not respond to petitions for help from their American countrymen:

“Nor have We been wanting in attentions to our British brethren.”

The 159-word conclusion, the fifth section, restates the thesis: “…That these united Colonies are, and of Right ought to be Free and Independent States” and details the next steps (answering the “so what?”):

“…and that as Free and Independent States, they have full Power to levy War, conclude Peace, contract Alliances, establish Commerce, and to do all other Acts and Things which Independent States may of right do.”

As students review the organization of the Declaration of Independence, they can also consider the complexity of the sentence construction. There are nine colons, eight semicolons, and 98 commas, roughly one for every 13 words, that force the reader to stop and pause, to consider Jefferson’s lists and supporting details.

Using the program WordSift.org to introduce the vocabulary of any primary source document prepares students for reading and exploring the text independently.  The creators of WordSift.org note:

We would be happy if you think of it playfully – as a toy in a linguistic playground that is available to instantly capture and display the vocabulary structure of texts, and to help create an opportunity to talk and explore the richness and wonders of language!

WordSift.org allows teachers to target instruction so that students understand 18th-century documents like the Declaration of Independence. This 21st-century tool helps students to explore “the richness and wonders of language” of our Founding Fathers in the document that made them citizens of the United States of America.

Continue Reading…

There are different ways to become familiar with our nation’s founding documents: reading, memorizing, studying, reciting are a few. But in our keyboard- swipe-click-centered world, rewriting by hand is not one that immediately comes to mind.

A story feature in the NYTimes The Constitution, By Hand (6/30/17) written by Morgan O’Hara explained her process for copying the United States Constitution out by hand with a few sharpies. She noted that:

Hand copying a document can produce an intimate connection to the text and its meaning. The handwriter may discover things about this document that they never knew, a passage that challenges or moves them. They may even leave with a deeper connection to the founders and the country, or even a sense of encouragement.

Whatever her original intent for deciding to hand copy the lengthy document, her explanation for discovering things about a text echoes the arguments put forth about close reading that were initiated with the Common Core. Close reading requires students to read and reread a text several times; each time for a different purpose.

The first reading is to understand what the text says. The first reading is for comprehension: Who (character); What (events); Where/When (setting); Why (plot or information) questions asked.

It is the second reading, however, that asks a reader to become familiar with how the text operates:

-What does _____ this word mean in this context?
-How is the text organized? (sequence. cause and effect, compare/contrast, description)?
-What ways does the author use punctuation to control the reading of the text?

Asking students to write out by hand the  United States Constitution with the Bill of Rights is akin to having them perform a second close read. In copying the words and the punctuation and imitating the structure (sequence),  they could, like O’Hara, focus on how the text operates. How this particular text operates is exactly what constitutional scholars, lawyers, and judges debate regularly in courts.

How the Text Operates

For example, if you copy out the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights, you will notice that the framers used three commas and two semi-colons in order to to separate clauses:

Amendment I

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

Recently, the first semicolon after thereof was at the heart of the case (January 2010) Citizens United . The Supreme Court determined that this semicolon links the free exercise of religion and the free exercise of speech and that the framers did not mean that each clause of the First Amendment should be interpreted separately. The decision gave corporations the same free speech rights as people, and that corporations should have the same free religious exercise rights as people as well.  Handwriting the First Amendment and pausing to consider that semicolon can bring attention as to how the author(s) or Founding Fathers used punctuation to control the reading of the text.

Punctuation in the Declaration of Independence is also recently under scrutiny. Danielle Allen, then a professor at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton, N.J., caused a stir when she located an extra period on an original copy of the document at the National Archives after the phrase “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness” (see photo clip)

National Archive copy of the Declaration of Independence (with questionable period)

Allen suggested that this period -which could be an ink blot- might be misinterpreted to mean that that the list of self-evident truths ends with the right to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” Ink blot or intentional sentence stop, Allen argues that Thomas Jefferson did not intend to separate the phrase using a period, but had intended a continuation with the phrase that follows:

“— That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form, as to them shall seem most likely to effect their Safety and Happiness.”

In an article that followed in The Atlantic, Have We Been Reading the Declaration of Independence All Wrong?Allen explains,

“The logic of the sentence moves from the value of individual rights to the importance of government as a tool for protecting those rights…You lose that connection when the period gets added.”

Legislators and scholars have argued about the intent of Thomas Jefferson since the release of the first draft of the Declaration of Independence. Students should have the opportunity to add their voices to the impact of different interpretations on their lives as well.

Muscle Memory

Outside of noting the punctuation in primary source documents, there is a fair amount of research that promotes the writing by hand as a great instructional tool in developing muscle memory, which is described on the Logic of English research blog as meaning “the students can write quickly and legibly with little conscious attention.” Writing by hand helps students as a multi-sensory approach to reading and spelling. This understanding contradicts long held beliefs that copying does not improve understanding. There may have been examples of monks who copied Ancient Christian manuscripts who were unable to even read, but in these cases the goal was artistic, not  literacy. Moreover, in the 21st Century, there is an increase in attention being paid to the loss of writing by hand in our tech obsessed culture.

New research shows that a multi-sensory approach that combines the finger movements (kinesthetic) with the sensorimotor part of the brain shows how writing by hand helps us recognize letters. Researcher Anne Mangen (The University of Stavanger-2011) explained the connection between reading and writing and how the sensorimotor system plays a role in the process of visual recognition during reading, saying:

“The process of reading and writing involves a number of senses. When writing by hand, our brain receives feedback from our motor actions, together with the sensation of touching a pencil and paper. These kinds of feedback is significantly different from those we receive when touching and typing on a keyboard.”

Feedback like this may be helpful to students. Of course copying the primary documents such as the United States Constitution or the Declaration of Independence in their entirety would be a lengthy commitment. Copying entire sections or even phrases, however, can give students that same kind of motor action and brain feedback and help them better appreciate a passage for what it says (meaning) and how it says it (text structure).

At the very least, they will experience the same process of duplicating these documents in the authentic way they were created by our Founding Fathers….by hand.