Declaration of Independence the Musical

When Middle School students are told they are going to engage with a primary source the feeling of the room shifts. The smiling faces disappear. The air becomes stagnant. All joy in the world has been stifled.

Not even the worlds most famous break up letter brightens their faces. The Declaration of Independence is not well welcomed in this room.

It is not shocking that 13 and 14 year old’s want nothing to do with a document written 244 years ago, in a style of writing that has no emojis. However, reading the world’s more epic break up letter is a must in a U.S. government class.

To make this task more user friendly I have broken up the document into parts each with their own prompt questions.

Chunking the document makes it less intimidating for the students and helps them break up some of Thomas Jefferson’s larger sentences. Visually they are receiving a packet, and packets are never welcomed. However, when we take a moment to explore the packet we see that there are only 6 main sections. Now the work seems more do able.

Students were able to tackle the analysis with a partner which created lively discussions.

The analysis of primary sources is on one of the most important skills in social studies. Being exposed to the direct thought and ideas of people before them bring context to historical events that cannot be achieved in other ways. While this is extremely exciting to history dorks like me, 13 years olds struggle to spark joy in this work.

Which is why the hard work of analysis is paired with the fun project of application. All knowledge needs to be synthesized before students understand it. It is superficial learning when students fill out a packet, answer questions and even hold a discussion. It is a completely different level of knowledge and understanding to be able to use the information in a different form. Students must truly understand the content that they are working with to transform it into a new medium.

The Declaration of Independence can be a challenging read for most 8th graders. To peak the students interest and really understanding the document I created a mini project to boost their deep learning and enthusiasm. After the analysis was completed students were tasked with creating their own original song and music video out of the document. The song had to be about the Declaration of Independence, but could start as far back as the Proclamation Line of 1763. It had to be creative, utilizing specific details to tell a story, feature at least 5 words from the Declaration and be organized and easy to follow. The music video did not have to feature the students themselves. Many students are shy, some are in person some are virtual, many do not want to see themselves on the large screen in my classroom. The students could create any type of music video that they wanted as long as they shoed their creativity and connection to the song they created.

The song and music video take the anaylsis of a 244 year old document and bring it up into 2020. Students dove back into the document to try to find the details and words they wanted to use. The scoured their notes, and excited started brainstorming how to create their songs. The energy level jumped. Kids were again lively and fully engaged.

How does it work in a split classroom?

Creating a song and music video worked well with our current format. Students are allowed to transition between in class instruction and virtual instruction. It has been difficult to lesson plan because you never know how many students will be in the room with you and how many will be home. In designing this stretch of the year it is always important that the students stay connected and collaborative no matter where they are. Student’s already are prone to losing their enthusiasm for learning between Thanksgiving and Winter Break. Offering them solitary book work would be a recipe for disaster.

Results?

The project brought kids together, laughing, brainstorming and connected. They worked relentlessly matching their new lyrics to songs that they love and connecting through zoom. The space buzzed with creativity during class time and students were singing in the hallways and dancing in the quad during their lunch periods.

On presentation day we had the wide spectrum of presentors. Some students eagerly waiting to debut their art to the world, while others were shy and hide during their videos. We broadcast them on the SMARTboard and through zoom so we could all share the experience as a class.

The results were incredible. Students presenting songs and videos as long at 4 minutes. We had covers of A-Ha’s “Take on Me” and Billy Joel’s “We didn’t start the fire”. Other kids used the music from Cardi – B and few emerged as talented rappers. The music videos featured 8th graders in white wigs and triangle hats, crowns and tiaras and full break up stories between King George III and George Washington.

The lyrics were rich with content and specific details. It was evident that students dug through their notes and looked up extra details to make their songs come to life. They were singing about “unalienable rights”, the Intolerable Acts and the Olive Branch Petition. They used “usurpatation” correctly and addressed the omittance of slavery in the document. It was our unit in one masterpiece of music.

The best part? My 97 students that are transitioning between in person and home; some quarantined, some coming in daily, worked together, collaborated and enjoyed being in class. We took a primary source, analyzed it, and synthesized the material into an engaging, student based learning experience. Not bad for the wees after Thanksgiving in 2020.

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