Monday, July 4, 2011

Curriculum Resource: Independence Day

Happy Independence Day!

For our family, this holiday is not about picnic or barbecues (although I usually fix a special "Americana" meal) or even fireworks (although we usually shoot some off).  We have two traditions that related to remembering and appreciating the history of this day.

The first is a more recent tradition.  My son and I read from the fabulous book, Signing Their Lives Away: The Fame and Misfortune of the the Men who Signed the Declaration of Independence by Denise Kiernan and Joseph D'Agnese.   I think every family with middle schoolers should have a copy of this book, because it tells the story behind each of the 56 men who risked being hung for treason by England for signing the revolutionary document that founded our nation.  We read some of our favorites, plus it has a copy of the Declaration of Independence.  We read that aloud today, as we are working on my son both memorizing, and really understanding the significance of each word in that document.  It is a great 4th of July resource, and I recommend it highly.

Our second tradition is a more long-standing one (the book was only published in 2009).  It reaches back to my own childhood, when my entire family LOVED the musical by Sherman Edwards and Peter Stone, "1776."  The musical tells the story of the Continental Congress and a version of the historical events leading up to the signing of the Declaration of Independence.  My family watched it numerous times on stage and screen, played the record until it was almost worn out, and even acted out all the songs using some little animal erasers called "Itty Bitties."

So once I had a family of my own, I incorporated 1776 into our Independence Day celebrations.  As soon as my son was old about--I think when he was six years old--we started watching it each 4th of July.  I don't think he is quite as enamored of it as I am, but I think he looks forward to re-watching it each year as our July 4th tradition.

I love the show, first of all because it shows what a dramatic thing the passage of this life-altering declaration was.  It has a lot of great true historical content, so it is a wonderful way to learn about and remember American history.   And I'm a great fan of musicals in general.

But one of my favorite things about this show is that it demonstrates the different personalities between the famous people who were behind this monumental event (as does the Signing Their Lives Away book).  One of the "meta" lessons I try to teach not only my son, but all the young people I teach, is that a "leader" or a "hero" isn't just one kind of person--the kind of superhero or Hercules, etc. personality style that we most commonly associate with a leader.  As 1776 depicts, the Declaration of Independence would never have been passed if there weren't leaders with very different personalities and skill sets--the bombastic and never-relenting John Adams, the charming and clever diplomatic manipulator Benjamin Franklin, and the quiet, thoughtful, and eloquent wordsmith, Thomas Jefferson (among others).

To my mind, this makes 1776 a wonderful educational resource about our country's past, but also about our students' potential future.


  1. To commemorate the holiday, I read "Little Brother" by Doctorow, which is available under the Creative Commons license, here:
    I liked reading it in html, but it is available for pretty much all reader software.

    It was a good book - the first part is more like a textbook (about maintaining the independence), and the second 4/5th or so more of an adventure story. I am thinking of making it a basis of my next mini-course for homeschoolers, though I have my reservations, or fears. A quote from the Declaration of Independence helps the main character withstand pressure (or torture):
    "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 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."

  2. I'll have to read that. It sounds like a great thing to do for the occasion.

    That part of the Declaration was quoted by many of the Declarations of Succession by the Southern States as they withdrew from the Union. Their argument was that the Federal Governments increasing disapproval of slavery was making it destructive to the wellbeing and wishes of the people of the South, and thus they were justified in withdrawing their consent.

    So I don't know about that book. But it that is one of the pivotal passages of the Declaration of Independence in American History beyond just the Revolutionary Period.

    I love the discussion going on in the Natural Math loop right now about good questions. But that is a good question--when does that principle apply, and when does it not?

  3. They have some discussion of the principle in the book, and it limitations. As in, let's cancel it due to terrorism!

    The war is quite destructive to the well-being of people, too. I am not going to compare war and slavery as to which is more problematic morally, or more inhumane, or more destructive, though. Most people, in my experience, don't object to being serfs unless they are hungry and physically violated too much. Most people don't object to some level of physical abuse, as long as it's applied to everybody (as in, they don't consider it abuse then). But people find wars disagreeable when wars happen where people live. I wish people figured out better solutions for problems like slavery than wars! I thought Moses was onto something with warnings like a plague of frogs or whatever it was. Yeah, maybe everybody can make a lot of origami frogs and put them everywhere. That will show them!