It is America’s birthday tomorrow, and in my advanced level summer ESL classes, we sometimes celebrate with an activity based on the language of the Declaration of Independence. While this activity is excellent for the Fourth of July, it’s also great to use during any time of the year to introduce your students to the fundamental underpinnings of American democracy.
I typically start out by asking my students if they know why we have a birthday party for the U.S. on July 4th, which Americans celebrate with fireworks instead of birthday cake and candles. For those who don’t know, I give a quick, 10-minute overview of the state of affairs between the 13 colonies and Great Britain in 1776 and flash a copy of the Declaration of Independence on the screen. Sometimes, I show one of the very short mini-documentaries that the History Channel has created about the Declaration of Independence or the Fourth of July.
Then I pass out slips of paper with the 55 most important words of the Declaration of Independence typed on them:
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.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.
First, to help students work on their pronunciation, we recite these words chorally together. I then have them stand on their chairs and practice declaiming these words as if they were an 18th century orator reading the Declaration of Independence aloud in the town square.
Next, we deconstruct this passage. I ask them to try to identify the three key ideas reflected in this text that underpin America’s concept of itself as a nation, and then to paraphrase those ideas in their own words.
This is harder than it sounds. Even after we clarify the meaning of challenging words (endowed, unalienable, instituting, deriving), students have a hard time putting ideas like “governments are instituted among men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed” into their own words. Working in groups helps and, eventually, students usually recognize that this means that in a democracy, citizens get to choose their leaders.
Finally, I ask them to create three 10-point rating scales—one each for Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness—and to interview their classmates to find out how they rate their experience in the U.S. in terms of these three variables. We then plot the responses in a chart on the board. It invariably surprises me (although maybe it shouldn’t), that immigrants tend to rate the U.S. higher on these scales than some Americans might.
“Life” almost always gets high marks from students coming from certain Central and South American countries where gang and drug violence are widely feared. And so does “the Pursuit of Happiness”: Even though many of my students are working in what are by American standards low-paid survival jobs, the ability to send money home to their countries of origin to help support their parents and siblings counts for a lot with them. Lively debates ensue when students disagree about their ratings and start challenging each other for having rated any of these “unalienable rights” too high or too low.