How teach seminal US Documents in High School English
Seminal US documents, while dense with academic concepts and perfect for teaching a wealth of standards, can seem like pretty darn poor choices for engagement. I mean, what teen wants to read about dead, old people?
I am here to tell you it IS possible to shake up student engagement with seminal US documents.
First let’s break down the common core standard.
Analyze seminal U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (e.g., Washington’s Farewell Address, the Gettysburg Address, Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms speech, King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”), including how they address related themes and concepts.
First, we can see there’s a choice in which seminal US document you want to go over:
- Washington’s Farewell Address
- The Gettysburg Address
- Roosevelt’s Four Freedoms; and
- King’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail”
You don’t need to go over everything. Pick one you think would align best with the interests of your class. All of them have a common undercurrent of advocating for unity and working together as a nation, but the circumstances each give their speech is different: Washington as he leaves office, Lincoln after the end of the civil war, Roosevelt at the helm of World War II, and King during the Civil Rights Movement. Take the temperature of your class, what topics they’ve been interested up until this point, and choose accordingly. I tend to prefer teaching “Letter from Birmingham Jail” and then link the other three as choices for a synthesis activity.
Now, how do you make these texts engaging?
I have a few go-tos for hacking engagement: current events, movies, and philosophical chairs.
This is the United States, so there is always some thing happening in the news about partisan politics, and division. Having students bring in a current event they feel strongly about to do a quick share out in groups is always a hit. It bring student choice into play, which is arguably the best cheat for engagement, and gets students activating prior knowledge and interacting with real-world texts in a safe space.
Alternatively, you can have students send in a few movie trailers where there is an us vs. them conflict and have them brainstorm how the conflict would end if all parties would work together towards a common good in the end. This one is funny to see going on, since some students have very strong opinions on movies and can seem like amateur movie critics.
And lastly, there’s philosophical chairs. Philosophical chairs can be great as a bookend to teaching these documents. You begin with a polarizing statement closest to your document, and end the unit with the same statement to see how students understanding of the text have helped change or solidify their reasoning.
These are all time tested activities that guarantee students participate, plus, they’re all possible even if you are teaching hybrid or virtual.
Are you looking for a set of lessons on these seminal US documents? Check out my growing bundle on TeachersPayTeachers.