Foundations of American Democracy, Professional Development, Required Documents, Teachable Moments

I {Heart} Thomas Jefferson

This past weekend, I was granted the incredible opportunity to go to Charlottesville, VA for a weekend seminar with Teaching American History on Thomas Jefferson, which included some time at Monticello, my third favorite home of a Founder. It also didn’t hurt that UVA was in the Final Four and won that Saturday!

Let me start off with the fact that my degree is in Early Childhood Development and Education. I got a Masters in Secondary Education with a History Emphasis, but my knowledge of documents, content, and all around history knowledge has come about differently in my 16 years of teaching as opposed to a history major.

I am also a firm believer that before I assign something to my students, I need to have done my homework. It easier when you have experiences like this!

This is my second weekend seminar, the first being a few years ago at Montpelier. You can actually access the readers from the one day or weekend seminars through the site, even if you don’t go!


Reasons you NEED to apply for these seminars (weekend, one days, etc):

  • You will be exposed to readings you may have not seen before. Not only will you read them, but you will be able to discuss them!
  • Hearing from other teachers. I always think this is the best PD, knowing what other teachers are doing and thinking. This group of teachers was one of the best!
  • The ability to travel to the locations!
  • The professors that facilitate the discussions are amazing. I never feel wrong. I am able to ask questions to truly understand what I’m reading.
  • Because of these seminars, both weekend and one day, I am better at analyzing documents and creating lessons
  • I start to lesson plan in my head, or think of questions to prompt my students to think of other ways to look at documents.
  • I may have started to understand the juxtaposition of Jefferson’s stance on slavery and the fact that he owned slaves. May have being the key word there.

APPLY FOR THESE SEMINARS! I am a better learner and teacher because of them. I’ve gone to some one day seminars here in Phoenix knowing next to nothing about what I’ve read and I always learn so much. Don’t be shy!






Civil Rights and Civil Liberties, Required Documents

A Case for Reading The Whole Document- Letter From A Birmingham Jail


Documents used:
Letter to Martin Luther King A Group of Clergyman (1963)
Required Document: Letter from a Birmingham City Jail (1963) (Annotations)
Background documents (if you have time or students are lacking background)
What the Black Man Wants Frederick Douglass (1865)
Nonviolence and Jim Crow Bayard Rustin (1942)

I originally did this lesson with my 8th graders last year, but will differentiate it for AP seniors. I had gone to a seminar on Civil Rights in America: Speeches and Leaders last January put on by Teaching American History

I had decided to really challenge my 8th graders (who are in an accelerated program) and have them read the entirety of the Letter from a Birmingham Jail. We were in the midst of our Civil Rights unit (I taught them pre-APUSH), and we had already read, annotated and discussed What the Black Man Wants by Frederick Douglass. This set the stage for the bigger discussion on all of the documents culminating with Letter from a Birmingham Jail. 

Now, I know this year that I will not have the luxury of time with my seniors, so I am shortening the sequence but I want the outcome to be the same.

I started this with the Letter to Martin Luther King from A Group of Clergymen. This is an easier document that students can read at home. I do this to set the stage for Dr. King’s letter. I don’t think that the document should be a stand alone. The letter to King, published in a newspaper, is a quick read and I require students to write down what the clergy are asking of Dr. King. This letter basically says, “Don’t tell me how to clean up your backyard.” King wasn’t from Birmingham, and the clergy didn’t feel like and outsider should be able to come in and tell them how to deal with their racial issues. A note that it was also written on Good Friday.

King’s response? It’s OUR backyard. He starts off with “My dear FELLOW clergymen” to off the bat show that it’s an “us” mentality. This document is long, but let me tell you, I gave the 8th graders 4 days to digest it and they knocked it out of the park. I wish I could say I had an amazing lesson plan, but I didn’t. I let it all happen organically and with 8th grade accelerated students, it was magic.

For my seniors, I gave them the assignment on a Friday for homework, and gave them Tuesday after our Civil Rights notes to work on it.

Prompt: Discuss key points that Dr. King discusses in response to the Letter to Dr. King. Explain how this has translated into modern day civil rights.

The purpose of the Socratic seminar was to gain a deeper understanding of the documents.

I broke the students up into two groups. Each got 20 minutes to discuss and since we did this on a block day, I gave an additional 20 minutes to discuss as a whole. Students had so many incredible comments. There were discussion about this being a redress of grievances, as MLK discusses Jefferson and the Declaration a few times. Discussions of Standing Rock, Black Lives Matter, LBGTQ+, Flint, and Kaepernick showed students ability to connect the themes to current events.

Questions arose: Was MLK’s optimism born out of necessity? Does the world lack empathy?

Students reflected on the document after the discussion: Discuss the legacy of the Letter From A Birmingham Jail.


I appreciate the time struggle of the semester crunch, as I only have a few more weeks. However, as with every other document, I attempted to get students to understand the whole document’s themes and connecting it with other parts of political history. And it as assigned mostly at home.

How has your interaction with this document played out in your class? What have you found to be successful?

Foundations of American Democracy

Declaration of Independence… or the 1776 Version of “She’s Just Not That Into You”…

It’s July 2nd which means I’m probably deep into John Adams (HBO) and muttering to myself that the REAL Independence Day is July 2nd. I digress.

You can quote from the Declaration of Independence because, likely, your elementary school teacher made you memorize “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain inalienable 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. 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.”

This is one of my favorite primary sources as it’s a act of treason. Or an act of bravery depending on how you look at it or which side of history you are on. Piecing apart this document and making it accessible to students can be a bit much. To them, it looks like a long, drawn out letter in a world of 140 characters or less.

So how do we, as teachers, look at this document? First and foremost, this is not a governing document. And, you need to chunk it out. (I like to play Farmer Refuted here and give the students the lyrics so we can break apart what Ham and Seabury are arguing about). Doing it WITH them is helpful because not only can you model it, but sometimes the students notice things you don’t! How cool is that?

First, HBO released a documentary called The Words That Built America. It’s free without HBO! It’s a reading of the founding documents including the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. I like this because it helps out our auditory learners. I love to listen to audiobooks and podcasts, so this is right up my learning alley. It’s roughly 11 minutes long and has a short summary at the end of the war. (Side note: The American Revolution and the Revolutionary War are TWO separate things).

Then let’s take this piece by piece. The first two paragraphs can be read aloud in class, with the teacher taking the role of breaking it apart to decipher meaning. I LOVE this lesson from the Bill of Rights Institute. Handout F has John Locke’s Second Treatise of Government which is a suggested document in the course framework from College Board. This lesson has modifications for our second language learners and can be easily adapted for 8-12. In the same token, Teaching American History has some great stuff. It is important, as educators, that we’ve already unpacked the document for ourselves (and maybe shared that with our students who struggle) so that we can effectively help them unpack it.

Now, what?

Well, it’s fun to bring in Hamilton because most students are familiar with it, it’s relevant, and it’s fun. And don’t you really wonder how King George took this? Because it was NOT lying down. You know homeboy was very unhappy. He addresses Parliament in October of 1775. {Perfect time to play You’ll Be Back}

As an extension, students can create a Twitter feed between King George and Thomas Jefferson using the list of grievances. Anytime I use Twitter in class, students use a class hashtag. This way, I don’t need to follow them and they don’t need to follow me. It’s been a fun way to engage outside of school. (We use #apschley{thegraduationyear} as our yearlong hashtag) For more engagement, students can create their own. This requires them to look at the sources in a different way and engage in a way that makes sense to them. They can create them on paper or in Twitter itself.

Or memes:


And random story about my main man, James Madison. He died on June 28th. Just shy of July 4th. Rumor has it (this is from my weekend studying at Montpelier) that the doctor asked if he wanted to be kept alive, and Madison declined. We all get it Jefferson, Adams, and Monroe. You died July 4th. Way to be super eery.

Lesson Ideas for Ideals of Democracy:

Discussion: Compare and Contrast the draft of the Declaration of Independence to the published copy. Discuss why changes were made. How have those changes shaped our government?

Writing: Explain how the Declaration of Independence has grown with the US. {Student should reference parts of history, preferably from AP US History, in their explanation}



Teaching American History

Declaration of Independence 

Button! on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert

You”ll Be Back- King George Responds

Hamilton Lyrics Book (this is a lifesaver)

Why Did Jefferson Draft the Declaration?

What You Might Not Know About The Declaration of Independence 

Declaration of Independence Draft v. Final- Lesson Plan from Colonial Williamsburg