Sunday, September 30, 2007

Podcast #120 - Teaching the Declaration of Independence as a Break Up Letter

Hello. Today's podcast describes one of the activities I use in class to teach about the Declaration of Independence. Students often don't really understand the purpose of the document and this activity usually helps. I act as if I have found a note on the floor of my class the day before after school and then I read it to the class. It is a break up letter and at the end the students are stunned to learn that it is from "the American Colonies". I have included the text of the letter that I use below and the podcast has a recording of what happens when I read the letter in class and the discussion that follows. The podcast also has some hints and suggestions if you would like to replicate this activity in your classroom. I'm sure someone out there does something similar but I have not been able to find it anywhere else. I really enjoy this activity and my students have fun with it as well.

If you have any comments or questions please leave a comment on the blog or send me an e-mail at

Text of the letter that I read to my class this year:

I'm not sure how to start this letter but I feel we need to talk. I've been thinking about us a lot lately. Things used to be so great - it was like we were M.F.E.O. I mean everyone said it was perfect. I really thought we would be together forever but then things changed.

I feel like you started to take me for granted. You just started to do whatever you wanted and never even asked me about anything or how I felt.

I've been thinking about this for a while and I don't want to hurt you but I think it is time we broke up. I mean it's just not going to work. I need some time by myself to see what it is like on my own. I'm sorry things didn't work out but I do think YOU are the one to blame. Sorry but "US" is over.

The American Colonies

UPDATED - OCTOBER 30, 2008 - I took video of this activity using the Flip video camera and have added the video to show how the activity works in class.


  1. What a great way to teach the Declaration. 8th graders are so interested in relationships and the drama the can go along with them. I'm sure every ear was tuned in, and they were on the edges of their seats waiting to find out who was involved in the letter. Keep up the great work, Mr. Lanhorst.

    Julie McCubbins

  2. Anonymous10:41 PM

    Great idea!!! I agree that the 8th grade students would really enjoy this outlook on teaching the Declaration. Thank you for sharing! Also, what recording device do you currently use? Or what device would you suggest to purchase? I am looking for the ability to record my classroom and use it for possible podcasts. I have a good mic on my computer at home, but that limits what I can do. Just wanted to ask! Thanks!

  3. Anonymous6:39 PM

    I teach high school rather then 8th graders but I can see the value in this as a warm up for all the work we do with The Declaration. Thanks for a fun idea!

  4. Great warm-up. When I first subscribed to your podcast I was hoping you would share more in-class strategies so this is excellent. I'm going to use this activity when I go over the Declaration of Independence for my class this week.

    Great job on the podcasts and a belated congratulations on your recent award, you deserve it.

  5. Anonymous3:43 PM

    Great podcast. I really enjoyed this episode you are doing a great job. Thank you very much for taking the time to record the students reaction and put this audio together. Once again, great job! Thank you for sharing!

  6. I am not a teacher (yet) but I do want to teach American History because I am astounded that so few people know ANYTHING. To not know what the Declaration of Independence is about is a shame.

    This is a great way to bring it down to a personal level and display the meaning behind it on the most basic level. "We don't get along anymore and it's time to go our separate ways." Perfect! My only concern is that it seems to be a very passive and kind letter. I think an angry tone would fit the mood better but it still is a wonderful idea!

  7. Anonymous4:09 PM

    Great idea for teaching this topic. I am currently doing my student teaching semester in Phoenix, Arizona. I am actually teaching high school juniors, but with some tweaking, this introduction could work out well. Earlier in the semester, I had introduced the Declaration of Indy with having the students rewrite the Preamble in today's language, and followed that up with an activity that had them declare themselves independent of something in their lives.

    P.S. Congratulations of the Teacher of the Year award!

  8. Anonymous8:11 AM

    I did this yesterday in my class. It was amazing to see my students make the connection. My greatest concern was that some students would tell my other students in later classes about the letter. NO ONE did! 100% of all my students were totally fooled. I also teach journalism and I have some of the same students in that class. They were still talking about it and telling the other students I don't have all about it. Thank you SO MUCH for sharing this idea. Terri

  9. Anonymous11:07 PM

    Thank you! I attended your session at the NCSS conference and it was one where I walked away excited and full of new ideas that I will try this year. I was back in school today, Monday, and I used the Declaration break up letter with my 8th graders. It worked perfectly! They were on the edge of their seats, were using their best persuasive arguments to get me to read it, and really got the connection to the Constitution. This is a lesson they won't forget. Thanks from Oregon!

  10. Anonymous3:22 PM

    What a creative and unique approach to such an important topic in a history lesson! You've automatically eliminated one of what I sometimes find to be the biggest challenges...hooking students immediately on something they might find dry or boring! Very cool, thanks for sharing!

  11. Anonymous7:10 PM

    Fantastic Idea! Thank you for sharing it! I will be teaching 8th grade American History this year for the first time ~ your website, podcast and ideas have really inspired me!

  12. Severely limited academic perspective. The lesson teaches that only the emotional feeling of the writer and reader are worth remembering. To learn the full scope of the position of the colonies, students need to learn that words mean things. Words are not for the purpose of conjuring up an emotional feeling. Words communicate information. The Declaration is not merely a shallow break up letter, it is a rational document describing exactly why, and on what/whose authority the colonies declared independence from the governing influence of England. That makes it much more than a simplistic "break up letter". It is a clear statement of direction and intent that incorporates the rational thinking of the writers who put their names on the document. For example: "We, therefore, the Representatives of the United States of America, in general Congress assembled,
    appealing to the Supreme Judge of the world for the rectitude of our intentions", is not an emotional decision to break off a romantic relationship. It is a clear commitment to a transcendent authority for confirmation of their action. If school students do not understand things like this, an learn to think about the underlying motive for declaring independence, they will lose their ability to think critically rather than terminate their thought processes in the vagueness and instability of emotional feelings.

  13. Anonymous8:23 PM

    Hey K.. I have been teaching many years, and let me tell you this idea is fresh, and gets teh kids excited and interested in what normally might be very dull to a 13 year old kid. The "hook" as we call it is the key to the success of the unit. I can only imagine a 13 year old reading your comments and looking much like that dog does when he hears a sound he doesnt understand... "HUH"

  14. Anonymous3:49 PM

    THANK YOU!!! I am a second year teacher and will be teaching the Declaration as a break up letter for the second time. I teach 7th grade students and struggle getting a lot of my lower level students reading. My kids get so involved and actually walk away proud that they can read and understand a primary source document. "Finding" a break-up letter in the classroom will be the perfect way to hook kids. I then go on to deconstruct various pieces of the declaration and as a class we rewrite them in language the kids can access and understand. It was great to see that I am not the only teacher who has seen the potential here!

  15. Anonymous8:27 PM

    Excellent idea!! I was advised by a former teacher to have my students write a break up letter. Now, I will do both your activity and as a follow up they will be writing their own break up letters. These ideas help, especially for new teachers like me. Thank You!!

  16. Anonymous10:12 PM

    LOVE this idea! Cant wait to try it with my 8th graders. What a creative and engaging way to get them interested. Thank you!

  17. I am planning my unit on the Declaration and am so excited to use this idea to get the ball rolling. Thank you for sharing!

  18. I used your activity today with my 8th graders. They really loved it, and continuing to compare the Declaration of Independence throughout the lesson helped them better understand the document. Thanks!!