Continental Congressional Law & Order: How I Intend to Use the Declaration of Independence (Next Year)

While some may want a time machine to witness seminal moments in history, I just want to go back a month ago. It was a simpler time back then, a younger Michael Milton went to begin teaching a unit that would lead his class to the American War for Independence. And I want very much to travel back to stop him.

It’s not that my unit went off track.

I’m proud of the fact that I added in a lesson that discussed ways in which enslaved workers protested – which included looking at the Dunmore Proclamation where enslaved workers in Virginia could fight with the British military in exchange for their freedom (which is referenced in the last of the grievances listed in the Declaration of Independence).

It’s that I think I know how to make the unit better.

And in doing so, I would make one of the most important pieces of our history as the centerpiece.

I figured it out while preparing and updating  an activity for my World History class. For this class, my students are looking at the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of Citizen to decide which of the sacred rights of man that Robespierre violated during his Reign of Terror. I call it, “Law & Order: French Revolution.” [Here is a link to the piece that I wrote about this a few years ago.]

That’s right.

I’m going to bring Law & Order into my US I curriculum.


What if after establishing the colonies I paused from the typical sequence to look at the Declaration of Independence! It’s not like this would spoil the 1700s for my students. I mean, the fireworks held in pretty much every town did that for me. 

We can spend a bit looking at the argument that Jefferson sets up. Perhaps, we can dig into Locke’s concept of the social contract and what happens when said contract is violated. Once we break down the argument, we can look at the grievances that the colonists have with the crown. Perhaps, we’ll focus on a few of them – or look at them all. But once we have spent enough time understanding the grievances, we spend the rest of the unit as investigators looking for examples of the grievances in action.

As we then discuss the Navigation Acts, the Sugar Acts, the French and Indian War and the rest of the way to the time the colonists cry, “enough!’ and declare independence, we’ll have a side project going where students look for those things that Jefferson wrote as grievances.

For each of the grievances found in action, students would complete a “grievance card’, drawing and explaining how the colonists felt violated.


Students may be required to come up with a certain amount of the cards during the unit, and there could also be a prize for the student(s) who found the most!

This way the Declaration of Independence isn’t just something we “cover”, but it is rather a foundational part of the unit. Perhaps this will lead to a discussion of evidence gathered. Maybe we’ll discuss and debate whether some of the grievances were less valid than others. Perhaps we will discuss when they would have declared their independence – 0r who did the grievances more impact. Whatever we do, at the end of the unit when we discuss it our conversation will be richer having spent time working with the document throughout the unit.

Sadly, as I cannot travel back in time I do now know how the unit will end up. I can only sit and think. And wait until next year. 

Then I’ll finally be able to use this in my US I class as well!

About Michael K. Milton

I teach students Social Studies at Burlington High School. When I became a teacher, I believed that students would frequently give me apples. This has not happened (not even a Red Delicious ~ a name which is a misnomer). However, my school has given me a MacBook Pro and an iPad in an effort to right this wrong (I assume). I'm very lucky to work in a 1:1 school.
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