Reconstructing the Declaration of Independence and the Committee of Five for Digital Natives

Article excerpt

Far too often, history is taught from one, often flawed, perspective that distorts students' views of historical events. (1) A good example of this is the typical student's understandings about the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence. Too many of them think that Thomas Jefferson alone constructed the Declaration of Independence, of entirely his own thoughts, and that he completed the first, which was also the final, draft in a single day. Most believe that independence was approved unanimously on July 4, which led all of the delegates to sign the Declaration that same day. John Trumball's famous painting depicting the presentation of the Declaration of Independence provides a major impetus for the mental images constructed by our students. Finally, many think that all of the above took place in "Independence Hall," as it was known in 1776.

This is a typical version, as it is understood by many of our students, of the creation and signing of the Declaration of Independence, filled with misconceptions often learned from textbooks and websites. The essay that follows outlines an approach to teaching that attends to these misunderstandings about the Declaration of Independence and the committee of five men assigned the task of constructing that document. Since the majority of our students are "Digital Natives," "native speakers" of the digital language of computers, video games, and the Internet, (2) and thrive when given an opportunity to use technology in the course of learning about history, the means utilized for this approach is the construction of an online social networking site. In addition, students need to have opportunities to go beyond their lives and develop understandings about the past that expand their thinking beyond the present. (3) They need to have authentic opportunities to conduct inquiry-based explorations similar to that of historians, to develop higher-level thinking skills, and to learn that history is not a singular, static fact to be learned, void of investigation or interpretation. (4) It is vital for students to examine primary source materials, think about contextual clues, empathize with historical agents, and interpret the past. In this way, they experience the ways in which background, bias, and values influence historical accounts. (5) Various technologies, especially the Internet, have allowed educators access to a wide variety of resources outside of the classroom, so acquisition of primary sources and the development of historical thinking skills are easier today than ever. (6)

Ning and Spruz (7) were tested and used for this activity, but other social networking sites would allow teachers to accomplish their intended goals, as well. It is important to note that the focus of this essay is on the electronic sources available, but print sources can and should be integrated when and where available and appropriate. Additionally, the focus for this project was the Declaration of Independence for utilization with middle and high school-aged students, but this approach could be used with a variety of subjects and adapted to any grade level.

Historical Content to Be Acquired

Several content-related elements are important for students to acquire during this activity. First, students need to learn that the committee chosen to write the Declaration consisted of five men: two from New England, John Adams of Massachusetts and Roger Sherman of Connecticut; two from the Middle Colonies, Benjamin Franklin of Pennsylvania and Robert R. Livingston of New York; and one Southerner, Thomas Jefferson of Virginia. Second, students should know that Jefferson constructed the first draft on his own over the span of many days, that he utilized multiple sources in its construction, and that committee members and the Continental Congress provided feedback prior to final approval. Third, students should know that Congress reconvened on July 1, 1776, and that the day after, on July 2, twelve of the thirteen states approved a resolution for independence proposed by Richard Henry Lee of Virginia. …