As we continue preparations for the Richard Bartol, Jr. Conference for Educators at the end of the month, Teacher Ranger Rob Finkill begins a series for teachers who cannot attend the conference, but that focuses on the same types of primary source document comparisons… this one between the Declaration of Independence, and a speech delivered by Frederick Douglass on the meaning of the Fourth of July to the enslaved population.

Recently on July 4th,  Americans  celebrated our nation’s  birthday.  Fireworks, picnics, and hot dogs of course played a major part in those celebrations. It has also been a time for citizens to celebrate the ideas and principles of the Declaration of Independence. Americans, throughout our history, have interpreted our founding documents in different ways. The Fourth of the July is a great chance to look at the Declaration of Independence and how Americans have interpreted its meaning.

4th of July   The Declaration of Independence is, obviously, a great primary source for students to analyze. Another interesting primary source activity would be to look at how its meaning has been interpreted and used over the years by citizens of the United States across multiple generations.

Making a connection

The debate over slavery in the United States led to specific uses of the meaning of the Declaration (and the Constitution for that matter ) by both African-American and white abolitionists. No where is that demonstrated more clearly than in a speech given by Frederick Douglass on July 5, 1852 called “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”.

This speech and the Declaration can help students site specific evidence of how the principles and beliefs contained in the Declaration of Independence helped give hope to African Americans in Antebellum America and the movement to end slavery.

DOI l  Start from the beginning

Before looking at the Frederick Douglass speech, students should understand the principles found in the Declaration of Independence that focus on the rights that African Americans and abolitionists were fighting for.

Have students look at the first section of the Declaration of Independence and support a simple claim statement:

Here is an example:

The Declaration of Independence states that people have the right to freedom and a government that protects their rights.

Students can use the Google Document below which contains a portion of the first section of the Declaration along with a student friendly version for lower level readers.

Declaration of Independence Text

Have students use the graphic organizer below to organize their thoughts. The organizer has a section to include a “concrete detail” (specific fact) and space for students to make their own supporting details about the text they select.

Detail and Supporting Details Graphic organizer


douglassFrederick Douglass’s Fourth of July Speech

Many experts consider this the greatest American abolition speech ever. Douglass himself stated that he worked as hard on this speech as any he ever did. The speech was given on July 5, 1852 in Rochester, NY. Interestingly enough, some abolition groups and some African American communities in New York had taken to holding Fourth of July ceremonies on the 5th of July as a protest. In 1852, the debate over slavery was growing. The Fugitive Slave Act, as a part of the Compromise of 1850,  had caused much resentment in the North and Uncle Tom’s Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe had recently been published, bringing the reality of slavery to parlors all over the country.

The speech itself is very long (it took over 90 minutes to deliver), so having students look at the entire speech may not be practical. The speech can divided into three parts:

Full Text of the Speech

Part 1 : History of the Declaration and the Founding Fathers

Douglass summarizes and praises the Founding Fathers and the Declaration.

Part 2: Slavery in America

After almost soothing the audience, he delivers his own feelings on the 4th of July and how a slave might view it, using irony and symbolism in many cases.

Here is a well known portion of the speech found in Part 2:

What, to the American slave, is your 4th of July? I answer; a day that reveals to him, more than all other days in the year, the gross injustice and cruelty to which he is the constant victim. To him, your celebration is a sham; your boasted liberty, an unholy license; your national greatness, swelling vanity; your sounds of rejoicing are empty and heartless; your denunciation of tyrants, brass fronted impudence; your shouts of liberty and equality, hollow mockery; your prayers and hymns, your sermons and thanksgivings, with all your religious parade and solemnity, are, to Him, mere bombast, fraud, deception, impiety, and hypocrisy—a thin veil to cover up crimes which would disgrace a nation of savages. There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and bloody than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

Part 3: Hope for the Future

It is easy to focus on the words of Part 2, and forget that Douglass shares in Part 3 that there is hope for our nation based on the principles found in the Declaration of Independence.

I have taken portions  of the speech  that relate to the Declaration and included student friendly versions for lower level readers  and placed them on a Google Doc whose link is found below. This may help make the speech more manageable in a class period or two.  You may want to create questions for students to answer from each section; just have them read it and discuss, or even make a wordle word cloud (click to see one) for a quick summary.

Click for a Google document with portions of the speech and student friendly versions of those portions.


making connectionsMaking connections between the speech and the Declaration of Independence

“No one used the principles of the Declaration so forcefully as the abolitionists, particularly black abolitionists. Without those principles at the founding (of our nation) blacks would have had no where to look for a future in America.”

-Historian and Author David Blight

Students start the activity by examining the principles of the Declaration, so after reading  the speech students can be asked to:

  • Support the statement by the historian David Blight by siting specific examples where Douglass references the principles in the Declaration.

Here are a few examples:  belief in natural rights, equality, liberty, right of revolution

This question could relate directly to a Common Core goal for Social Studies (grades 6-8):

Cite specific textual evidence to support analysis of primary and secondary sources.

Other ideas

  • Look for examples of irony and symbolism in the speech and explain.
  • Put yourself in the crowd that day, how would you have reacted?
  • Why does Douglass use pronouns of “you” and “yours” extensively?   What message is he trying to send the audience?
  • Use Douglass’s argument for a modern issue “What to the _______ is the 4th of the July?”



Independence Daze: A History of the 4th of July Pod Cast from Backstory.org

(Backstory with the American History Guys is an excellent podcast resource.)

Edusitement lesson plan : Launchpad: Frederick Douglass: What to the Slave is the 4th of July?

Reading Frederick Douglass from the Massachusetts Foundation for the Humanities


Comment and share more ideas on the speech

Teacher Ranger, Rob Finkill, is finished with the school year and back at the park for the summer.  In this post, he shares his insights about a new and effective use for 20% of the classroom time he has with his students.  Two members of the park staff were thrilled to work with Hershey Middle School students for this initiative, and we’d be happy to work with you and your students too!


As a classroom teacher in an ever-changing educational environment, it can be a challenge to keep students’ interest. The team I work with teaching 8th grade American Cultures had a brainstorm following a recent in-service session.


80 20


 If it’s good for Google …

The in-service we attended described an opportunity that Google gives their employees. The company allows their workers 20 % of their time to work on their own projects. Chris Kesler describes it on geniushour.com web as such:

“Allow people to work on something that interests them, and productivity will go up.  Google’s policy has worked so well that it has been said that 50% of Google’s projects have been created during this creative time period.  Ever heard of Gmail or Google News?  These projects are creations by passionate developers that blossomed from their 20-time projects.”

Click Here to View an interview with Google’s Director of People Operations

We decided, as a team, in our Civil War unit to try this in our classrooms.


This is middle school, not Google, Inc.

The first year we tried this activity we called it 80 – 20 projects. Eighty percent of classroom time was spent on lesson and activities of our Civil War Unit. Then students got 20% of the unit time to research whatever they wanted related to the Civil War and make some kind of presentations to the class at the end of the unit. No real guidelines or structure, just time for the student to learn! Sounds great, but not all students have an interest in the Civil War or may be as motivated as Google employees. It was also difficult for some students to do something at school that wasn’t graded!  We had some good results, but not really what we were hoping for.


research is fun!  Take two on the 80-20 project

I have always felt great teachers reflect on their craft and that is what we did. This past year we structured the project time around:

We teamed with our English teachers on thesis statement (claim statement for you Common Core fans). The English teachers helped students write strong claims and organize their citations. We did the things any good teacher does with a project: set some due dates for tasks to be completed, checked in with students along the way, gave ideas for those who didn’t know where to start, worked with Learning Support to allow all students success, and used the Media Specialist in the library as a resource.

Students could pick any topic they wanted and make any type of presentation they wanted within our very basic guidelines.


What we found…

Even though we have 20% less instructional time dedicated to the unit learning objectives, the level of expectation for what we want the students to know and understand did not change. By utilizing this strategy, it appears as though we lost 20% of our instructional time, but this is what we have found:

1) Students tend to be more focused during the teacher-directed instructional time focused on the unit learning objectives;

2) Students tend to more easily draw connections between the topic they have chosen to research and the information focused on the unit learning objectives;

3) Students research and share information about some interesting topics that would not typically be covered during class;

4) Student achievement on the unit assessment that focused on the unit learning outcomes was better than any other unit.


Final Products

Students researched topics ranging from battles, individuals, ghosts, and technology to horses, baseball, and food.  Presentations varied from live extemporaneous style talks to videos related to their topics.  We experienced storytime as a student told a story about a soldier who wrote a letter home to demonstrate Civil War slang; we played Civil War era baseball and learned about how different and similar the game was to today’s game; and we tasted the Civil War by sampling hard tack (some with worms baked in), cornbread, and really bad coffee. Students compared the music of the Civil War to the music of today or described the roles that women played in the war. We had the standard power points, but several students created videos or used other presentation sites such as Prezi. When students are given a little autonomy to study what interests them, the results can be amazing!

It was a challenge to give up time in the classroom and for some students it was a challenge to work without so much structure, but we tried to help with graphic organizers and frequent check ins.

A student in Art Titzel’s class, Matt Venable, went outside the walls of the school for information on medical practices of the Civil War. Matt’s video was a culmination of research he did on amputations during the Civil War.  For his research he not only consulted books and websites, but he also contacted experts at Gettysburg National Battlefield,  like our own Education Specialist, Barb Sanders,  for guidance and primary sources.

Overall, we saw a lot of positive results and may try this in other units as well!

Try the 20% approach and see what happens with your students!


Here are few examples:

Civil War Medicine

Prezi on Civil War Music

Flipagram on Horses

Civil War Food

The Battle of Shiloh


Some teachers are calling this type of learning Genius Hour.

Click to see a web site detailing 6th grade students at Hershey Middle School’s Genius hour projects and process.

Thanks to Nate Beamer & Art Titzel for contributing to this blog post.




Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 551 other followers