Declaring Independence (in the Chinese classroom)

For my first week of American Literature class, we had some fun with Dr. Seuss’s Oh, the Places You’ll Go! Then I decided that it was time to actually formulate my syllabus and make a framework for the semester, rather than just haphazardly throwing different texts at the students from week to week. I found a syllabus online for a 10th grade English class that focused on American literature. Perfect. Then I looked up “American literature” on Wikipedia (like any good teacher, right?) for a little more background knowledge.

I decided to structure the class chronologically, so that as we work our way through American history, we will read works of literature representative of each time period. Groundbreaking, I know. Why didn’t I think of that before?

So, where to begin? Well, the Declaration of Independence, of course! I was struggling with how to present it to the class, though. I didn’t want to overwhelm my students with its complexity and length, but I wanted them to have an appreciation for what it stood for, how it was structured, and for the original language. I didn’t want to water it down too much.

After an introduction using pictures of the original declaration, the signing and good ole T.J.,  I chose some excerpts (about 3-6 lines each) and asked groups of students to “translate” their excerpt into their own words. They wrote their sentences on the board for the class to read, and really impressed me with their understanding.

Paraphrasing the excerpts

As I was circling some of the important words and phrases on the board (rights, freedom, independence, pursuit of happiness) I started to feel a little uncomfortable. Here I was, teaching my students about how a group of some frustrated people decided that they wanted to overthrow their government and start an independent country. Even though I didn’t mention anything about China, it’s still bordering on dangerous territory. But I kept on going…

To solidify their understanding of the content and structure, I found an activity online that I thought sounded interesting. I wasn’t sure how it would work in practice, but I wanted to give it a try. I asked them all to brainstorm a list of things that they did not like about their university, which we wrote on the board. Then I crept closer to the class and in a whisper said, “Guys, I have secret. We are going to declare independence from ****** University! We are not going to put up with this unfair treatment anymore. Are you with me?” They giggled, oohed and ahhed to their friends and after a little more prodding, responded with a resounding, “Yes!” I told them that they needed to write their own declaration of independence, using the original language and structure as a guide. We ran out of time for them to finish, but they got off to a good start, and the drafts that I collected look great.

Some students looked a little uncomfortable and probably thought I was slightly crazy, but they kept working on the task. It was only in my third and final class of the day that a student raised his hand and asked if I was going to show this to anybody. I reassured him that this was for my eyes only, and was simply meant to solidify their understanding of an important piece of American literature. “Ok,” he said, “Because this is kind of dangerous…”

On the bus ride home, as I was reflecting on the day’s lessons, I  began to feel a little nervous. Had I pushed the envelope too far? Was one of my students going to tattle on me? Would I get in trouble? After a conversation with my roommate, I decided that I was fully justified in my lesson plan. And then I started to revel in the fact that I was “dangerous.” It feels good 🙂

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4 thoughts on “Declaring Independence (in the Chinese classroom)

  1. Not as dangerous as thinking about swimming across that freezing river! Just in case I would make sure you are registered at the closest American consulate. Only an mib speaking…

  2. From Dr. Seuss to TJ in three weeks, how imaginative and daring! Can’t wait for your follow-up literature choices and activities.

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