If you are a high school English/language arts or American history teacher, chances are that you are actively involved in developing curriculum guides and teaching strategies for addressing the Common Core State Standards for reading and understanding primary source documents. While the standards don’t specify instructional approaches, the end goal is clear:
CCSS.ELA-Literacy.RI.11-12.9 Analyze seventeenth-, eighteenth-, and nineteenth-century foundational U.S. documents of historical and literary significance (including The Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address) for their themes, purposes, and rhetorical features.
Thomas Paine’s pamphlet Common Sense is considered a key exhibit in our nation’s collection of founding documents and the CCSS authors list it as an exemplar text for 11th and 12th grades. Historians credit the document with launching the movement to seek independence from the British monarchy sooner rather than later. It is a tightly structured and forceful argument that provides educators with a platform for guiding students through the process of critical analysis.
Workshop 2, “Common Sense and the American Revolution: The Power of the Printed Word” of the series Primary Sources: Workshops in American History places the 48-page document in a powerful context that amplifies its significance in events leading to independence.
Did you know that Thomas Paine had been in the colonies only a few weeks before he took pen to parchment? Prior to the publication of Common Sense, the colonists were seeking reconciliation with England, not independence. The first published argument for independence, Common Sense became the 18th century equivalent of an international best seller. Consider how the events leading to independence might have been different if Benjamin Franklin had not persuaded a 39-year-old former tax collector to seek work in the colonies.
Take a look at how teacher Andrew Sullivan adapted what he learned from the workshop to create an activity that engages students with key concepts within Common Sense. You will also find links to additional primary source documents such as the James County, Virginia, Statement of Independence. These documents encourage thoughtful comparison of Paine’s argument to, and open a window onto colonist’s involvement in, decisions made by the Second Continental Congress.
What instructional strategies are you employing to help your students use and understand primary source documents such as Common Sense?