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Units July 6, 2022

Grappling with the Paradox of American Liberty

Lesson Summary: Students read historical and contemporary texts. They analyze how the authors reconcile the ideals in the founding documents with slavery, and how they use rhetorical devices to strengthen arguments. Downloads: Unit resources

This unit was created by the Kensington Health Sciences Humanities Team as part of the 2021 cohort of The 1619 Project Education Network. It is designed for facilitation across approximately ten weeks with daily lessons.

Essential Questions

  • How can we reconcile the ideals of liberty and equality in the founding documents with the historical reality of slavery and its legacy of racism?
  • What techniques do writers use to make their arguments stronger?


Students will be able to...

  • Identify how an author uses evidence, reasoning, and/or rhetorical techniques to strengthen their argument, in order to evaluate the effectiveness of that argument.
  • Understand the major themes of the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, in order to evaluate how different authors interpret these texts.
  • Analyze how historical and social context influences an author’s perspective.
  • Use textual evidence in order to justify their claims about how an author strengthens their argument.
  • Use context clues, morphology, and other strategies as appropriate to determine meaning of unfamiliar vocabulary.

Unit Overview

Students will begin by reading and discussing the Declaration of Independence and the Bill of Rights. They will then read the first two sections of Nikole Hannah-Jones’ anchor essay for The 1619 Project, “The Idea of America.” As they read Hannah-Jones’ piece, they will practice finding the author’s thesis and analyzing what kinds of evidence, reasoning, and stylistic techniques Hannah-Jones uses to strengthen that thesis. After using a graphic organizer to keep track of this information, they will use their notes to write a short analytical response explaining how Hannah-Jones strengthens her argument.
Much of the negative press The 1619 Project has received attempts to paint Hannah-Jones’ thesis as somehow not grounded in history. In the latter weeks of the unit, students engage with a series of primary source texts and draw their own conclusions. Each of the four additional texts included (an excerpt from David Walker’s “Appeal”; Frederick Douglass’ famous speech “What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?”; Justice Taney’s infamous majority opinion in Dred Scott v. Sanford; and “Lynching: Our National Crime” by Ida B. Wells) grapples with the conflict between what the founding documents say America stands for, and the reality of the Black experience in America. As they work with each text, students will continue to practice finding an author’s claim, determining how they strengthen that claim, and communicating that information clearly in argumentative writing.

Performance Task

The performance task for this unit will be a portfolio of short analytical responses to the texts we read. Each response will consist of two paragraphs. In the first paragraph, students will explain how the author of the text reconciles the ideals of liberty and equality in the founding documents with the historical reality of slavery and (if applicable) its legacy of racism. Students will be expected to identify the author’s thesis or main idea, and justify their choice with evidence from the text. In the second paragraph, students will identify what they believe to be the most important way the author strengthens their argument. They will choose a salient example to illustrate their point, and evaluate how effective that technique was.

As part of the final portfolio assignment, students will choose 2-3 of the short responses they have written to polish and revise, based on peer and teacher feedback. In addition, they will prepare an additional written reflection, responding to the question “Which author made the strongest argument, and why?”


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