by Jeni Kisner

What do the Thomas Jefferson, Alexander Hamilton, the Beatles, Michael Jackson and Bob Marley all have in common? They write (and sing) of revolution and change.

revolution ppt

This year I changed up my lessons on the Declaration of Independence by looking at the rhetoric of revolution and change in popular songs and comparing that rhetoric to our founding father’s documents. Even if you don’t teach the Declaration, I think you’ll find some useful diction and tone strategies in this lesson.

To start, I asked my students the following quick write question: How do you define revolution? What do you associate with this word?

Nearly all their definitions included the word change. Many listed the American and French Revolutions. Some listed technological revolutions and social revolutions. Overwhelmingly, the word had a positive association, though some discussed the negative associations like violence and chaos—especially in revolutions that don’t go as planned.

We spent a few minutes looking up dictionary definitions and discussing those similarities. noted that Revolution comes from the word “revolvere “meaning to turn or roll back.


After this discussion, my students rotated around the room to 10 different annotation stations  of songs about revolution, from Michael Jackson’s “They Don’t Really Care About Us”, “Revolution” by the Beatles, “My Shot” from Hamilton, and “Waiting on the World to Change” by John Mayer. You can access the entire document of songs here and access my powerpoint for the activity.

At each of the songs, students annotated significant word choice, structural choices, repetition, symbolism and other notations. By the end, all the lyrics were filled with commentary.

revolution 1

After annotating the songs, students returned to their favorite song and as a group selected the three most significant words from their song and wrote those words on index cards. On the back they explained why the word was essential to the song and to understanding revolution.

On Day 2, we started class sharing why specific words were selected. We discussed similarities and noted that there were several common words like “change” and words like “we” and “they”.

Day 2 also was Declaration Day. Students had read and annotated the Declaration of Independence for homework, so Day 2 focused on the rhetorical situation and rhetorical choices in the historical document.

Each group focused on a section of the Declaration and identified 5 significant words and explained the significance of the words on the back of notecards.

Then, I compiled all the words from Day 1 (songs) and Day 2 (Declaration) totaling nearly 40 cards.

As a class, students worked together to categorize all the words into 3-4 categories. Throughout the day, I had categories such as strength/fighting words, “patriotic” words, action words, change words, and pronouns.

revolution-3.jpg revolution 2

Finally, I had the students evaluate the words and come to an agreement on which word was the most essential to understanding revolution. Fittingly, both classes chose the word “free”.

revolution 4

Ultimately, what I loved about how this lesson played out was the fact that students were having very thoughtful conversations about words and why they mattered. We worked with the historical documents, but more importantly, students began to see how language can inspire change.

As we move further into the rhetoric of revolution unit, we will dig into the language of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative of a Slave, and the rhetoric of the Civil Rights movement with the graphic novel March.

I’m excited also to dig into the revolutionary voices that are often kept silent. As I finish typing my blog, I’m thinking about the discussion that my students will have about this article tomorrow. Tomorrow, we discuss Benjamin Baneker’s letter to Jefferson and an excerpt from “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July”. As much as I love teaching the Declaration, I’m most looking forward to our work in the rhetoric of civil rights and how we must keep working to make all truly free.

I can’t wait to see where our conversation leads us, especially as we consider how our own language can affect change.

WVCTE is wondering . . . what are your favorite strategies for teaching historical documents in an English classroom? What are your favorite tools to teach diction and tone? Reach out to us on Facebook or on Twitter @wvcte and join the conversation.


Jeni Kisner is the secretary of WVCTE and is a bimonthly blogger on the best practices blog. Jeni teaches AP English Language, 10 Honors English, and English 10 at Hedgesville High School in Berkeley County. This is her 8th year of teaching, and her first year of teaching with the last name Kisner. Jeni enjoys reading and listening to books, crafting, and spending time with her husband and ridiculously energetic corgi, Geoffrey Pancake Kisner.


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