Teaching the 250th with Historic Places: A Field Guide to Lessons for America’s Semiquincentennial

This guide is part of the Teaching with Historic Places program.

Commemorating the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence goes beyond studying the document itself. The Declaration outlined values and promises for what kind of country the United States could be. Each generation takes part in the ongoing process of defining, defending, and expanding these values.

Dred and Harriet Scott statue and the Old Courthouse.

Statue of Dred and Harriet Scott at the Old Courthouse in St. Louis, Missouri. Many cases were argued and decided at this courthouse. The Scott’s case is perhaps one of the most famous. In 1846 the couple filed a suit to obtain their freedom from slavery. NPS photo.

What will you find here?

This guide contains lessons designed to give students both a sense of place and the big themes in American history. The lesson plans will help students evaluate the values of the Declaration of Independence through a diverse set of historical places. These lessons are inquiry-based, student-centered and built on primary source documents. Most of them will give students extensions to explore these themes in their own community.

The ideas from the Declaration or Constitution can often feel abstract to students. Here, four themes categorize the documents: liberty, equality, memory, and belonging. Anchoring these themes in specific places help students connect to the past. The guide will highlight specific lessons in different eras of American history that showcase these themes. Teaching with Historic Places lessons give a nuanced picture of the struggles and triumphs of different generations of Americans to form "a more perfect Union."

runaway slave ad
While founders like Thomas Jefferson and James Madison wrote about a country founded on natural rights and liberty, they did not include Africans and people of African descent in this vision. Slavery continued another eighty-nine years after America declared independence.

Image courtesy of the Library of Congress,

Guiding Questions:

  • How have values and promises in the Declaration of Independence been interpreted throughout American history? How have they evolved?
  • Who has had access to the promises in the Declaration of Independence? How have different people fought to be included and make a “more perfect Union”?
  • What is the role of place in defining and expanding American values and belonging?

Lessons by Theme:

Theme 1: Liberty

“Give me liberty or give me death,” concluded Patrick Henry in a famous address to the colonial Virginia legislature. In a time of inequality and slavery, the idea of “liberty” had different meanings for early Americans. Those meanings are still debated today. How do you engage your students in discussions of freedom and liberty?


Theme 2: Equality

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal.” Thomas Jefferson wrote this famous phrase in a time of extreme inequality. These words have formed the cornerstone of debate about American values. Activists from Elizabeth Cady Stanton to Martin Luther King Jr. have invoked the Declaration of Independence in fighting to expand its application. The struggle for equality is ongoing. How is your classroom a site for furthering equality?


Theme 3: Memory 

As we celebrate America 250, how we remember says a lot about who we are as a nation. Studying different commemorations throughout history help us understand different historical perspectives. It can also open up a conversation in your classroom about what we should commemorate today and how. Memory shapes our knowledge of history. What decisions has your community or school made about what to teach? How does that influence the history your students remember? 


Theme 4: Belonging  

Students are often looking to see themselves in the history we teach. Many groups have struggled to be a part of the American project. Different time periods presented different ideas and challenges for inclusion. Help students see the efforts to widen the definition of what it means to be an American. What makes students feel like they are American? Do they? 

Featured Lessons:


Revolutionary Lessons 

Looking for a lesson that speaks directly to the American Revolution for this anniversary? There are National Parks and Teaching with Historic Places lessons that cover the Revolutionary period. We hope these lessons will introduce students to multiple themes that you can carry throughout the year. Use these as a springboard to other lessons in the guide.  


About This Guide:

This guide was written by Alison Russell. Alison is a National Council for Preservation Education intern with the Cultural Resource Office of Interpretation and Education. She taught 7th through 12th grade Social Studies for 10 years in Montgomery County, Maryland. She is currently a PhD Student at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst with an interest in the U.S. Constitution, public memory and commemoration.

Last updated: March 6, 2024