Colonialism and the Road to Revolution
Content Covered in Lesson Plan 1
The origins of the United States are often taught as a tale of heroics—
oppressed colonists revolt against an unreasonable English king,
somehow conceiving of noble ideals of freedom and equality all on their
own. The lessons in this unit focus on economic factors and incentives
for colonialism. They also seek to introduce students to Enlightenment
figures and ideas so that students understand that the ideas made so
famous by the Declaration of Independence—equality, freedom—had
their origins in thinking quite prevalent in Europe at the time. In other
words, Thomas Jefferson did not think this up all by himself.
Before diving into all of this content, students need to feel motivated
and understand the rationale behind the approach. The very first
activity, therefore, centers upon a text that discussed the “brain science”
justification for learning content.
It’s best to find out what students know about major events in U.S.
history before embarking on a series of lessons. In Lesson One, students
brainstorm major events they know about and predict where each event
belongs on a timeline. The class’s knowledge is pooled, and the teacher
finds out what students already know. The timeline introduced in the
first lesson will be returned to continually throughout the curriculum, so
that students can situate the particular events they are learning about
within a larger frame.
I try to use maps as often as possible so that students become familiar
with the world and U.S. map and gain map-reading skills. The places
that they are reading about may seem fairly abstract; locating them on a
map helps them become more real. Map-work in Lesson One introduces
students to the concept of colonialism. Students start by labeling the
continents to get their bearings on a world map before diving into
The lesson then guides students to consider the geography of the New
England, Middle, and Southern colonies, and how physical features
like climate, soil, navigable rivers, and ports shaped the economies
of each region—New England focusing on the sea because of poor soil
and proximity to the sea, while the Southern colonies were, from the
Content Covered in Lesson Plan 2
Students look at two features of colonial economics: mercantilism and
triangular trade. Reading about mercantilism introduces students
to two important terms, raw goods and finished or manufactured goods,
that will be revisited later in the curriculum. It also sets the stage for
understanding why the relationship between Great Britain and its
colonists changed when Britain reversed the policy of salutary neglect
after the French and Indian war.
In teaching history, I try to get students to think about not just the
“what,” but the why. Why does the past matter? An ongoing source of
conflict in our society is that of race relations, so one of the most obvious
reasons the past matters is in the connection between slavery and
racism. This is the discussion we have before reading “Since 1619,” a
poem which takes a sweeping historical view of the legacy of slavery.
Because this is a history-focused curriculum, students are necessarily
engaged in reading a lot of expository text. However, to be college-ready,
students must also develop skill in reading more difficult texts, like
poetry. In Lesson Two, students grapple with “Since 1619,” a challenging
poem. This activity is supported by the teacher through discussions
the form of poetry, the difficulties in comprehending poetry, and the
strategies readers can draw upon.
Content Covered in Lesson Plan 3
In Lesson Three, students consider the two Enlightenment thinkers
Locke and Hobbes on government. How did each philosopher conceive
of human nature? How did this view of human nature inform each man’s
view of government? This provides a frame for understanding a basic
division between forms of governments that are more autocratic and
those that are based on distribution of powers among different sectors of
It is also important for students to grasp natural rights philosophy—
where do rights come from? What is “consent of the governed?” Students
read about the two philosophies, practice paraphrasing to better
understand, and then look for Locke’s natural rights philosophy as
it is expressed in the Declaration of Independence. Finally, students
read about events that led up to the American Revolution and write
summaries of each to be placed on the class timeline.
One “thread” in the fabric of the curriculum is that of aspiration—what
will you do after you get your HSE diploma? Will you go to college? What
career will you choose? How does school, connect to your future? Adult
students tend to know very little about the world of work, the broad
array of careers available in different fields, or ways to research careers.
This lesson ends with a letter from a teacher who has decided to change
careers and attend medical school in order to become a doctor. The letter
explains the stages of her decisions in detail, and provides a model for
students in terms of exploring interests, considering different aspects of
a career, and also having the confidence to pursue their own interests.
After reading, students write about their own future plans.