Five Documents that Changed the World (and Will Engage Your Students)

5 Historical Documents that Changed the World
The Social Studies classroom is built around primary source exploration. The use of primary sources can lead to incredible analysis, discussion, and higher-level thinking. Use the five sources below in your classroom to engage your students and explore new and exciting methods of critical thinking and active learning.

1. Magna Carta

The theme of revolution is very apparent in today’s world. The causes of these revolutions reflect the very same issues that have faced people for centuries: equality and protection of rights. While the Magna Carta was not written with regular folks in mind, it certainly has been used that way throughout history. American revolutionaries used this document from 1215 to reinforce their rights as citizens and subjects of the British crown.

Excerpts of the Magna Carta can be used to analyze modern international and national incidents. Two standout sections that can be used in a modern discussion about Ferguson, Missouri, the Assad regime in Syria, or historical analysis of Stalinist Russia are:

“No freeman shall be taken, imprisoned, disseised, outlawed, banished, or in any way destroyed, nor will We proceed against or prosecute him, except by the lawful judgment of his peers or by the law of the land.”

“To no one will We sell, to no one will We deny or delay, right or justice.”

Help Teaching’s library of printable worksheets includes a quiz on the English Monarchy that would serve as an apt companion to a Magna Carta discussion.

2. Bill of Rights

The rights granted to Americans in the first ten amendments to the Constitution are so influential that they can be used across disciplines. These rights are the basis for so many other successful governments across the world that activities related to this document are easy to find and engaging to teach. The Bill of Rights can be analyzed to help your students think beyond the basics and improve their higher-level thinking. Another resource offered by Help Teaching is an application of the liberties offered in the Bill of Rights.

3. Washington’s Farwell Address

As he left office, President George Washington was able to encapsulate the conflicts that would soon bubble over in the country he helped to build and protect. This speech gives the students a glimpse into the future of the United States, while also allowing them to engage in critical thinking activities. Students can make inferences and draw conclusions about what may happen next in American history based on Washington’s speech. Help Teaching offers a worksheet that analyzes this historic speech and asks students to compare it to a modern speech given by British Prime Minister Tony Blair.

4. Treaty of Versailles

This document ended a world war and started another. It is directly responsible for the anger and desperation that allowed Adolph Hitler to gain power. The Treaty of Versailles can lead to an engaging lesson on long and short-term effects or the spoils of war, and allow students to hypothesize and experiment with historical events. These activities would be greatly enhanced with a graphic organizer or a KWL chart that organizes their knowledge base and learning objectives into manageable chunks.

5. The 19th Amendment to the Constitution

The struggle for women’s equality does not garner the same attention as other mistreated groups in many Social studies curricula, but covering the 19th amendment assists the females in the class to take more ownership of the content and exposes the students to women’s issues that still plague the country and the world today. The 19th Amendment can also be used in a larger unit on women’s history. Help Teaching offers a worksheet that can help you to map the unit.

These documents not only had an impact on a specific era, they also connect to so many more events, people, and themes that play a major role in the world today. They also assist teachers in engaging students with critical thinking and higher learning activities. Help Teaching’s library of informational text analysis worksheets will help further your successful implementation of engaging documents in the classroom,  For more tips on using graphic organizers with documents, check out Graphic Organizers in the Social Studies Classroom.

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5 Responses to “Five Documents that Changed the World (and Will Engage Your Students)”

  1. Stu says:

    the Magna Carta was written in 1215 not 1297.

  2. Simea mirans says:

    Minor correction: Magna Carta was reissued many times by various kings, including Edward I in 1297, but was originally granted by John in 1215.

  3. Rabin says:

    The most important document is missing. The Bible. All the 5 documents trace their roots into this document.
    The Bible is rejected only because it places mankind under a law that he did not create and therfore not able to remove.

  4. Perhaps a more appropriate title for this web page should be “5 Documents that Changed the USA.” You have my full agreement on the global (world) impact of the Magna Carta, and its eventual influence on legal systems around the world.

    Arguably, Treaty of Versailles had global implications. The US 19th Ammendment came about over a quarter century later than New Zealand, the first to embrace Women’s Suffrage, and after ten other countries in the world. Hardly indicative of a leadership role for that document.

    As for Washington’s Farewell, it’s difficult to imagine any level of global impact beyond the circle of people it was intended for.

    Bills of Rights have been drafted and legislated by societies as old as England in 1100, 1215, 1628, 1689; Poland in 1264, 1573; and many others penned during the more enlightened ages of our history. None can be seen as definitive.

    The US Declaration of Independence is perhaps of significance, in the same vein as Magna Carta, and for classroom use in the United States of America a fine tool. The Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, 1982, is another fine document, as is the Charter of the United Nations, 1945.

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