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American Revolutionary War Thematic Unit with "Johnny Tremain"

written by: Mildred Wilson • edited by: Noreen Gunnell • updated: 10/3/2012

"Johnny Tremain" is an interesting historical fiction book that most middle school students find riveting. Not only will students learn their history with the book, but they can enhance their studies across core areas including language arts, social studies, math and writing

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    American Revolutionary War Thematic Unit

    johnny-tremain Grade Level:

    Middle School


    Students will be able to:

    • List and analyze important events that led up to the American Revolutionary War.
    • Recognize and evaluate the various emotions that motivate people to act.
    • Understand how different circumstances and information can change one's point of view.
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    Preliminary Discussion

    Before you begin the novel, help the students understand The Age of Enlightenment and how that impacted the colonists and their ultimate decision to fight for independence. Explain that Esther Forbes wanted to show in Johnny Tremain how young people were affected by the American Revolutionary War and how they, much like the adults, could begin to act on principles, entertain new ideas, and form new opinions. Terms important to the novel include:

    Apprentice - one bound by indenture to serve another for a prescribed period with a view to learning an art or trade

    Leviticus - the third book of canonical Jewish and Christian Scripture consisting mainly of priestly legislation

    Poultice - a soft heated and sometimes medicated mass spread on cloth and applied to sores or other lesions

    Whig - a political group that believed that taxation without representation was tyranny

    Tory - a political group that believed all differences with Great Britain could be settled with time, patience and respect

    John Locke - English philosopher (1632-1704)

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    Educational Activities

    Language Arts

    Read the novel, Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.

    Have the students perform a character study of the main characters in the novel. List the various emotions that the characters exhibited throughout the novel. Which characters did you find likable? Which characters did you find unlikable? Explain.

    Have the students write a short paragraph about how they think they might have acted if they found themselves in Johnny Tremain's shoes, i.e., handicapped. Should people be permitted to be rude to others because they have a handicap?

    Have the students read Henry Wadsworth Longfellow's poem, The Midnight Ride of Paul Revere. Ask the students to analyze the poem. Are there literary elements, such as a setting, plot, characters, conflict that one would find in a novel? How is poetry different from books? Go to Paul Revere's Ride by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

    Social Studies

    As a result of more education and awareness, the colonists refrained from violence. Instead, many battles were fought in court. Divide the students into five groups and have them research and summarize the following pieces of legislation: The Stamp Act of 1765, The Quartering Act of 1765, The Townshend Act of 1767, The Tea Act of 1773 and The Coercive Acts of 1774. Have the students list and discuss the kinds of emotions that the colonists exhibited as a result of these laws. Which of these laws became "the final straw" for the colonists and led to the American Revolutionary War?

    The Whigs (Americans favoring independence from Great Britain) and The Tories (Americans upholding the cause of the British Crown against the supporters of colonial independence) were the two political groups. Divide the students into two groups and have each group represent one of the parties. Have the students debate the validity of their assigned party's philosophy.

    Why was Johnny Tremain relatively ignorant about what was happening when he lived with Mr. Lapham? How did Johnny Tremain become more knowledgeable?


    Have the students go to the website, The value of money in colonial America-North Carolina Digital History. Using that information, have them solve the following problem. Focus on the major denominations, i.e., pound, shilling, and pence.

    Secure several newspapers and have the students select ten items to purchase. Have the students write down the article and the price. (Round off all prices, e.g., &29.99 to $30.00, $15.99 to $16.00, etc.) Convert the U.S. dollars to colonial American money and post beside each item.


    The rights of women, Indentured servants, slaves and Native Americans were not debated during the period leading up to or during the American Revolutionary War. Have the students read the comments made by people during that period. Instruct them to write a short essay as to why these comments were made.

    "A perpetual alliance, offensive and defensive, is to be entered into as soon as may be with the Six (Indian) Nations; their limits to be ascertained and secured to them; their land not to be encroached on, nor any private or colony purchases made of them hereafter to be held good, nor any contract for lands to be made but between the Great Council (of the Indians) at Onondaga and the General Congress ...- Article X of the Articles of Confederation, 1775

    "If particular care and attention are not paid to the ladies we are determined to foment a rebellion and will not hold ourselves bound to obey any laws in which we have no voice or representation". - Abigail Adams, 1776

    "We acknowledge our obligation to you for what you have already done, but as the people of this province seem to be actuated by the principles of equity and justice, we cannot but expect your house will again take our deplorable case into serious consideration, and give us that ample relief which, as men, we have a natural right to". - Circular Committee of Slaves, 1773


    In addition to any required paper and pencil tests, assess the students comprehension of the lesson by playing jeopardy. Divide the students into teams. Develop categories, such as laws, people, places, etc. Following is an example:

    Organized a spy system for the colonists - Who is Paul Revere?


  • Webster's Ninth New Collegiate Dictionary, Merriam-Webster Inc., 1985.
  • Esther Forbes, Johnny Tremain, Random House Children's Books, N.Y., 1971.
  • Richard Hofstadter, William Miller, Daniel Aaron, The Structure of American History, Prentice-Hall, Inc., N.J., 1973.
  • The Peoples Bicentennial Commission, Voices of The American Revolution, Bantam Books, N.Y., 1975
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