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October 19, 2016

Veterans Day: Exploring Symbolism in a Military Ceremony

By Mary Blow
Grades 6–8

    In my post "Honoring Our Military Heroes," I wrote of the various ways we observe Veterans Day in my classroom. This year, I wanted to try something new, by adding a missing in action/prisoners of war (MIA/POW) table. It is the hook to my lesson on symbolism. After my middle school students explore the symbolism of the ceremonial table we jump into analyzing symbolism in literature.

    Every year, my sixth graders compete in the Veterans of Foreign War Patriot’s Pen Essay Writing Contest. For the past 11 years, I have had students win at the local level. The contest winners, their families, and I are invited to participate in a celebratory dinner with the war veterans in our community.

    At every honorary dinner there is a table, beautifully set, yet hauntingly empty. It is the missing in action/prisoner of war table, left empty to honor the prisoners of war and missing military men and women. Not a whisper is heard from the crowd as a VFW member reads the script, explaining the symbolism of each item on the table.

    Each year, I feel honored to be a part of this remembrance and wish all my students could share in the experience. That is why this Veterans Day, I decided to create a MIA/POW table to commemorate our captured or missing military men and women.

    The History Behind the Tradition

    The tradition of the MIA/POW table commemorating the prisoners of war or missing comrades first began after the Vietnam War. It is unknown who first began the custom, but it has spread to become a part of many military ceremonies in all branches of the United States military. The table setting varies slightly among the different branches, but the symbolism remains the same. At Navy Live, the official blog for the United States Navy, you can download and print “The POW/MIA Table: A Place Setting for One, A Table for All,” the script explaining the symbolism of the table setting.

    Materials

    • small round table

    • white tablecloth

    • empty chair

    • bible

    • black napkin

    • single red rose

    • yellow candle and ribbon

    • salt

    • white dinner plate and bread plate

    • inverted wine glass

    A small bistro table is perfect, but I did not have one, so I improvised by cutting a 30-inch diameter circle from plywood, and set it on top of a student desk. A 70-inch white tablecloth covers it, so it looks authentic. It is nice that it can be dismantled and stored easily. I put a silk rose in the vase for now, but on Veterans Day, I will display a real one in it.

    I was hesitant about putting the Bible on display, wanting to be sensitive to those of varying religions or those with none at all. It is not my intent to promote one religion over another. My intent is to honor this military tradition and many of the military warriors who do believe in a higher power.

    I used a water goblet instead of a wine glass because of the influential age of my sixth graders. Since some POW/MIA tables are set with water goblets, I felt it was appropriate.

    According to The United States Department of Defense fact sheet, you can use their military service emblems or coat of arms for educational purposes. Because my school is near an Army base, and we have soldiers’ children in our school, I wanted to give a nod to the Army while acknowledging the other branches. The emblems from four major branches of the United States military are posted behind the empty chair. These shown in the image below are mounted on black cardstock and printed of to give them a polished, formal look.

    The “The POW/MIA Table: A Place Setting for One, A Table for All” document is framed and on display, explaining the symbolism of the table setting. I was hoping to put it on the table, but it blocked the table setting, so I display it on the shelf of my whiteboard.

    Because I am introducing symbolism to sixth graders, I paraphrased the symbolic description of each object and posted them on the whiteboard behind the table. My goal was to make the symbolism more succinct for my younger people.

    You may have to pre-teach a few terms:

    • POW

    • MIA

    • comrades

    • symbolizing

    • frailty

    • oppressors

    • depicts

    • distinguished

    Exploring Symbolism in Literature

    After learning about symbolism using the MIA/POW table, I transition their understanding of symbols to exploring symbolism in literature. My favorite piece is the 1812 version of “Aschenputtel” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, which by the way, makes a great Halloween read.

    My students are encouraged to think about objects, people, and places and the ideas or emotions they represent: Aschenputtel, the stepfamily, white doves, hazel tree, grave, winter, and spring. It is exciting to see my students’ eyes light up when they understand the deeper meaning of the text and the battle between good and evil portrayed in the underlying meaning of the text. It is like someone gave them the keys to the literary kingdom.

    The Symbolism handout, which you can download and use in your classroom, is designed to use with any piece of literature.

    Literature Rich With Symbolism

    There are many great middle school resources for teaching symbolism. I like to use shorter texts when I am introducing a concept. Great resources for middle school are listed below.

    Short Texts

    I like to introduce new concepts in shorter texts. If you are one of these teachers, you might like to select from the following:

    • Aesop’s Fables

    • Grimm’s Fairy Tales

    • Edgar Allen Poe

    Poems

    Poems are rich in symbolism. Below are some of my favorite poems that explore how metaphors and similes contribute to symbolism:

    • “Fog” by Carl Sandburg

    • “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

    • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

    • “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

    • “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

    Novels

    Novels provide opportunity for students to engage in a more in-depth exploration of symbolism. Visit my Novels to Teach Symbolism list on Book Wizard to download a handy list of the books below.

    To explore more ideas on Veterans Day, visit Scholastic’s Veterans Day collection page of resources.

    Please feel free to share your ideas. I'd love to hear how you celebrate Veterans Day or teach symbolism.

    Best,

    Mary

    In my post "Honoring Our Military Heroes," I wrote of the various ways we observe Veterans Day in my classroom. This year, I wanted to try something new, by adding a missing in action/prisoners of war (MIA/POW) table. It is the hook to my lesson on symbolism. After my middle school students explore the symbolism of the ceremonial table we jump into analyzing symbolism in literature.

    Every year, my sixth graders compete in the Veterans of Foreign War Patriot’s Pen Essay Writing Contest. For the past 11 years, I have had students win at the local level. The contest winners, their families, and I are invited to participate in a celebratory dinner with the war veterans in our community.

    At every honorary dinner there is a table, beautifully set, yet hauntingly empty. It is the missing in action/prisoner of war table, left empty to honor the prisoners of war and missing military men and women. Not a whisper is heard from the crowd as a VFW member reads the script, explaining the symbolism of each item on the table.

    Each year, I feel honored to be a part of this remembrance and wish all my students could share in the experience. That is why this Veterans Day, I decided to create a MIA/POW table to commemorate our captured or missing military men and women.

    The History Behind the Tradition

    The tradition of the MIA/POW table commemorating the prisoners of war or missing comrades first began after the Vietnam War. It is unknown who first began the custom, but it has spread to become a part of many military ceremonies in all branches of the United States military. The table setting varies slightly among the different branches, but the symbolism remains the same. At Navy Live, the official blog for the United States Navy, you can download and print “The POW/MIA Table: A Place Setting for One, A Table for All,” the script explaining the symbolism of the table setting.

    Materials

    • small round table

    • white tablecloth

    • empty chair

    • bible

    • black napkin

    • single red rose

    • yellow candle and ribbon

    • salt

    • white dinner plate and bread plate

    • inverted wine glass

    A small bistro table is perfect, but I did not have one, so I improvised by cutting a 30-inch diameter circle from plywood, and set it on top of a student desk. A 70-inch white tablecloth covers it, so it looks authentic. It is nice that it can be dismantled and stored easily. I put a silk rose in the vase for now, but on Veterans Day, I will display a real one in it.

    I was hesitant about putting the Bible on display, wanting to be sensitive to those of varying religions or those with none at all. It is not my intent to promote one religion over another. My intent is to honor this military tradition and many of the military warriors who do believe in a higher power.

    I used a water goblet instead of a wine glass because of the influential age of my sixth graders. Since some POW/MIA tables are set with water goblets, I felt it was appropriate.

    According to The United States Department of Defense fact sheet, you can use their military service emblems or coat of arms for educational purposes. Because my school is near an Army base, and we have soldiers’ children in our school, I wanted to give a nod to the Army while acknowledging the other branches. The emblems from four major branches of the United States military are posted behind the empty chair. These shown in the image below are mounted on black cardstock and printed of to give them a polished, formal look.

    The “The POW/MIA Table: A Place Setting for One, A Table for All” document is framed and on display, explaining the symbolism of the table setting. I was hoping to put it on the table, but it blocked the table setting, so I display it on the shelf of my whiteboard.

    Because I am introducing symbolism to sixth graders, I paraphrased the symbolic description of each object and posted them on the whiteboard behind the table. My goal was to make the symbolism more succinct for my younger people.

    You may have to pre-teach a few terms:

    • POW

    • MIA

    • comrades

    • symbolizing

    • frailty

    • oppressors

    • depicts

    • distinguished

    Exploring Symbolism in Literature

    After learning about symbolism using the MIA/POW table, I transition their understanding of symbols to exploring symbolism in literature. My favorite piece is the 1812 version of “Aschenputtel” by Jacob and Wilhelm Grimm, which by the way, makes a great Halloween read.

    My students are encouraged to think about objects, people, and places and the ideas or emotions they represent: Aschenputtel, the stepfamily, white doves, hazel tree, grave, winter, and spring. It is exciting to see my students’ eyes light up when they understand the deeper meaning of the text and the battle between good and evil portrayed in the underlying meaning of the text. It is like someone gave them the keys to the literary kingdom.

    The Symbolism handout, which you can download and use in your classroom, is designed to use with any piece of literature.

    Literature Rich With Symbolism

    There are many great middle school resources for teaching symbolism. I like to use shorter texts when I am introducing a concept. Great resources for middle school are listed below.

    Short Texts

    I like to introduce new concepts in shorter texts. If you are one of these teachers, you might like to select from the following:

    • Aesop’s Fables

    • Grimm’s Fairy Tales

    • Edgar Allen Poe

    Poems

    Poems are rich in symbolism. Below are some of my favorite poems that explore how metaphors and similes contribute to symbolism:

    • “Fog” by Carl Sandburg

    • “Dreams” by Langston Hughes

    • “I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings” by Maya Angelou

    • “‘Hope’ is the thing with feathers” by Emily Dickinson

    • “The Road Not Taken” by Robert Frost

    Novels

    Novels provide opportunity for students to engage in a more in-depth exploration of symbolism. Visit my Novels to Teach Symbolism list on Book Wizard to download a handy list of the books below.

    To explore more ideas on Veterans Day, visit Scholastic’s Veterans Day collection page of resources.

    Please feel free to share your ideas. I'd love to hear how you celebrate Veterans Day or teach symbolism.

    Best,

    Mary

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