Memorial Day is a holiday often overlooked in classrooms because it comes at the end of the year as we are trying to wind up existing projects and get ready for summer vacation. But here are some activities that allow your class to stay on track with studies, while paying homage to those who died in service to our country.
You don’t have to live near Arlington, Va., to experience a national cemetery. The Department of Veterans Affairs maintains veteran cemeteries all over the country. Many offer guided tours, which can leave a powerful impression on students.
If you can’t leave school for this type of trip, have a speaker come to you or conduct a virtual tour. Research local cemeteries that date back to the Civil War through the National Park Service, if your class is studying this period of history.
If there are no major monuments close enough for you to visit, have your students create a monument tour by researching different landmarks in Washington, DC, and around the country. To focus on the Memorial Day theme, look for memorials honoring fallen heroes. Create travel brochures, posters, or research articles highlighting the different locations. Students can make integrated projects by finding travel prices, documenting local weather, investigating regional wildlife, and more.
Take memorial research one step further by re-creating full-size or small-scale portions of monuments. For example, turn sections of hallways into the Vietnam Wall, the National World War II Memorial, or the USS Arizona. Or students can work alone or in small groups to create small-scale reproductions in diorama form using modeling clay and craft supplies. Encourage other classes to visit your memorials, and have students become docents for each site.
Use the strong feelings associated with remembering fallen heroes to have students create powerful poetry. Work with your class to create figurative language and feeling lists. Simple poetry forms, such as an acrostic, work well for younger students. Older students can write in honor of a specific person or memory. Take this project a step further and start a writing fair on American history!
Students young and old can describe what it means to be patriotic. Invite students to share ideas for how they can participate in Memorial Day and be patriotic throughout the year. Add illustrations for a fun display or have a “Fourth of July” in June.
Investigate the Tomb of the Unknowns at Arlington National Cemetery with books or websites. Have students read about the changing of the guard ceremony and the commitment soldiers make to the guard duty. Observe a wreath laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknowns or read about it and then challenge students to create a wreath from paper or crafting materials, adding items to honor specific troops, or branches of the military or to highlight American symbols.
The Honor Flight Network transports veterans to the National World War II Memorial in Washington, DC. Founded by a retired Air Force captain, Honor Flight Network assists veterans in visiting their memorial for free, and assisting those who need help. It is estimated that 800 World War II veterans die each day, making time of the essence. Find your local network and join in. You can ask the Honor Flight Network to come speak at your school, ask local veterans to tell about their experience, or create a group of greeters to cheer veterans as they arrive home from their trip.
There are a variety of ways to get mail to troops. For example, you can celebrate Memorial Day by getting cards ready for the Red Cross Holiday Mail for Heroes program. Whatever you do, do research to make sure the organization you choose is reputable and be sure to send mail according to all of the military restrictions, following the guidelines carefully.
Have students create interview questions for a veteran in your area. Even spouses and family members who lived through wars can make great interview subjects. Technology-savvy students can record interviews and even edit them for classroom viewing. Younger students can hone writing skills by creating a list of questions ahead of time and recording answers.
Mailing Flat Stanley is a popular classroom activity similar to setting up pen pals. Mail your Stanley to a school in Washington, DC, and ask for photos to be taken of him at the major monuments. No time? Send him this summer and then create a great back-to-school bulletin board of Stanley’s summer travels. Students can research the places Stanley visits. As an alternative to Stanley, younger children might enjoy sending Clifford to a school in our nation's capitol and reading Clifford Goes to Washington; older readers can enjoy the Capital Mysteries from A to Z Mysteries.
Memorial Day is a time to remember those who went before us, but it also can serve as a reminder to celebrate those around us who serve selflessly for our country. As the school year winds down, take the extra time to squeeze in a history lesson and make an impression on young lives for years to come.
In what ways do you celebrate Memorial Day? Does your school year end in May or will you be wrapping up your school in June?