Memorial Day Resources for Your Classroom

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Memorial Day is an opportunity to reflect on the past by taking time out to honor those who have fallen in battle and to remember the long difficult wars that develop from the conflict of competing ideas and desires. Memorial Day also offers a rich backdrop for class exploration including discussions about the nature of war as well as a timeline of the history of specific wars and/or battles. Short video interviews with survivors of war, either civilian or soldier, bring the stories home.

Primary sources - documents, images, artifacts or other items - are the original records of events from those who were present during a specific time or place. Photographs, letters, diaries, census rolls; even kitchen or farmyard artifacts are all part of our story. Using the rich resources from PBS productions like Ken Burns “The Civil War” or “The War”, classroom teachers can show glimpses into the past by using ‘story’ as a way to engage students. PBS LearningMedia has many interviews and images from the Civil War to the War in Iraq.

Here are four examples:

The Memories of D-Day: James Williams Jr
The Last Days of World War II
Vietnam War Stories
Author Tim O’Brien recalls Vietnam War Experience

Teachers and librarians can help students to understand the context of primary source resources by using a process of thinking developed by the librarians at the Library of Congress, Teaching with Primary Sources. A “jump start” activity to get students thinking about an event is to ‘deconstruct’ an image or document. Using an image from the Vietnam War [for example]:


Project an image of soldiers in the Vietnam War onto a whiteboard.

1. Ask: “What do you see?” Have them share answers aloud while you write them on the board. Have them be precise, stating only what they see. [e.g. I see a man with a helmet on. I see a man with a rifle in his hand.]

2. Ask: "Now take a moment of quiet [30 seconds] then tell me what you think you see –describe items again based on what you know [e.g. the man with a helmet is a soldier. He might be American because….].

As students speak out their observations put them on the board aiming for a wide variety of words, descriptions, and phrases.

1. Ask: “What do you wonder? Write on the board.

2. Read aloud, or hand out copies of President Clinton’s dedication speech.

3. Play video: Vietnam War Memorial, Washington D.C. . Discuss the speech.

4. Show one or more of the Vietnam video stories (listed above) following up with another discussion process of seeing, reflecting and wondering.

Students can continue with follow up research or complete this activity:

1. Explain: Using these images and what you now know about the Vietnam War and the memorial, write a six-word poem. You must use four of the words from the board and two “filler” words if necessary. All the words will come from discussion.

Have students decorate their poems and post them on the wall. You can copy words from board onto Post the wordle on the wall and discuss how the ‘big’ words indicate words that were repeated.

1. Ask: What words are 'biggest'? Why do you think we used those words and thoughts?

Primary sources provide an engagement that pulls the past into the present. Many students become interested in the questions they ask in this process and want to explore further. PBS LearningMedia offers hundreds of videos with differing points of view. Students can use them to develop a more complete picture of the time period.

About the Author

Connie Williams, Teacher Librarian at Petaluma High School, is the governor appointee representing school libraries on the CA State Library Services Board. This blog is part of a collaborative effort between KQED and the California School Library Association (CSLA).