As Memorial Day approaches and students exalt in having a day off, it’s important to remind them of the significance behind this special day of remembrance. Many kids, and some adults, are not fully aware of the differences between Memorial Day, Veterans Day, and Armed Forces Day. This only highlights the importance of making Memorial Day lesson plans. With a little preparation and research, the right Memorial Day lesson plans can enrich students, spark critical thinking, and prepare them for active participation in the democracy that so many Americans died to defend and preserve.
Origin of Memorial Day
Originally known as Decoration Day, Memorial Day started in the years following the Civil War. Each spring, Americans in towns and cities across the country began decorating the graves of fallen soldiers. By 1868, Decoration Day had become an official holiday. Since more soldiers gave their lives during the Civil War than any other American War, incorporating a discussion about the Civil War is a good place to start when planning a Memorial Day lesson. In 1915, inspired by the poem “In Flanders Fields,” Moina Michael began wearing and selling red poppies to honor those who died in the service of freedom and to raise funds to benefit servicemen in need. Following World War I, Memorial Day became a federal holiday to honor soldiers killed in all American wars.
Memorial Day as a Holiday
Students have had a day off from school for Memorial Day ever since it became a federal holiday in 1971. It’s also considered the unofficial start of the summer season in the United States. With the excitement and anticipation of summer break, it’s easy for students to lose sight of what Memorial Day is and why it’s important. Highlighting the sacrifice that soldiers made (and continue to make) in the service of freedom and democracy helps students understand that Memorial Day is much more than a fun day off. It can also be a good opportunity to introduce kids to our system of government and the importance of being actively engaged in the democratic process so that they are prepared to participate in elections when they reach voting age.
Memorial Day Lesson Plans for All Levels
- Elementary: For younger elementary students, participating in an arts-and-crafts project, like using construction paper and pipe cleaners to create American flags and red poppies, is a fun way to introduce Memorial Day and get students involved in honoring the fallen. Memorial Day lesson plans should include interesting facts about the holiday and how American wars affected the families who lost loved ones.
- Middle School: For middle schoolers, sharing statistics on the number of American soldiers killed in each war is an excellent way to drive home the cost of freedom as well as the differences between each war. When creating Memorial Day lesson plans, consider studying the role of women who served in the military and highlight the ones who gave their lives in American wars, including the 149 servicewomen who have died in the War on Terrorism since September 11th, 2001. An examination of war poems is another good way for students to connect with the material on an emotional level.
- High School: With high school students, Memorial Day lesson plans can be more comprehensive and detailed. A lesson plan could include a study on the Medal of Honor and the brave heroes who were awarded the nation’s highest honor, many posthumously. A close reading of excerpts from Stephan Ambrose’s book Band of Brothers is a great way to learn about the sacrifice of soldiers and the bonds of brotherhood formed during the second world war. These readings can also be supplemented with screenings from the 10-part HBO miniseries based on Ambrose’s book, and the History Channel offers study guides for educators to use with their lesson plans.
How Students Can Honor the Fallen
Aside from learning about Memorial Day, students should be encouraged to actively participate in Memorial Day events. Teachers can recommend that students visit cemeteries, war memorials, and parades during the national day of remembrance. Those who prefer relaxing at home can watch educational documentaries on the History Channel, Discovery Channel, or American Heroes Channel. Even just thinking about and appreciating why they have the day off is a good way to honor those who have made the ultimate sacrifice for our country.
More than 1,100,000 Americans have lost their lives fighting for the United States of America. While most of these heroes were legally adults, the soldiers on the frontlines of wars are, by necessity, young men and women. Many can still be thought of as kids, which only makes their sacrifice even greater. As Memorial Day nears, students should be reminded of what this day of remembrance signifies. With informative and inspiring Memorial Day lesson plans, students can be encouraged to think about the men and women who gave their lives, while learning about the importance of participating in the democratic system that those soldiers died to uphold.
Center for Military Readiness. (2013, April 1). Grim toll of military women killed in war. Center For Military Readiness. Retrieved from https://www.cmrlink.org/sitrep/full/grim-toll-of-military-women-killed-in-war
Crigger, M., & Santhanam L. (2015, May 24). How many Americans have died in U.S. Wars? PBS. Retrieved from https://www.pbs.org/newshour/nation/many-americans-died-u-s-wars
History Channel. (n.d.). Study guide for Band of Brothers. History Channel. Retrieved from https://images.history.com/images/media/pdf/BandofBrothers.1.pdf
Lutz, A. (2019, January 10). How did we vote? State education 2018 election results from the Midterms. Where Learning Clicks. Retrieved from https://blog.edgenuity.com/education-2018-election-results/
Memorial Day History. (n.d.). Red poppies. Memorial Day History. Retrieved from http://www.usmemorialday.org/?page_id=2
Nast, P. (n.d.). Memorial Day lesson ideas: Curriculum resources that reinforce the meaning behind Memorial Day observances. National Education Association. Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/tools/lessons/memorialday-lesson-ideas.html