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Put the "Memory" Back in Memorial Day


Some teachers, concerned about students’ ignorance of the origin and meaning of Memorial Day, have created programs that stress the importance of remembering and honoring U.S. war veterans on that day. That lesson, the teachers say, stays with students long after the ceremonies have ended. Included: Ways your students and schools can commemorate Memorial Day.

When Memorial Day first was proclaimed a U.S. holiday in 1868, it was a solemn day set aside to remember and honor the nation's war dead.

For most youngsters -- and many adults -- today, however, Memorial Day is the holiday that celebrates the beginning of summer fun. Let the swimming and barbecuing begin!

Capturing History

The Veterans History Project of the American Folklife Center of the Library of Congress was commissioned to capture as many veterans' stories as possible and to make them part of the country's permanent archives. The collection includes audio and video recordings, as well as letters, diaries, maps, and photos. A Project Kit is available to anyone who wants to interview veterans for the project.

That under-appreciation of Memorial Day has not gone unnoticed by educators. Concern that the holiday has come to mean little more than the opening of the local pool or the start of sandals season, has spurred teachers to develop lessons and hold assemblies designed to remind students of the real meaning of Memorial Day -- and of the need to remember.


According to many teachers, one of the most effective ways of doing that is to invite local veterans to share their stories with students. The veteran's stores, those teachers told Education World, provide powerful lessons that both educate students and draw the community together.

The realization that few students knew the origins of Memorial Day inspired Michelle Malchester, a mathematics teacher in Millersville, Maryland to make Memorial Day education a school-wide project.

"The kids didn't seem to know what the day was for," Malchester, a teacher at Old Mill Middle School South, told Education World. "Our teams are called the Patriots; our school is located on Patriot Lane. I decided that we should do something -- and do it in a big way."

So, with the support of the PTA, the student government association, and a local veterans group, for the past six years, the school has been holding an assembly on the Friday before Memorial Day. "It keeps getting bigger every year," Malchester said.

The program, held in a red-white-and-blue decorated auditorium, includes a color guard presentation, patriotic songs performed by the school band and chorus, and a guest speaker from a branch of the armed forces. Local veterans, their spouses, and community members are invited to attend. "The kids are very respectful of the visitors," Malchester added.

In the weeks prior to Memorial Day, classes work on Memorial Day lessons put together by the school's gifted and talented students, and sixth graders view a Power Point presentation about the history of the holiday created by eighth graders.

The school's eighth graders also have "adopted" the Maryland Center for Veterans Education and Training in Baltimore, and are raising money to help its residents.


At Harmony Middle School in Overland Park, Kansas, students also meet with local veterans and honor them with an assembly.

"Our Memorial Day activities help foster a sense of the past and optimism for the future," district employee Marsha Ratzel told Education World.

As part of those activities, local veterans visit the school and speak to small groups of students. Each veteran is escorted around the school by a student escort, who has interviewed the veteran in advance and obtained enough information to properly introduce the veteran to other students and teachers. All Harmony students prepare for the veterans' visits by watching videos about veterans, learning proper protocol for handling the American flag, and composing interview questions.

"You can't believe how respectful and powerful those interviews are," Ratzel said. "The kids are amazed at how brave and courageous all the men and women were."

Student hosts also introduce the veterans at a school assembly, and several of the veterans usually talk about what freedom means to them. "It stuns the kids to hear the guys talk about how they would gladly serve as prisoners of war again if it meant that the United States would remain free," said Ratzel. "Students can't believe it's true."


At many schools, Memorial Day projects focus on helping to preserve the stories of U.S. veterans by having students interview them. World War II veterans often are the focus of the projects, because as those veterans age and die, their stories are at risk of dying with them.


According to the Department of Defense, 19 million WWII veterans lived in the United States at the end of 2002; and 1,500 WWII veterans die every day.
The cover of Heroes From the Heartland, a book of World War II veterans' stories collected by eighth graders from Fairbanks Middle School in Milford Center, Ohio.

Lessons about the significance of Memorial Day and the sacrifices made by servicemen and women often are tied in with these projects.


Eighth graders at Fairbanks Middle School in Milford Center, Ohio, for example, spent most of last year contacting and interviewing World War II veterans from Union County, Ohio. The students then compiled the 213 interviews into a book called Heroes From the Heartland, which (so far!) has sold about 1,200 copies. (A grant paid for the project.)

"I realized no one had ever collected the stories of local World War II veterans," said language arts teacher Claudia Bartow, a member of the Ohio Air National Guard. "The kids were fascinated by the veterans and, by making the stories available in a book, we made sure they would last throughout history."

To prepare for interviewing veterans, students researched World War II and attended presentations by local veterans who visited the school. The students then wrote letters to veterans they had located and asked each the same questions, including: What do you want people to remember about the war? What do you remember about your best buddy?

When the book was completed, students wrote thank you notes to the veterans and invited them to a reception where the book was launched.

Fairbanks also obtained grant money to compile books containing the stories of Korean War veterans and Vietnam War veterans.

"We did everything we could to reach as many veterans as possible," Bartow said. There are not many books like this around."


Eleventh graders at Kingsburg (California) High School also welcome World War II veterans to their school as part of a Veterans Lab Day. Students move from table to table, talking with a different veteran at each; some veterans even bring war memorabilia. The students take notes and write summaries of the veterans' presentations.

The lab day was created about five years ago, to tie in with a reading assignment, Julie Craig, an 11th grade English teacher told Education World. The assignment involved Farewell to Manzanar, the story of a Japanese-American family interred during World War II.

In addition, some WWII veterans also join students on a trip to the Legion of Valor Museum in Fresno. "I think it's really important to learn about veterans, especially now," Craig said. "It's been a wonderful thing to reach out to the community, and it's been a good cross-generational activity. Now, kids go home and talk to their grandparents. They see the war as something that actually did happen." And, when the class later did a unit on heroes, one boy named as his hero the veteran he had met, she added.

The veterans benefit enormously as well. "This project validates their experiences," Craig said. "It makes them feel good to have people listen to their stories and realize the importance of what they did."

Teachers also have discovered that the lessons brought by the veterans stay with the students. After years of celebrating Memorial Day at her school, Malchester said, "Truly there is not a child here who doesn't understand how important Memorial Day is."

Don't miss another Education World article, Students Remember Vietnam War Heroes. You will find additional articles and lesson plans on our special Memorial Day holiday page.


Updated: 11/11/2014