5 Sites for Teaching About Memorial Day with Primary Sources

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Memorial Day, formerly known as Decoration Day, is the time when Americans honor and recognize people who died while serving our country in the armed forces. Although historians dispute the birthplace of Memorial Day we know it began after the Civil War. This tradition continues to be held the last Monday of each May as communities hold parades and celebrations to remember those who died while fighting for our freedoms.

Engage your students by including primary sources to tell the story about U.S. soldiers and their role in our country’s history. Teaching about this holiday using primary sources not only makes sense, but it is also an important way to meet teaching standards emphasizing literacy in content standards and reading of informational text. Paula Deal’s informative October 2016 blog presents additional information and resources for teaching with primary sources.

The five sites listed below offer a variety of resources for teaching about Memorial Day through primary sources. The large variety of sources available provide context and understanding of the role of the armed forces in our history and a personal perspective from those who lived through difficult wartime situations.

The NEA (National Education Association) has an excellent offering of Memorial Day lessons divided into three grade level bands to reinforce the meaning behind Memorial Day observances.

  • Grades K-5 includes lesson plans, activities, videos, and crafts. Also, included is a link to the text of Frederick Douglass’ Decoration Day speech at Arlington Cemetery on May 30, 1871.
  • Grades 6-8 features lessons plans based on primary sources, interactive media, and videos.
  • Lessons for grades 9-12 include activities based on oral history interviews, reenactments, and videos.

TeachingHistory.org shares a large selection of teaching and learning resources along with several quizzes to test the user’s knowledge of Memorial Day trivia.

The Library of Congress provides an excellent page devoted to teaching about Memorial Day traditions through primary sources.

  • Listen to a recording of a poem to explore the symbolism and explore the relationship to Decoration Day.
  • Read oral histories to compare and contrast the differences in holiday celebrations during different time periods.
  • Compare and contrast images using a primary source analysis tool to observe, reflect, and question photos.

Also from The Library of Congress, Experiencing War: Stories from the Veteran’s History Project shares fascinating interviews with Persian Gulf War Veterans. Interviews include video, audio, and photographs.

  • Veterans discuss dealing with challenges such as chemical weapon attacks, missile alarms, and living in the desert environment.
  • Several interviews are with female service members providing their unique perspective on their Gulf War experience.

The National Cemetery Administration’s Veteran’s Legacy Program presents five lesson plans in a PDF document for middle and high school students to learn about the significance of national cemeteries as historic places. Activities include exploring the important roles played by African-Americans and women in the military and war situations. Resources include videos, photographs, interactive maps, and primary source documents.

  • Lessons include correlation to Common Core and National Council for Social Studies Standards.
  • Several activities focus on a popular custom from about 1900-1920 of sending Memorial Day postcards. Students analyze postcards for key words and images to learn about traditions from the early 1900’s.

These lessons, and others, provide a first-hand look at Memorial Day traditions and origins. Take this opportunity to learn more about how this holiday was celebrated in the past and how it has evolved into modern traditions. Communities across the country still differ in their celebrations. Consider finding another classroom to compare and contrast your community’s Memorial Day celebrations.

What are some primary sources you use when teaching about Memorial Day? Is there one type that relates to your students the most? We would love to hear about your Memorial Day lessons and resources in the comments below.

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About the author: Sharon Hall

Sharon Hall was a recipient of the Presidential Award of Excellence in Math teaching. With over 15 years of classroom experience as a National Board Certified teacher, Sharon shares her content knowledge and reflections on ideas for basic classroom technology integration with us.


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