Memorial Day: an Opportunity to Teach Peace

Published May 25, 2016

Iwo Jima Memorial(Marine Corps War Memorial) Washington DC USA at sunrise

Iwo Jima Memorial(Marine Corps War Memorial) Washington DC USA at sunrise

Veterans tell us “war is hell.” Those who mourn the loss of a soldier this Memorial Day get it. However, the percentage of the U.S. population serving in the military is less than one-half of 1% – the lowest levels since World War II. To those of us in the civilian population Memorial Day is little more than a 3-day weekend, department store sales, and barbecues. Our country has grown accustomed to perpetual war – fought by others, elsewhere – with media snapshots of crude terrorist attacks serving to silence the basic inquiry of alternatives to militarism. The sensible notion is to support our soldiers by working to end war, right? Not a sexy election year topic.

As a history teacher, I witness first-hand how student interest and performance increase with experiential learning. Holidays, anniversaries, watershed iconic moments in history are excellent, teachable moments to reflect on the human experience of violence—and the possibilities for peace.

How do we teach kids about war and citizenship without violence? For Memorial Day, let’s do this: use the Veterans’ voices and survivors’ testimonies, the iconic images and powerful stories to invite classroom dialogue which resonates in the community. Make it personal by finding a survivor who has a story to share. Model the interview process with empathy. Ask students to find their own survivor to interview: a veteran, a refugee, an emotional witness to war. Ask students to capture that person’s experience in art, written, or digitized form. Host a sharing of students’ interviews. Broaden the impact and invite community participation in creative dialogue.

You’re invited to download a free lesson plan on “Iconic Imagery of the Vietnam War” from our curriculum resource library as a tool to ignite analysis. Encourage students to weigh the merits and detriments of broadcasting war.

Memorial Day could be an extra day off. It could be a vintage movie celebrating American patriotism through the trials of a mythical soldier. Or, it could be a day of radical empathy with the true sorrows of war. Inspire your classroom to be the spark that ignites creative activism for peace!