Saturday, September 24, 2011

The History Behind Memorial Day

Although I know we are 4 months beyond the last Memorial Day and will wait 8 more months before it comes around again, I was fascinated to learn how it came to be through my readings from the History Connected program this year.  I knew it became an official American holiday in the late twentieth century, but I did not know the roots of Memorial Day stretch all the way back to the post-Civil War era.

To understand this American desire to honor those who made the ultimate sacrifice, one must first understand the scale of death that Americans were coping with in the wake of the War Between the States.
The number of soldiers who died between 1861 and 1865, an estimated 620,000, is approximately equal to the total American fatalities in the Revolution, the War of 1812, the Spanish-American War, World War I, World War II, and the Korean War combined.  The Civil War's rate of death, its incidence in comparison with the size of the American population, was six times that of World War II.  A similar rate, about 2 percent, in the United States today would mean 6 million fatalities.-Faust, pg xi.
So how did they cope?  How does a society ensure that it does not forget the horrors of a war like that, but at the same time prevent the memories from becoming all-consuming and preventing progress?

I found the answer in another book.
Soon after the war ended, the GAR [Grand Army of the Republic, a large and successful Union veterans organization led by a U.S. senator and former Union general named John Logan] began to encourage the commemoration of Memorial Day, a day dedicated to remembering the war dead. To a certain extent the GAR had merely standardized and formalized an increasingly common observance. In the South, as early as 1865, groups of women decorated the graves of Confederate soldiers and held memorial services in the spring. The custom spread north in 1866 and 1867 and was celebrated on a wide variety of spring days. The GAR played a crucial role in turning Memorial Day into a widely observed holiday in the North and in eventually making it an official federal holiday.-Piehler, pg 58.
Of course, being who I am, I wanted to find out more and to find some multimedia resources I could share with my students when the holiday comes around again next year.  After a little searching on YouTube and TeacherTube, I found a decent little video on the history of Memorial Day, formerly referred to at Decoration Day, at

OK, so I have a good video clip of the history.  Now how do I connect all of this to their own lives?  I needed a video that showed the students how meaningful Memorial Day still is.  Unlike the post-Civil War era, many Americans in our time don't know anyone who has died in sacrifice for our nation.  The history should touch our students in order for them to best learn from it. came through again with a touching tribute that contains both historical and present-day footage.  I teared up when I first watched it.

I managed to work all of this information into my final project for Year Two of the History Connected program.  Feel free to check it out to learn more.  It is called Civil War: Behind the Scenes, and it strives to show students the parts of Civil War history that are often glossed over by text books and state curriculum frameworks.

I hope this information on Memorial Day will be useful to you and your students in 8 more months.  In the mean time, we should encourage our students to be mindful of the sacrifices others make for us more often than once per year on an official holiday.

Faust, Drew Gilpin. This Republic of Suffering: Death and the American Civil War. New York: Vintage Civil War Library, 2008. 
Piehler, G. Kurt. Remembering War the American Way. Washington: Smithsonian Books, 1995.
History of Memorial Day Video,
Memorial Day Tribute Video,

Friday, September 23, 2011

History Connected Institute Inspires A New Memorial

Over this past summer, I was able to be a part of the History Connected Summer Institute. During this institute, we spend one day focusing on the war memorials and went on a walking tour of some of the memorials, monuments, and markers that the city of Lowell had present. After much discussion, my colleague Tracey Kassin and I began to discuss the possibilities of applying this new knowledge to creating a 9/11 memorial for the town of Wilmington, which we both teach in. We have taken the time over the summer to meet a number of times with our Superintendent of Schools and Town Manager in order to create a war memorial for those who have recently lost their lives in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan as well as those who lost their lives during 9/11. Initially, the memorial was scheduled to be on our town common along with our other war memorials. After lengthy discussions and meetings we agreed it might be best to arrange to have the war memorial in the courtyard of our new high school. With the upcoming ten year anniversary, we have worked to organize a committee which will meet with the team of engineers and architects that are presently designing our new high school. We have created a 5-6 day lesson plan on War Memorials using the text Lies Across America by James W. Loewen as a resource. We hope to have the students involved in the process as much as possible. This is a great teaching and learning experience for our students and something that is important for our Town. This project is a long term project which will be student based.

The progress that we have made so far with this project is as follows. We have already formed a 9/11 Memorial Committee consisting of 35 students, the town manager, superintendent of schools, and two history teachers (Tracey Kassin and myself). We kicked off this project on September 11th of this year during the 10 year anniversary tribute which our town hosted on the common. Along with members of the police, fire and military members of our town, Our committee president (student) and I were able to each give a speech to all those present explaining the goals of our 9/11 Memorial Committee. Tracey Kassin has designed a website for our Memorial Committee and we have already begun to receive calls and e-mails from people who are interested in contributing financially or lending a helping hand. The committee has been working on designing containers to collect donations from students of all ages in the various school buildings, as well as designing t-shirts to sell as fundraisers on Veterans and Memorial Day. .We have also organized a field trip to the 9/11 Memorial in New York City for our student to visit, pay their respects and learn more about this event. This project is student based and a long term project, which in the end will serve as a great teaching/learning experience as well as a memorial for those who have sacrificed for us.

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Wilmington Inspired by Primary Source: War and Society course!

In the summer of July 2011, Mark Staffier and I took the course offered by Primary Source, a History Connected summer institute, which focused on War and Society. After listening to our guest lecturer and viewing Lowell monuments on our final day, we began discussing the commitment our town has to honoring veterans and its strong patriotic values. It was there, as we sat around a table on the bottom floor of the Pollard Memorial Library, during our final hours of our week-long course, that we decided we would like to try and get momentum going for a 9/11 Memorial in Wilmington. Two months later, I can not believe how our initial discussion has led to a town-wide, student-driven initiative to have a 9/11 Memorial! I shouldn’t be surprised though, because Wilmington Public Schools and the Town of Wilmington have always been supportive of me, personally as a teacher, and of the values this memorial would represent. Most importantly, Mark and I knew that we had the student-body at Wilmington High School that would bring the energy, enthusiasm, passion and hard-work to make this a reality.

Since July, Mark and I have met with and spoken to school and local officials to see what options were available to us. Wilmington Superintendent, Mrs. Joanne Benton, immediately gave us her full support. She single-handedly helped shift this memorial from an idea to a project. After that, we received support from Town Manager, Mr. Michael Caira, building principals, and local groups in town. With their collaboration, we now hope to make this memorial part our newly anticipated high school!

When school started, our colleagues in the Social Studies Department jumped right in, offered their help, and got students in their classes on board. We held an informational meeting and that is where the heart behind our project developed. Much to our delight, the students took over! One student, who was nominated President of the committee, Senior Matt Palermo, came to the meeting with a computer animated image of a design, which spring boarded our discussion as students offered their suggestions. From there, we talked about fundraising ideas and outreach initiatives to the town. Since then, we’ve had an endless stream of students stopping by our classrooms. Some are new faces that want to get involved, while others are ones that attended our meeting and have logo designs and new ideas. They simply can not wait until our next meeting to talk about this with us! All of these students are excited, which really brings such positive energy into my day! What amazes me the most is that all of these students have really only experienced 9/11 second-hand, yet they are full-committed to this project. We are so lucky to have students like that!

On the 10th anniversary of Sept. 11th, Mark and Matt were invited to speak at the Town Common at a ceremony to announce our initiative. For those of you that know me, you are probably not surprised to know that I suggested Mark do the speaking! I am more of a behind-the-scenes person, to say the least! As I stood out there with some fellow colleagues, parents, students, committee members and people from the town, I was again inspired to commemorate the lives that were lost on that horrific day.

I spoke with people around me about where I was that day. Like so many others old enough to remember, I will never forget that day. I was two weeks into my teaching career and had no idea how to explain to a room full of teenagers what I had seen when I snuck into the back of the library, during my free period, to see some of the coverage. By the time I got there, I saw the towers collapse live....then twenty minutes later, I had to go back to teaching. At that point, we did not share what was happening with our students. Then, after our principal made an announcement and gave us permission to discuss it, I was still at a loss. No one had talked about that sort of thing in an edu class or student-teaching. In retrospect, I see that nothing could have prepared any of us and that there was no right/wrong way to deal with it. Years later, I am able to appreciate being in a Wilmington school when that happened. Back then, the staff was very tight-knit, with many young colleagues that bonded during their first few years teaching and were welcomed by the veteran staff. I am still close with those people today. So in this way, I can tell you that being part of a project of this magnitude serves two purposes for me on a personal level. First, I want to show my gratitude for the town that supported and encourage my professional endeavors, both ten years ago and today. Secondly, as I am now having students in my class that do not remember experiencing 9/11, I would like to share with them all of the positive things that came out of living through that event and acknowledge the sacrifice and loss of the lives that perished.

If you want to stay posted on our project, check out our website for updates:

Thank you to Primary Source and History Connected, funded by the Teaching American History grant for providing the inspiration for something that will forever impact the students of Wilmington High School and the Town of Wilmington and honor the lives lost because of 9/11.

Monday, September 5, 2011

Monuments as a Teaching Tool

This summer at the Primary Source Institute the idea of using monuments as a mechanism for teaching about history was presented. I decided to incorporate this idea into the lesson plan I am creating on the U.S. conflicts with the Native Americans in the nineteenth century. For the first three days of the lesson students will learn about and analyze the various conflicts. Seeing that these conflicts are viewed quite differently than they were in the nineteenth century I thought students could examine these different perspectives by developing memorials for the last two days of the lesson. This activity will also help the students put themselves into the shoes of the people involved in these conflicts.

The students will be divided into four groups. Each group will create a memorial from a different perspective. There will be two Native American groups who commission memorials, but one group is from 1890 and one is from 2011. There will be two United States government groups who commission memorials, one group is from 1890 and one is from 2011. A discussion of each group's final product will not only allow students to delve deeper into the conflicts themselves, but help them realize all the factors that play into the development of momuments themselves.

I have not tried this yet so we will see how it goes!