Learning Activities

I am always trying out and looking for new ideas for engaging classroom activities and assignments. I will continually update this page with new activity and assignment ideas. If you have a war-related activity or assignment that has worked well with your class and you would be willing to share, please contact me!


War Memorials Activities

War memorials are fantastic living documents that can be used as part of a variety of different learning activities. Monuments and memorials are meant to commemorate people and events, and in doing so, they select particular sets of information, images, and symbols that are expressions of social meaning.

The best text I’ve found dealing with war memorials is the chapter “War Memorials and the Mourning Process” from Jay Winter’s “Sites of Memory, Sites of Mourning” (1995). This is a fantastic book about how people made meaning out of the devastation of WWI in Europe, and includes chapters on war film and war poetry, among other forms of expression, that may serve as useful reading assignments in conjunction with other activities. This text has proven to be very readable for an upper-level undergraduate class, and I think it could work well with lower level undergraduate courses as well (perhaps with a bit more guidance). Winter’s chapter provides a framework for analyzing war memorials, their form, function, and symbolism, in terms of how they speak to:

  • Social approval or disapproval of the war
  • Cultural history and tradition
  • Resources and the relative “worth” of commemoration
  • Gratitude and feelings of indebtedness to the fallen
  • Expressions of grief, on the individual, familial, and social levels

Drawing on Winter’s framework, I have developed a number of activities that have been, in my experience, highly engaging for students.

Lecture based activities. After lecturing on war memorials as documents that provide evidence of the social meaning and impact of a particular war on society, show students images of a few different national war memorials that provide a spectrum of different types of war memorials (for example, traditional monuments like the WWII memorial and modernist memorials like the Vietnam memorial).

  • Engage students in a discussion about each memorial and how they speak to each of the above five factors. What features of the monument’s layout, design, size, symbols, etc. give evidence of how the society that built that memorial experienced the war and how they wanted it to be remembered? If there is a significant gap in time between when the war occurred and when the monument was built, discuss what this might mean in terms of how a war is remembered and commemorated.
  • Individually or in small groups, have students focus on one of the above five factors for one or more memorials. Ask them to teach the rest of the class about how they interpreted the social meaning of the memorial as evidenced by specific features.
  • Ask students to compare and contrast the features of war memorials from different periods of time, or different countries. How do differences in the features of these memorials reflect differences in the impact that each war had on society (e.g. comparing WWII and Vietnam memorials in the U.S.)? Or, how did the same war differently impact different societies (e.g. comparing WWII memorials in the US and in Japan or Germany)?

Experiential learning activities. Send your students to visit a memorial and experience it for themselves. I teach in the Washington, DC area so my students have the benefit of access to the highest concentration of famous war memorials in the country. But just about every city and town, large and small, have at least one war memorial. In some locations, Civil War battlefields provide memorials and museums that can be analyzed as well.

  • Expanding on the above in-class discussion, ask the students to go to a monument themselves and analyze it in terms of the above five factors. By going to the monument themselves, students can reflect more deeply on the form, size, and layout of the memorial, as well as how the physical act of moving through the space takes on meaning.
  • Ask to students to identify the intended meaning behind the memorial they plan to visit: what did its builders want visitors to feel about the war? After visiting the monument, ask students to reflect on how the form, layout, size, symbolism, etc. of the memorial influenced their emotions and understanding about a particular war. Did the memorial accomplish its goal, or did they feel something different than what they think the builders intended? How might the meaning of a monument change over time, or among people of different backgrounds?

Creative activities. Have students design their own war memorial. I had planned this activity in advance, and then was surprised that they came to it on their own; the first thing out of their mouths in the class after the read the Winter chapter was “what would a memorial for the War on Terror look like?”

  • As a class, brainstorm ideas about who/what they want to commemorate, the objective of the memorial, the emotions they want people to experience, and the legacy they want to convey about the war to future generations. Not surprisingly, there was a lot of disagreement about the message that they felt a memorial for the War on Terror should convey, creating a great opportunity for engaging the multiple meanings of wars and how societies pick and choose which aspects to focus on.
  • Individually or in groups, ask to students to draw up plans for their own memorials for the War on Terror and present them to the class, highlighting particular features of the memorial that express specific meanings and memories about the war that they feel is important to commemorate.
  • Ask students to redesign an existing memorial. Redesigning a memorial gives students an opportunity to critically engage with how the history of wars get portrayed to the public, and how perceptions of the meaning of wars changes over time. If the Vietnam memorial was built today, would it look the same?

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