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June 1, 2007
Vol. 64
No. 9

A Monumental Curriculum

A unit about local monuments enables teachers to integrate the curriculum and connect with the community.

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On one side of the reflecting pool looms a tall gate with the time 9:01 inscribed in it; on the other side, a second gate displays 9:03. These times represent the minute before and after the Oklahoma City bombing. Now, 12 years later, as visitors stand and gaze at the 168 delicately illuminated chairs mirrored in the reflecting pool—one chair for each life lost—they may still hear the echoes of cries for help, of sirens, and of children crying. The tranquility of the water stands in stark contrast to the vivid images of dazed, bloody faces and of lifeless children carried out of the rubble. The Oklahoma City National Memorial, like other monuments, provides a space for reflection and captures a moment that will live on in the collective memory of the United States.
Throughout history, monuments have played an important role. They have commemorated tragedy; they have glorified war and leaders of war; they have pointed to acts of courage or endurance not played out on battlefields. Because they have helped shape the American identity as well (Percoco, 1998), monuments can provide teachers with valuable curricular opportunities. Students can analyze and interpret meaningful subject matter; teachers can address multiple learning styles, integrate subjects, include the arts, and deepen students' understanding of their community.
To maximize students' understanding of monuments, educators need to provide a framework that focuses on three crucial points: referent, design, and reception. Using these three points of analysis, we developed a curriculum unit for high school students titled An Exploration of Humanity through Monuments. The unit includes seven lesson plans that span three weeks. It is interdisciplinary, incorporating history, art, literature, writing, and music.

Referent: Whose Story Does It Tell?

Students need a context for experiencing and interpreting monuments. If students are studying a local monument, they could acquire this knowledge in a variety of ways. They could research local records and documents, visit local museums, talk with elders, or interview resident historians about the monument's historical background.
As part of the unit on monuments, high school students visited the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Denver, Colorado. Because the memorial depicts the figures of individuals who provided a foundation for the civil rights movement—Rosa Parks, Mahatma Gandhi, Sojourner Truth, and Frederick Douglass—students learn about these four people before their visit.
el2007summer king
Photos courtesy of Caitlin Lindquist
Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial
Several guiding questions help students clarify the story that the monument attempts to tell. Such questions include, What information do the panels circling the monument provide? What narrative is presented and whose narrative is it? Students might also discuss whether monuments have adequately represented women and minorities (see De Pauw, 1994). Students could examine monuments and historic events in their own communities (Allen, 1992) and determine which important individuals or events have not been memorialized. At the national level, students could study the campaign to create the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C., the first tribute to a black American on the National Mall.

Design: How Does It Tell Its Story?

For students who have little experience with art, it is helpful to provide an overview of the types of sculpture that typically appear in monuments, such as portrait sculptures and allegorical sculptures. The Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C., is a good example of a portrait sculpture because it provides a realistic portrayal of Lincoln. The Statue of Liberty in New York is an allegorical sculpture because it includes a figure representing an idea—freedom. Some sculptures combine elements of both, such as the Shaw Memorial in Boston, which includes a realistic portrayal of Colonel Robert Gould Shaw with a figure representing death hovering over the Colonel and his regiment.
Students then analyze how artists make aesthetic choices to represent a person or event. As part of this process, students begin to realize that artistic representations characterize a particular interpretation of that person or event (Wrenn, 1998). It is important for students to examine whose interpretation the monument represents.
A current controversy that students could explore is the ongoing debate over the World Trade Center Memorial in New York (Thomas, 2004). A design, “Reflecting Absence,” was selected through a competition; it shows two voids where the original Twin Towers used to be, surrounded by a plaza of oak trees. There is still some disagreement about how the names of the victims will appear and what information will be included with those names, such as age, company affiliation, and floor number. Some dissension also remains over how to best commemorate the events of September 11, 2001, both in New York City and in memorials across the United States. Students could explore the various design options displayed at www.wtcsitememorial.org and determine which design they would choose to memorialize that day.
Students could also design their own World Trade Center Memorial, considering such questions as, How do you create an artistic representation of such an event? Students could study how various artists around the world have commemorated other traumatic events, such as the Holocaust.
Educators may also want to think locally in terms of having students design a monument. Students might choose to commemorate an outstanding individual in their community who has not been sufficiently recognized. For example, students in a Seattle classroom created a memorial to Seattle civil rights leader Edwin Pratt (Gustafson, 1997). Students not only designed a memorial to Pratt, but they also brought the design to fruition on their school grounds. (<EMPH TYPE="4">Read the complete article on the project.)
Students in our monument unit explored the aspect of design when they visited Denver's Christopher Columbus Memorial statue, an allegorical sculpture created to honor Colorado as the first state to observe Columbus Day. The sculpture depicts a male figure within a sphere, with faces pointing in four directions. One of the guiding questions is, What do you think the artist is trying to convey? The sculpture clearly represents a glorified view of Columbus as an explorer. The plaque on the base of the monument reads, In honor of Christopher Columbus (Cristoforo Colombo 1451–1506), Italian Visionary and Great Navigator. This bold explorer was the first European to set foot on uncharted land, on a West Indies beach in 1492. His four voyages brought Europe and the Americas together, forever changing history. A new nation was to rise. A new democracy was born.
el2007summer columbus
Photos courtesy of Caitlin Lindquist
Christopher Columbus Memorial
Students are then asked to contrast this view of Columbus with a chapter from Howard Zinn's book, A People's History of the United States, titled “Columbus, the Indians, and Human Progress.” By comparing these portrayals of Columbus, students are better able to understand the conflict that arises every October when the Italian American community in Denver seeks to honor Columbus and the American Indian community expresses indignation over the glorification of this historic figure.

Reception: How Does It Affect Us?

To experience the reception component, students need to encounter the monument firsthand. Students might begin by exploring famous monuments over the Internet, such as the Washington, D.C., Vietnam Veterans Memorial. They could discuss or describe in writing what makes the memorial so moving or interview those who have experienced the monument or fought in the war.
Students could also study works of literature and music that monuments have inspired. For example, Saint-Gaudens's Shaw Memorial (www.nga.gov/feature/shaw/), which is dedicated to the 54th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantry, inspired Robert Lowell's “For the Union Dead” (www.poets.org/viewmedia.php/prmMID/15280) and Charles Ives's musical composition, “The Saint-Gaudens in Boston Common” (Percoco, 1998). Students could investigate whether a local monument or memorial has inspired similar works, or they could create their own poetry, plays, or music in response to a local monument.
Students also begin to recognize that monuments reflect the historical perspective of the time—and that perspectives can change. For example, when the Shaw Memorial was created in 1897, it included only the names of the white officers who had been killed during the attack on Fort Wagner. In 1982, when the memorial was restored, the names of the black soldiers killed in the attack were added (Percoco, 1998).
Another example of a historical controversy that gives students insight into the concept of reception involves the Colorado Civil War Memorial in Denver. This monument has also been modified since its initial dedication in 1909. Before visiting the monument, students read the congressional testimony of Joseph S. Smith, who witnessed the attack and slaughter of peaceful Cheyenne and Arapaho men, women, and children at Sand Creek in 1864 (Congressional Testimony, n.d.). The Cheyenne and Arapaho were not part of the Confederacy, but the Civil War Memorial originally included the Sand Creek massacre in its list of Civil War battles. Former Senator Bob Martinez led the struggle to amend the memorial. In 2002, the state added a plaque which explains that Sand Creek was not a legitimate battle, but rather a massacre.
el2007summer civilwar
Photos courtesy of Caitlin Lindquist
Colorado Civil War Memorial

A Curriculum for the Whole Child

Teachers who have field-tested this multidisciplinary curriculum indicate that it incorporates standards from history, art, literature, social studies, and math. Moreover, they believe that the curriculum can help all students learn because of the many opportunities the unit provides for learners to engage with the topic and demonstrate their learning.
One teacher commented on the unit's appeal: E. D. Hirsch would agree that a study of these monuments would build “cultural capital” and a “core knowledge” that is practical and useful for an American. Sonia Nieto and multiculturalists would be thrilled because an introspective study of these monuments in the context of history might lead to a focus on American history from the perspectives of those who are not white. Noddings would be happy with the unit, as it would ideally help kids “care” for their past and the people and ideas—good and bad—that occupy it. Likewise, through comparative study and a holistic approach, this could lead to a “caring” for today's world [and the discovery of] prominent people who have motivated social change.
Experiences with monuments can leave us with lasting impressions that inform our thinking about people, places, and events. Studying monuments is a compelling way to broaden students' understanding of their local communities, their nation, and the world.

A Monumental Curriculum - table

Web Site Name

Web Address


African American Monuments, Museums, and Memorialswww.geocities.com/Athens/Troy/1228/Includes photographs of various monuments to African Americans
American Battle Monuments Commissionwww.abmc.govIncludes information on the new World War II Memorial
Holocaust Camp Memorialshttp://fcit.usf.edu/holocaust/resource/gallery/gallery5.htmIs part of a teacher's guide to the holocaust
Inventories of American Painting and Sculpturehttp://americanart.si.edu/art_info/inventories-intro.cfmContains an inventory of American artworks developed by the Smithsonian American Art Museum
Martin Luther King Jr. National Memorialwww.mlkmemorial.org/Includes a virtual tour of the design
Monumental Math Projectwww.uteach.utexas.edu/~gdickinson/pbi/PBISpring04/Monument/Content/lesson.htmContains a curriculum that presents geometric concepts in relation to monuments
Monuments and Memorials to Women Warriorshttp://userpages.aug.com/captbarb/monuments.htmlIncludes photographs and information on monuments to women
National Park Servicewww.nps.govIncludes information about the memorials and monuments administered by the National Park Service
Oklahoma City National Memorialwww.oklahomacitynationalmemorial.org/Includes a Design Gallery and Symbolic Concepts
Preserving Memory: A Study of Monuments and Memorialswww.yale.edu/ynhti/curriculum/units/1993/1/93.01.06.x.htmlContains a curriculum unit developed by the Yale-New Haven Teacher's Institute
Saint-Gaudens' Memorial to Shaw and the 54thwww.nga.gov/feature/shaw/Includes a photo gallery of the memorial
The Statue of Liberty: The Meaning and Use of a National Symbolhttp://edsitement.neh.gov/view_lesson_plan.asp?ID=313Presents an interdisciplinary unit developed by EDSITEment
World Trade Center Site Memorial Competitionwww.wtcsitememorial.orgIncludes all the designs submitted for consideration
World Trade Center Memorial Foundationwww.buildthememorial.orgIncludes a virtual tour of the site for and the proposed design for the memorial and museum at Ground Zero in Manhattan

Allen, R. F. (1992). Memorial geography: Reflections upon a useful strategy for teaching middle school geography students. Journal of the Middle States Council for the Social Studies, 13, 10–18.

Congressional testimony by John S. Smith. (n.d.). Public Broadcasting Service. Retrieved October 1, 2006, from www.pbs.org/weta/thewest/resources/archives/four/sandcrk.htm

De Pauw, L. G. (1994, February). Roles of women in the American Revolution and the Civil War.Social Education, 58(2), 77–79.

Gustafson, C. (1997, February). For a champion of racial harmony. Educational Leadership, 54(5), 67–69.

Percoco, J. A. (1998). A passion for the past: Creative teaching of U.S. history. Portsmouth, NH: Heinemann.

Thomas, D. (2004, April). Aesthetics and the World Trade Center. School Arts, 103(8), 34–35.

Wrenn, A. (1998, May). Emotional response or objective enquiry? Using shared stories and a sense of place in the study of interpretations for GCSE. Teaching History, 91, 25–30.

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