Activities & Lessons
On November 11, we celebrate Veterans Day. It’s our chance to salute the 18 million veterans of the U.S. Armed Forces and show our appreciation for the sacrifices they made to protect our country.
Many people confuse Veterans Day with Memorial Day. While Memorial Day honors soldiers who died in service to the United States, Veterans Day honors all who served—both living and dead—in the U.S. Armed Forces. In the U.S., we show our respect for veterans with an official wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Arlington National Cemetery, in Virginia, and with parades and other celebrations across the country.
The coronavirus pandemic may change the way we participate in these events. The biggest Veterans Day parade in New York, for instance, will be aired on TV and online. But it won’t change the spirit of these events. Our Veterans Day activities for high school students can make sure of that. They will give your students a chance to say “thank you” while ensuring our veterans get the acknowledgement they deserve.
Veterans Day Activities for High School Students
Read on for Veterans Day activities that will bring the experiences of service members to life and help high school students understand why it’s so important to never forget those who risked their lives to keep us safe.
1. Write a Letter to a Veteran
Many veterans suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), anxiety, and depression. As a group, veterans also have a high rate of unemployment and suicide. Veterans, and even deployed service members who spend time away from family, appreciate heartfelt letters expressing appreciation for their service. According to Operation Gratitude, the letters are the most cherished items in the care packages the group sends. One enlisted man serving aboard the USS Ross in Spain called the letters a “ray of sunshine for the crew” after a tough deployment and mandatory quarantine due to the coronavirus pandemic. You can sign up with Operation Gratitude for a letter-writing toolkit and mailing instructions. If distance learning makes it difficult to collect handwritten letters from students, you can always have them write a message online. Operation Gratitude will print the message on a postcard and send it.
2. Read Books About Soldiers' Experiences
Have students read the first chapter of author Tim O’Brien’s book of short stories about the Vietnam War, The Things They Carried. Start a discussion: What are some of the physical objects the soldiers carry? What do the objects tell you about the characters, their emotional states, and the war’s impact? Point out O’Brien’s use of repetition as a storytelling device. What affect does the repetition have on you?
To get a sense of what veterans today carry with them from their time in the military, have students listen to an NPR interview with Tim O’Brien on the 20th anniversary of the publication of The Things They Carried. One caller shared that he carries “shrapnel in my leg and bitterness.” O’Brien shared his own burdens: “I carry the memories of the ghosts of a place called Vietnam—the people of Vietnam, my fellow soldiers. More importantly, I carry the weight of responsibility, and a sense of abiding guilt.” Have students write a paragraph describing how these veterans' experiences are reflected in The Things They Carried.
Additional reading for high schoolers on soldiers' experience and the impact of war:
- The Heart You Carry Home by Jennifer Miller
- Soldier from the War Returning: The Greatest Generation's Troubled Homecoming from World War II by Thomas Childers
- The Last of the Doughboys: The Forgotten Generation and Their Forgotten World War by Richard Rubin
- The Slopes of War by Norah Perez
- The War to End All Wars: World War I by Russell Freedman
- The Slaves' War: The Civil War in the Words of Former Slaves by Andrew Ward
Your students can make history! Invite them to participate in the Veterans History Project, which collects and preserves firsthand remembrances of U.S. military veterans from World War I through more recent conflicts. Students ages 15 and older can volunteer to interview veterans and record their reflections on military service and its impact for future generations. Students can interview friends or family members who have served in the military or contact a local veterans organization, senior center, or retirement community to find veterans who might be interested in sharing their story. For additional support, especially for educators and students, check out these resources from the Veterans History Project, including sample interviews and questions.
4. Invite a Veteran to Speak to Your Class
Have your students ask their families whether they have any relatives who are veterans, and if they would be willing to visit the classroom—either virtually or in person—to share what Veterans Day means to them. You can also request that they share stories or experiences from their time in the military. Set up a specific agenda beforehand and remain sensitive to what they may or may not want to disclose. Then, you can give your high schoolers time to ask questions. If no students in your class have a family member who is willing to speak to the class, contact a local veterans’ organization to arrange a classroom visit.
Given the ongoing pandemic, a virtual meeting may be your best bet. After the visit, have students complete a write-up of their most memorable takeaways from the conversation. You can get creative in finding ways to align the assignment with your curriculum.
5. Create and Send Paracord Survival Bracelets
According to Operation Gratitude, paracord bracelets—made from parachute cord that can hold up to 550 pounds—can be used by military personnel for a number of reasons, including to create a makeshift shelter; make a sling, splint, or harness; and attach camouflage nets to trees or vehicles. In this activity, have your students create paracord bracelets following these video or step-by-step photo instructions. (Your school or district can purchase paracord bracelet kits through Operation Gratitude.) Then, you can ship the students’ paracord bracelets to Operation Gratitude to be included in care packages sent to U.S. Armed Forces members. You can also have your students write letters to military personnel explaining why they are grateful for their service to our country and submit a copy to you for a grade or extra credit.
6. Take a Virtual Trip to a Military Museum or Memorial
There are a number of museum field trips you can take with your students to teach them about the military today and its role throughout history—and they all take place online. Here are some examples:
- The National WWI Museum and Memorial, Kansas City, Missouri: The museum offers a number of online exhibitions on topics including volunteerism during World War I, the end of WWI in 1918, and more.
- National Museum of the U.S. Navy, Washington, D.C.: Your students can view artifacts, digital exhibits, and photography related to various wars. In addition, the museum offers high school lesson plans on Pearl Harbor.
- Intrepid Sea, Air & Space Museum Complex, New York, New York: The complex offers virtual tours and talks as well as videos on its YouTube channel, oral history interviews with those who served on board the famous aircraft carrier, a searchable database of the Museum’s collection of items, and more.
- The National WWII Museum, New Orleans, Louisiana: View exhibits including “Road to Tokyo” and “Road to Berlin,” which contain historical photographs and information. The museum also offers distance learning opportunities and resources for students and teachers.
- Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Washington D.C.: The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund offers a virtual tour of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial on the National Mall, which is available online or via the VVMF’s Mobile Tour app.
7. Create a Veterans Day Timeline
Have your students work in groups, either in person or virtually, and create a timeline depicting the key events in the history of Veterans Day. For each event, they should write a detailed paragraph or bulleted explanation about why this is considered an important event in the history of the holiday. The timeline format can be a video, trifold board, online presentation, or anything your students come up with. They should answer the following questions when creating their timeline, which they can submit for extra credit or present to the class:
- Why does Veterans Day take place on November 11 each year?
- Veterans Day was originally known as Armistice Day. Why was this changed?
- Is Veterans Day celebrated in other countries? If so, when?
- What’s the difference between Veterans Day and Memorial Day?
8. Write a Veterans Day Essay
Have students write a short paragraph, essay, or explanation about how Veterans Day has evolved since it began nearly a century ago. Why (or why not) is this a holiday we should still observe today? Invite students to explain their reasoning to the class.
More Ideas for Veterans Day Activities?
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