American Symbols: The Flag, the Statue of Liberty, and the Great Seal

by Tim Bailey

Unit Objective

This unit is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core State Standards–based teaching resources. These units were written to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. The lessons are built around the use of visual evidence and critical thinking skills.

Students will understand the significance of several iconic American symbols: the Flag of the United States of America, the Statue of Liberty, and the Great Seal of the United States. The iconic symbols of America are those objects that create an understanding of America’s history, principles, and aspirations while at the same time creating a sense of unity in our culture. Through their universal recognition they become touchstones for our society. Understanding what these objects stand for is to understand an important part of the great American story.The students will demonstrate their understanding during class discussions and through drawing or written assessment activities as directed in each lesson.

Lesson 1

Objective

In this lesson the students will be closely examining the national flag of the United States. After this close examination, the students will employ critical thinking skills to demonstrate their understanding of the symbolism of the flag. The students will demonstrate their understanding during class discussions and through drawing or written assessment activities.

Introduction

On June 14, 1777, the Continental Congress passed the first Flag Act: “Resolved that the flag of the United States be made of thirteen stripes, alternate red and white; that the union be thirteen stars, white in a blue field, representing a new Constellation.” The flag of the United States has gone through many incarnations as states have been added to the Union. At first, a stripe was added for every new state as well as a star (Imagine what our flag would look like if they had continued that idea!), but the basic design has stayed the same from the “Betsy Ross” flag with its circle of thirteen stars to our fifty-star flag of today. In this lesson the students will learn the symbolism of the flag:

  • The thirteen stripes represent the original thirteen colonies.
  • The number of stars on the flag represent the number of states in the Union.
  • The stars on a blue field represent the creation of a new constellation.
  • Red symbolizes Hardiness and Valor.
  • White symbolizes Purity and Innocence.
  • Blue represents Vigilance, Perseverance, and Justice.

Materials

Procedure

  1. Class Discussion: What is a symbol? Discuss the fact that a symbol is a picture or object that stands for an idea. For example, in math a + symbol means to add one number to another number. On a traffic light, the color red means “Stop,” while the color green means “Go.” Let your class brainstorm other symbols that they are familiar with.
  2. Class Discussion: The students will closely observe the flag of the United States of America. Use your own classroom flag or the illustration in this lesson and have the students closely examine the flag. Ask the following:
    • What are the colors on the flag?
    • How many stripes are there and how many of each color?
    • How many stars are there?
  3. Use the illustration of the “Betsy Ross” flag and ask the same questions, as well as this one: Why is this flag different from the one in our classroom? Use this question to introduce the information in the introduction.
  4. Discuss the information in the introduction.
  5. Explain the unfamiliar vocabulary as necessary. Terms you might discuss include: constellation, hardiness, valor, purity, innocence, vigilance, perseverance, and justice.
  6. Hand out the Graphic Organizer: “The Flag of the United States of America.” Ask the class what the = symbol in the middle of the organizer represents.
  7. Depending on the grade level and language ability of the students, they will complete the organizer by first drawing one of the symbols of the flag (a white star, a red stripe, a white stripe, or a blue field). Then, with an illustration, key words, or even sentences, identify and explain what it symbolizes. For example, a drawing of a red stripe might be followed by a drawing of a superhero or a sentence alluding to strength and bravery. If time allows, you can have them analyze more than one symbol.
  8. Debrief with the class and have them share and explain their analyses.

Lesson 2

Objective

In this lesson the students will be closely examining the Statue of Liberty. After this close examination, the students will employ critical thinking skills to demonstrate their understanding of the symbolism of the statue. The students will demonstrate their understanding during class discussions and through drawing or written assessment activities.

Introduction

The Statue of Liberty was a gift from the people of France to the people of the United States of America. Sculptor Frederic Auguste Bartholdi was asked to design the statue for America’s 100th birthday in 1876. Problems with raising money for both the base of the statue as well as the statue itself set the project back ten years, but on October 28, 1886, the Statue of Liberty officially opened in New York harbor. Today it continues to greet travelers to New York and inspire all who look upon Lady Liberty.

The Statue of Liberty has an iron framework with a copper skin. That copper skin is only a little thicker than a penny. Even with such a thin skin, the statue weighs about 450,000 pounds. It rises 305.5 feet from the ground to the tip of the torch, and Lady Liberty herself is more than 111 feet tall from her feet to the top of her head. The Statue of Liberty, a symbol of Liberty itself, is also a combination of many other symbols:

  • The tablet in her left hand is inscribed with “JULY IV MDCCLXXVI” (July 4, 1776) to recognize the creation of the United States of America.
  • The seven rays on her crown represent the seven continents of the Earth.
  • At her feet are broken chains and shackles to represent the throwing off of tyranny and oppression.
  • The torch is a symbol of liberty. In fact, it is the source of the statue’s official name: Liberty Enlightening the World.
  • Lady Liberty is striding forward, symbolic of leading the way and lighting the path to Liberty and Freedom.

Materials

Procedure

  1. Class Discussion: What is a symbol? Review the concept introduced in yesterday’s lesson.
  2. Class Discussion: Pass out the Statue of Liberty #1. The students will closely examine the image of the Statue of Liberty. Ask the following:
    • What sort of a statue is this?
    • What is the statue doing?
    • What are some interesting details that you can see?
  3. Show the students the other three views of the Statue of Liberty and discuss the information in the introduction.
  4. Explain the unfamiliar vocabulary as necessary. Terms you might discuss include: tablet, continents, shackles, tyranny, oppression, liberty, enlightening, and striding.
  5. Pass out the Graphic Organizer: “The Statue of Liberty.”
  6. Direct the students to complete the organizer based their grade level and language ability. First, they will draw one of the symbols of the statue (the tablet, the crown, chains and/or shackles, the torch, or another illustration that shows a symbolic aspect of the statue) in the correct box. Then, with an illustration, key words, or even sentences, the student will identify and explain what the image symbolizes. For example, a drawing of the tablet that the statue is holding might be followed by a drawing of a birthday cake for America or a sentence describing a Fourth of July celebration. If time allows, you can have them analyze more than one symbol.
  7. Debrief with the class and have them share and explain their analyses.

Lesson 3

Objective

In this lesson the students will be closely examining the obverse (front side) of the Great Seal of the United States. After this close examination, the students will employ critical thinking skills to demonstrate their understanding of the symbolism of the Great Seal of the United States. The students will demonstrate their understanding during class discussions and through drawing or written assessment activities.

Introduction

Before it adjourned on July 4, 1776, the Continental Congress of the newly created United States of America passed a resolution: “Resolved, that Dr. Franklin, Mr. J. Adams and Mr. Jefferson, be a committee, to bring in a device for a seal for the United States of America.”

The new country needed a symbol that would represent the United States and be recognized around the world. However this task was easier said than done. In the end, it would take six years and two more committees before the Great Seal of the United States was adopted on June 20, 1782. The purpose of the Great Seal is to serve as the recognized symbol of America, and for more than 200 years it has been used as the official emblem displayed and stamped on treaties, government appointments, and other important documents, including US passports. However, it is probably most recognized as the illustration on the back of the one-dollar bill. The metal die and counter die of the Great Seal and its press are housed at the State Department in Washington, DC, and can only be used with the permission of the Secretary of State.

While the Great Seal is a symbol of America, it is comprised of many other symbols:

  • The American bald eagle, our national bird, symbolizes Liberty, Freedom, and Independence.
  • The shield held by the eagle shows that we can protect and defend our country independently, without aid from others.
  • Just as on the American flag, the stripes on the shield represent the first thirteen colonies, and just as on the flag, the colors themselves are symbolic. (Have the students recall what the colors represent from Lesson 1).
  • The blue field on top of the stripes represents the US Congress and how it binds the states together. In addition, the color blue is symbolic. (Have the students recall what the color means from Lesson 1).
  • The banner in the eagle’s beak bears the country’s motto, “E Pluribus Unum” (Out of many, one), meaning that while we are many individual states and people, we are one country.
  • The olive branch represents Peace.
  • The arrows represent War.
  • The eagle is facing the olive branch, meaning that peace is always the first choice, but we can fight if we must.
  • The stars in the cloud represent the new constellation of the United States surrounded by rays of light (called a “glory”) shining through as America takes its place among the countries of the world.

Materials

Procedure

  1. Class Discussion: What is a symbol? Review the concept from the last two lessons.
  2. Class Discussion: Pass out the image of the Great Seal and have the students examine it closely. Ask the following:
    • Count and list the different objects on the seal. Is there a pattern? (arrows, leaves on the olive branch, olives, stars, and stripes)
    • Why does the number thirteen keep recurring? (the original thirteen colonies)
    • What are some interesting details that you can see? (List the symbols as the students identify them.)
  3. Show the students the illustration of the dollar bill and discuss the information in the introduction. (The illustration of the pyramid on the dollar bill is the reverse side of the Great Seal. However, other than being printed on the dollar bill, it is not used on official documents or commonly used for display.)
  4. Explain the unfamiliar vocabulary as necessary. Terms you might discuss include: treaties, committees, emblem, die and counter die, independence, and constellation.
  5. Hand out the Graphic Organizer: “The Great Seal of the United States.”
  6. Direct the students to complete the organizer based their grade level and language ability. First they will draw one of the many symbols of the Great Seal. Then, with an illustration, key words, or even sentences, the students will identify and explain what it symbolizes. For example, a drawing of the shield might be followed by a drawing of people behind a shield with arrows, bombs, and bullets bouncing off of it or perhaps by a few sentences describing how it is the job of the government to protect the people. If time allows you can have the students analyze more than one symbol.
  7. Debrief with the class and have them share and explain their analyses.
  8. Extension Activity: If time permits or as a follow-up you can have the students analyze the reverse (back) of the Great Seal. The US State Department website has information on the reverse side’s symbolism.

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Great plans for young learners.


These are fantastic! A great resource. Thank you!


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