Francis Scott Key's song "The Star-Spangled Banner" did more than give the American flag a name; it changed the way Americans looked at their flag. In the early 1800s, Americans, like people in other countries, considered a national flag simply a military or naval emblem ...
Today the flag is the primary symbol of American patriotism.
— Flag as Patriotic Symbol
Prior to 1814, other American symbols were more prominent than the American flag. Early American gold coins, for example, featured the eagle and the "Liberty Cap." While the Liberty Cap is scarcely recognized today, the American flag has grown in importance. The flag became "the primary symbol of American patriotism" after Francis Scott Key's poetic account of the bombardment of Fort McHenry stirred a powerful sentiment in the American people.
Using archival documents and images, students will associate Key's words with historic events and recognize the sentiment those words inspired. In the second part of the unit, students will review the symbols within the flag and look at some historic images of the flag that have become part of our national consciousness.
After completing the lessons in this unit, students will be able to
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A few days before you begin the unit, challenge the students to look for the American flag everywhere. Tell them the class will be compiling a list of all of their flag sightings. Their sightings can include actual flags, images of flags and references to the flag.
Compile the class list of flag sightings. Follow with a discussion about the flag. Pose the following sorts of questions to the students: Why is the flag important in the military? Why did an American astronaut leave an American flag on the moon? Why do American athletes cry when they see the flag and hear the National Anthem played during the Olympics? Did anyone see any use of the flag he/she felt was inappropriate? And finally, why does the American flag symbolize pride for the United States?
The Real Star-Spangled Banner
The Star-Spangled Banner was made by Mary Pickersgill for Fort McHenry. It originally measured 30 x 42 feet, about one-quarter the size of a basketball court, but a large portion of the flag is now missing. Each star is about two feet across.
This flag design became the official United States flag on May 1, 1795. With the addition of two stars for Vermont (admitted as the 14th state on March 4, 1791) and Kentucky (admitted as the 15th state on June 1, 1792), this flag was to last for 23 years. The five Presidents who served under this flag were George Washington (1789-1797), John Adams (1797-1801), Thomas Jefferson (1801-1809), James Madison (1809-1817) and James Monroe (1817-1825).
The 15-star, 15-stripe flag was authorized by the Flag Act of January 13, 1794, adding two stripes and two stars. The regulation went into effect on May 1, 1795. This flag was the only American flag to have more than 13 stripes. It was immortalized by Francis Scott Key during the bombardment of Fort McHenry, Sept 13, 1814 (see The 15-Star Flag, on The Flag of the United States of America, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library).
The Star-Spangled Banner was likely damaged not only in the Battle of Baltimore but also by time, the actions of its owners and previous attempts to restore it.
Have students look at a recent photograph of the American flag from Fort McHenry, which inspired "The Star-Spangled Banner" and is now on display at the Smithsonian Institution, available online via a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.
Why are so many people looking at the flag in the photograph? What do students notice about the condition of the flag? How many stars were there all together? What could have happened to the damaged star? What in the classroom can help us visualize the size of the stars in this flag, which are two feet across? How big does that make the whole flag? Why would a flag meant to fly at a fort be made so large? What may have caused the present condition of the flag? How can you tell?
Look at The Star-Spangled Banner, a 1913 portrait of Francis Scott Key reaching out toward the flag, available on the EDSITEment resource America's Library. This is the same flag as in the first photo. What's going on in the painting?
Identify the flag for the class as the Star-Spangled Banner. "The Star-Spangled Banner in Pictures and Words" will help students answer many of the questions posed in this lesson.
The Star-Spangled Banner in Pictures and Words
Recite the first stanza of the National Anthem for the class. Tell students they will understand the difficult words better and learn more about the early history of the Star-Spangled Banner (flag and song) by analyzing some primary source materials.
Introduce the research questions the class will try to answer as they review the materials:
Make available to the class the images and documents you have selected from the list of EDSITEment resources below. Include the captions with the image or document. These materials could be displayed for the whole class or particular images or documents can be assigned to student groups or individuals.
(Note: An audio clip of the Star-Spangled Banner is available online. The Star-Spangled Banner, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library, has a page devoted to the song, with audio clips of the Anacreontic Song — the musical template for the Star-Spangled Banner — and an 1854 version of the Star-Spangled Banner. How is it similar to and different from the song students recognize today?)
After reviewing the images and documents, discuss student reactions as a class. Allow students to share their hypotheses regarding the questions presented at the beginning of the lesson and to identify specific documentary evidence to support their theories.
What Does It Mean?
Recite the words of the first stanza of the National Anthem with the class. Go through the stanza phrase by phrase. What does the class understand each to mean, or refer to, now?
The Annotated Anthem
As a culminating activity, challenge the class, under your guidance, to use materials from Lesson 3 to create an annotated copy of the first stanza of "The Star-Spangled Banner." On large pieces of paper, display appropriate sections of the first-stanza lyrics. Ask students to select an image or document, or to design an image to illustrate the words on each page. Attach the appropriate image or document to each excerpt. Put a brief explanation (as suggested by students) at the bottom of each page. Technically savvy students could turn this product into a slide presentation using PowerPoint or HyperCard.
Symbols in a Symbol: What Does the Flag Mean? A Mini-Lesson
A symbol stands for an idea. Over the years, a symbol tends to take on a meaning related to its history, function or appearance. Ideas can also be gradually transferred to an object over time. In this way, an object can take on new meanings. For example, when you see the Star-Spangled Banner, you may simply see a large flag, you might think about its history, or you may have personal feelings about the flag based on your own experiences. Over the course of our country's history, the flag has become more important as a symbol of our country, though each American can still endow it with a personal meaning.
The flag resonates with the symbols of its original design (colors, stars, stripes) and the meanings that have become associated with it since then. Review with your students the definition of a symbol. If desired, use the following activity, as described in the EDSITEment lesson The Statue of Liberty: The Meaning and Use of a Symbol:
Have the class compare a contemporary flag in your classroom with the "first flag" on Betsy Ross, Washington, and the Flag, an image and brief background information available on the EDSITEment resource America's Library (a larger image may be found on the EDSITEment-reviewed website American Memory). The flag design does change at times. Why? What do the changes represent? (A new star for every state, an attempt to increase the number of stripes as new states were admitted.) However, certain properties of the flag have never changed. What are they? (Colors, stars, general design.)
Why were those designs and colors chosen? To answer this question, share with the class Symbols of U.S. Government: The American Flag, a brief essay on Ben's Guide to Government for Kids, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.
Lesson 7 What Does the Flag Mean?
Share the following poem with the class. Consider reading it to the class during your usual story time. (Note: It is not necessary to identify all of the historical events mentioned in the poem, or to identify what is factually correct or incorrect in it, to discuss the author's intention. Though composed by a famous songwriter — Johnny Cash — this piece was written as a poem and is not available as a song.) This poem is also available from EDSITEment in .pdf format. You may wish to download the poem and make copies.
Discuss the poem. What made the old man in the poem proud of the flag? According to the old man, where had the flag been? Do you think he was talking about the flag in front of the courthouse or the American flag itself? What would you say the flag meant to the old man?
The flag is important to Americans. For example, think about medal-winning athletes who break into tears when they see the flag. People associate the flag with our country's ideals and its history. In this lesson, students decide what the flag means to them.
Share with the class an appropriate number of the following images and their captions from EDSITEment resources. For each, ask students to write one sentence describing what the picture brings to mind about the American flag and the United States. They should react to each image you present, even if they are unfamiliar with the historical moment portrayed.
Discuss the images and the students' reactions. Which images stirred the students the most? What does the flag mean to the students?
A Survey: What Does the Flag Mean to Americans?
Now that the class has reacted to various images of the flag, students will attempt to determine if older Americans react in a similar way. What does the flag mean to their parents and/or other significant adults in their lives? During class discussion, have students prepare a few questions for a survey they will present to various adults, and decide which images to use (one or more of those from "Symbols in a Symbol: What Does the Flag Mean? (above)," or others that you or the students select). When the questions are ready, have students complete the survey with an assigned number of adults; provide a deadline when surveys should be completed.
After students have had a chance to give the survey, discuss the results. What are the similarities between adult and student reactions to the images? Differences? Is it possible to sharpen the definition of what the flag means to Americans in general or were reactions mostly individual?
Recommended reading from the Learning Page of American Memory
2 class periods