Lesson Plans: Grades 3-5

The Statue of Liberty: The Meaning and Use of a National Symbol

Created September 27, 2010


The Lesson


The Statue of Liberty

The Statue of Liberty, New York City harbor.

Credit: Image courtesy of American Memory at the Library of Congress.

We will not forget that Liberty has here made her home;
nor shall her chosen altar be neglected."

—President Grover Cleveland accepting the Statue of Liberty
on behalf of the U.S., October 28th, 1886

A symbol stands for an idea. The Statue of Liberty stands in Upper New York Bay, a universal symbol of freedom. Originally conceived as an emblem of the friendship between the people of France and the U.S. and a sign of their mutual desire for liberty, over the years the Statue has become much more. It is the Mother of Exiles, greeting millions of immigrants and embodying hope and opportunity for those seeking a better life in America. It stirs the desire for freedom in people all over the world. It represents the United States itself.

How was the Statue of Liberty designed to be a symbol? How have circumstances enhanced its meaning? Help clarify the nature of symbols for your students as they study the Statue of Liberty, complete research on a national symbol, and use their research to communicate a message of their own.

Guiding Questions

What is a symbol? What are some of our national symbols? How do specific meanings get attached to a symbol? How can a symbol be used to communicate an idea?

Learning Objectives

  • Identify symbols used to depict Americans' shared values, principles and beliefs, and explain their meaning
  • List specific symbols in the design of the Statue of Liberty
  • Use a symbol to communicate an idea

Preparation Instructions

  • Review the activities in this unit and select archival materials to use for your classroom discussions. Bookmark them, if practical; download and print out the selected documents and duplicate copies as necessary for student viewing.
  • Obtain information on the many symbols built in to the Statue of Liberty through an interactive activity on The National Park Service website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.
  • Gather the necessary materials for the poster-making project in Activity 6. If your school has an art teacher, consult with her/him about poster making. The poster project can be directed by the art teacher, if you prefer.
  • The Digital Classroom, available through EDSITEment, offers a series of worksheets for analyzing primary source documents, including written documents and photographs, that you may wish to use or adapt to help students in reviewing the materials presented in this unit.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. Isn't It Symbolic?

As a class, review what a symbol is and identify examples of symbols in the classroom. Explain to students that a symbol brings to mind an idea. Over the years, a symbol tends to take on a meaning related to its history, function or appearance. For example, Bartholdi, the designer of the Statue of Liberty, knew that for most people chains represent tyranny; likewise, a broken chain symbolizes freedom. These associations were built in to the Statue during its creation.

Ideas can also be gradually transferred to an object over time. In this way, an object can take on new, sometimes unintended meanings. As millions of immigrants found themselves welcomed to America by the Statue of Liberty, it became associated with their struggle for freedom and desire for a better life. In 1989, Chinese students demonstrating in Tiananmen Square made a model of the Statue of Liberty to symbolize their revolution. When you see the Statue of Liberty, you may simply see one of the largest statues ever built, or you may associate it with universal qualities of freedom or democracy, or you may have personal feelings about it based on your own experiences.

If possible, give students the opportunity to explore an interactive lesson on symbols, available on the EDSITEment-reviewed website The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Explore and Learn. If access to technology is limited, adapt the lesson for direct instruction by downloading and duplicating the image of one or both statues; then use the museum activity as a guide to your discussion.

Larger images of the statues referenced in this lesson are also available here:

Activity 2. A Mighty Woman with a Torch

Have students brainstorm what they already know about the Statue of Liberty. Write all ideas on the chalkboard or a large piece of paper. With the brainstormed ideas displayed, encourage further discussion with these questions:

  • Why does the statue face away from the U.S. if it is a symbol of liberty? (Note: The statue faces France as a symbol of the enduring friendship between the two countries. This positioning was fortuitous because the statue was subsequently viewed by more than 12 million immigrants as they entered the U.S., making it one of the first things they saw in America.)
  • What do people use torches for? What does the torch make you think about the statue?
  • Who uses a crown? What does the crown make you think about the statue?
  • How does the tremendous size of the statue affect the way you feel about it?
  • Why are so many people are familiar with the Statue of Liberty? Why are so many people aware of what it represents?

Kid-friendly background information on the Statue of Liberty is available on America's Library, via a link from the EDSITEment resource American Memory, and on Ben's Guide to U.S. Government for Kids and The National Park Service, two links from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library.

Activity 3. Built-In Symbols

The class is now ready to take a detailed look at the Statue, beginning with its symbol-packed design. Divide the class into five groups. Have each group look closely at one of the following images of the statue from the EDSITEment resource American Memory and record the details each group member observes:

Have each group share its photo and observations. What details about the Statue did the students note that were not mentioned during the brainstorming session in Activity 2? The tablet, axe, broken chains, seven rays in the crown, 25 windows? Hypothesize about their meaning.

Activity 4. Using the Symbol

Using the Symbol
Now your students will look at some examples of how the Statue of Liberty has been used for its symbolism. As a class, analyze one or all of the archival materials listed below. (Note: The first item, Emma Lazarus's famous poem, "The New Colossus," contains difficult language that will probably require teacher direction; the remaining items are digital images of photographs, posters and song sheets.) As students review the items, they should ask: Why did the creator choose to use the Statue of Liberty as a symbol? What message does the Statue of Liberty communicate in each instance?


  • The New Colossus, available from the EDSITEment resource American Verse Project
    Written by Emma Lazarus in 1883 as a fundraiser for the Bartholdi Pedestal Fund, the poem is inscribed on a bronze plaque that was placed on the interior wall of the pedestal in 1903. Concentrate on elements of the statue the class has discussed that are mentioned in the poem (e.g., torch, size, location in the harbor). What does the poet emphasize about the statue? Why do students think this poem was inscribed on the pedestal of the statue?

Sheet Music

  • Liberty 1916
    Both the cover sheet and the lyrics are of interest. What does the songwriter say liberty is? In 1916, there was a war going on in Europe. Do you think the songwriter would have been in favor of having the U.S. enter the war?
  • When you come back: and you will come back, there's the whole world waiting for you; March song 1918
    Of special interest is the cover sheet with songwriter George M. Cohan's picture flanked by images of the Statue of Liberty and the Capitol. Why did Cohan, a very famous entertainer of his day, place his picture on the cover between the two symbols? Why did he choose the Statue of Liberty for the cover of this song written for soldiers going off to fight in World War I?



  • "Human Statue of Liberty. 18,000 Officers and Men at Camp Dodge, Des Moines, Iowa. Colonel William Newman, Commanding. Colonel Rush S. Wells, Directing. Mole & Thomas. (NWDNS-165-WW-521B(1)) 09/1918." (Locate the image by searching for the terms "Human" and "Statue" in NAIL on the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom.)
    This 1918 photo depicts a "human statue of liberty" composed of 18,000 officers and men at Camp Dodge in Des Moines, Iowa. This is an interesting picture, but why was this chosen as an activity for troops training for World War I?
  • "The announcing of the armistice on November 11, 1918, was the occasion for a monster celebration in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Thousands massed on all sides of a replica of the Statue of Liberty on Broad Street, and cheered unceasingly. Philadelphia Public Ledger." (Locate the image by searching for the terms "replica" and "Statue of Liberty" in NAIL on the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom.)
    Why celebrate the end of World War I with this Statue?
  • "Liberty Enlightening the World (circa 1920)" (Locate the image by searching for the exact phrase "Liberty Enlightening the World" on the EDSITEment resource American Memory.)
    From what vantage point does the photograph appear to have been taken? Why did the photographer frame the photo with the window? Who else got to see the Statue of Liberty this way? What is the message of the photo?
  • Locate the following photos in the NAIL Standard Search on the EDSITEment resource The Digital Classroom by searching for the exact titles:
    • "Trash covers dumping area designated as a future park (Liberty State Park). Statue of Liberty appears in background."
    • "A view of the Statue of Liberty seldom seen by tourists-trash-littered dumping ground is proposed Liberty State Park."
    • "Oil slick surrounds the Statue of Liberty in New York Harbor."
    (Please note that, today, over a quarter century of local citizen activity and vigilance has created, protected, and nurtured Liberty State Park, which opened on June 14, 1976, and is the busiest state-operated urban park in the USA. More than 4 million visitors a year and countless wildlfe now enjoy its many pleasures, and individuals and organizations continue to support the park's future as "a free, green and non-commercial, urban waterfront oasis."-- From the Liberty State Park website).

    What message does each photograph send? How does the image of the Statue of Liberty in each picture help the photographer get across that message?
Activity 5. Choose a Symbol, Any Symbol

In this lesson, students will work in small groups to research another familiar symbol of the U.S. Their goal is to understand the history of the symbol and to gain an appreciation for its significance. Have each group choose a symbol (some examples are listed below) and locate information about it online or in the library. To get started, students can peruse the following resources available through EDSITEment. All are general in nature and searchable, except for The Internet Public Library, which is organized as a directory.

Here are some sources of information on specific symbols—most designed for young people—available through EDSITEment:

The Alamo
Link from American Memory

American Flag
Links from American Memory

Links from Internet Public Library

Bald Eagle

      Links from

Internet Public Library

Empire State Building
Link from American Memory

Liberty Bell
Links from Internet Public Library

Link from Internet Public Library

Uncle Sam
Links from Internet Public Library

Link from American Memory

Activity 6. Create a Symbol

Continuing to work in small groups, students will now create a poster that conveys a message using the national symbol they researched in Activity 5. Each group will share its poster, clarifying its message and the reason behind the choice of symbol and design. In preparing to create their posters, the students should become familiar with some of the design principles illustrated by the following posters:

Point out such design features as:

  1. a limited amount of words
  2. a few large images
  3. one color used for words that go together
  4. even lettering in straight lines
  5. a limited number of colors used
  6. particular use of the national symbol

Using a rubric designed with your students' skill level, class curriculum, and specific goals for this assignment in mind will help your students understand what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated. The following is a sample rubric you may wish to use when designing your own. This rubric is designed to demonstrate the kinds of standards by which one teacher might evaluate posters and presentations; it is not intended to set a universal standard for what makes a good poster. Review your particular standards in class before students begin working on their posters.

NOTE: Exemplary posters will include all of the positive qualities of very good and satisfactory posters.

Click here to download the rubric in rich-text format.

Using a rubric designed with your students' skill level, class curriculum, and specific goals for this assignment in mind will help your students understand what is expected of them and how they will be evaluated.

Activity 7. The United States Symbol

As a culminating activity, assess students' understanding of symbols and their use in depicting Americans' shared values, principles and beliefs with a brief writing assignment. Ask students to list some American symbols and what they represent. Then, have students select a symbol that they believe to be the symbol of the U.S. and explain their choice.

As a follow-up to this lesson, ask students to make note of any movies, books, magazines, documentaries, etc., they see that include some reference to the Statue of Liberty (or any other symbol discussed in the lesson). Have them explain to the class the feelings the reference intended to conjure.

Extending The Lesson

  • Students interested in the construction of the Statue of Liberty should be fascinated by the 230 photos available through the EDSITEment resource American Memory's Historic American Buildings Survey/Historic American Engineering Record. These pictures reveal the interior structure of the statue and the restoration that was completed in 1986.
  • Emma Lazarus's poem, "The New Colossus," alludes to the Colossus of Rhodes. Lazarus's allusion to the ancient wonder adds information to the poem, which begins by telling the reader that although the statues are similar (almost exactly the same height, for example), there are important differences. In this way, Lazarus transfers ideas one associates with the Colossus of Rhodes to the Statue of Liberty. Students might be interested in learning more about the Colossus of Rhodes and sharing with the class the ways in which it compares with and contrasts from the Statue of Liberty.
  • If your school has a music teacher, he or she may be able to help the students learn one of the songs from the sheet music in Activity 4. The EDSITEment resource American Memory contains a searchable collection of many digitized versions of sheet music from various periods.
  • Students may be interested in learning more about the creation of the Statue of Liberty. Both the initial construction and restoration of the Statue of Liberty involved public fundraising. One significant chapter in the history of the Statue was the difficulty experienced in raising funds for the American commitment to build the pedestal. Though the statue was intended to be dedicated in 1876 to celebrate the Centennial, its dedication was delayed, partially because of a lack of funds. The newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer is credited with using the power of the press to motivate the American public.

    On the EDSITEment resource American Memory, students can read about one fundraiser in which small replicas of the statue were sold for a dollar. Search by title for "The Great Statue of Liberty and the Pedestal Fund. [Manufacturer and builder / Volume 17, Issue 6, June 1885]." Students can also read a contemporary account of the dedication ceremony by searching for "The Nineteenth Century in Print: Periodicals: The Inauguration of Bartholdi's Liberty Statue. [Manufacturer and builder / Volume 18, Issue 11, November 1886]."

    A detailed account of the statue's origins, as well as information about the centennial restoration of the statue and the many individuals associated with the Statue of Liberty are accessible through The National Park Service website, a link from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public library.
  • Understanding the statue's history requires reviewing the history of the relationship between France and the U.S., beginning with the American Revolution. More information on this relationship can be found at Ben's Guide to U.S. Government for Kids, a link from the EDSITEment-reviewed website Internet Public Library.
  • The Statue of Liberty is closely linked to the history of immigrants who entered America through Ellis Island, a fruitful topic for student research. The EDSITEment resource American Memory features a lesson on immigration (with information for the teacher).

    For more information on Ellis Island, visit these links from the EDSITEment resource Internet Public Library:
    Students might also be interested in viewing and analyzing the film "An American Tail," which features an immigration storyline and images of the Statue of Liberty.
  • Students with access to technology can search the websites listed below for examples of the use of other national symbols in photos and posters.


Selected EDSITEment Websites
American Memory
America's Library
American Verse Project
The Digital Classroom
History Matters
Internet Public Library
Ben's Guide to U.S. Government for Kids, Grades 35
Ben's Guide to U.S. Government for Kids, Grades K2
Department of Veteran Affairs Home Page
Celebrating America's Freedoms
The National Park Service Statue of Liberty Page
The Metropolitan Museum of Art's Explore and Learn

Other Resources
Recommended readings from American Memory

  • Brill, Marlene Targ. Building the Capital City. NY: Children's Press, 1996.
  • D'Alelio, Jane. I Know That Building! Washington, DC: The Preservation Press, 1989.
  • Fradin, Dennis Brindell. From Sea to Shining Sea: Washington, D.C. Chicago: Children's Press, 1992.
  • Lawlor, Veronica, ed. I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project. NY: Viking, 1995.
  • Quiri, Patricia Ryon. The White House. NY: Franklin Watts, 1996.
  • Reynolds, Patrick M. A Cartoon History of the District of Columbia. Willow Street, PA: The Red Rose Studio, 1995.
  • Sandler, Martin W. Immigrants. A Library of Congress Book. NY: HarperCollins, 1995.
  • Schackburg, Richard. Yankee Doodle. NY: Half Moon Books, 1994.
  • Spier, Peter. The Star-Spangled Banner. NY: Dell, 1973.
  • Young, Robert. A Personal Tour of Monticello. Minneapolis: Lerner, 1999.

Recommended reading from Carol Hurst's Children's Literature Site, a link from Internet Public Library

  • Hesse, Karen. Letters from Rifka. Reprint edition: Puffin, November 1993.

The Basics

Time Required

4-6 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Art and Culture > Medium > Visual Arts
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Poetry
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Immigration/Migration
  • History and Social Studies > Themes > Politics and Citizenship
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Art and Culture
  • Analysis
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Literary analysis
  • Poetry analysis
  • Representing ideas and information orally, graphically and in writing
  • Research
  • Using primary sources
  • Visual art analysis


Activity Worksheets