Today, November 11th, is Veterans Day, a national holiday honoring those who have served and are still serving in all branches of the United States Armed Forces.

During class library visits this week, students spent time discussing why Veterans Day is important, sharing stories of veterans in their own families, and hearing stories about soldiers who have fought, and in some cases died, serving our country.

In PreK and kindergarten, we read the book Hero Dad by Melinda Hardin:

image from indiebound.org

This simple picture book is a perfect story to share with young kids for Veterans Day.

For one thing, it is narrated from the perspective of a little boy around their age whose father is a soldier.

This story also has huge kid appeal because it highlights the parallels between soldiers and superheroes. For example, the narrator says, “He can’t fly–well, sometimes he can,” on a page illustrated with soldiers parachuting from a plane high in the clouds.

We opened our discussion by talking about superheroes we were already familiar with–Spiderman, Batman, Superman, Iron Man, and Wonder Woman got many mentions–and the kids were excited to share their favorite superheroes and tell about their powers.

“Why do superheroes use their powers?” I asked.

Student responses included “to fight bad guys,” “to save people,” and “to protect us and keep us safe.”

Now, we were ready to read Hero Dad and see the ways soldiers can be considered real-life superheroes. The kids made tons of connections between their prior knowledge about superheroes and the new knowledge they were gaining about the troops who serve our country.

In the story, the boy keeps in touch with his father via letters, and our kindergarten students took their new knowledge about soldiers one step further by writing their own letter to a troop who is stationed overseas.

To send our letters, we used the Forgotten Soldiers Outreach website, run by an organization whose mission is “to send care packages and letters of encouragement to our deployed soldiers.” The site takes donations and sells fundraising items in order to mail care packages to troops, and in each care package they include a letter of encouragement from volunteers who visit the site.

Each kindergarten class dictated a letter to me to send to a deployed soldier. Here’s what our kindergarten kids had to say to the troops:

letter to a soldier from Mrs. Ellett’s kindergarten class
letter to a soldier from Mrs. Fielding’s kindergarten class
letter to a soldier from Ms. McGlon’s kindergarten class
letter to a soldier from Ms. Young’s kindergarten class

Students were excited to write these letters to encourage real soldiers stationed overseas. If you’d like to write your own letter of encouragement or make a donation towards care packages for troops, visit the Forgotten Soldiers Outreach site to see how you can help.

In 2nd and 3rd grades, we spent a little more time talking about the origins of Veterans Day using a video from History.com’s “Bet You Didn’t Know” series:

screenshot from History.com (click to watch the video!)

This video was a great introduction to the history behind the holiday, and I’ll admit–I learned a lot of things that I didn’t know before!

Students also shared their own prior knowledge and connections related to the holiday, the military, and various wars that they had read or learned about before.

After the video, we read the book Don’t You Know There’s a War On? by James Stevenson:

image from paperbackswap.com

James Stevenson is probably better known as an illustrator whose pictures have brought to life the poetry of Jack Prelutsky and the stories of Judy Blume.

But in this autobiographical picture book, James Stevenson serves as both author and illustrator as he describes how his childhood was affected by World War II.

Second graders were excited to learn that the story was an autobiography because they have been working on their own autobiographical writing in their classrooms for the last few weeks. And both 2nd and 3rd grades enjoyed the book’s comic-book-style watercolor graphics and speech bubbles and its little snippets of humor.

I love this book, but it is a challenging story to read with younger students because it requires so much background knowledge or, in lieu of that, a lot of explanation of terms and practices that are foreign to our kids.

What is rationing? What is a victory garden? Why did people save tin cans and black out their windows?

Even–and this one surprised me–what is Spam?

image from http://www.recipespastandpresent.org (click for Spam recipes)

(Amusingly enough, when I asked if anyone knew what Spam was, most students were only familiar with the term as applied to unwanted advertisements sent via email.)

By the end of the book, students were wrapped up in the story and relieved to learn that Stevenson’s brother and father both returned home unharmed at the war’s end (though the story does mention others whose lives are lost).

The thing that stuck out the most about Stevenson’s experiences is just how much his day-to-day life was affected by the war–a concept that I think is foreign to most of us who were born after Vietnam and even more so for young kids today.

We talked about how our country is at war with Afghanistan right now, but this war is something that doesn’t affect most of our daily lives. In fact, many of us might go days or weeks without thinking of the war unless we are personally connected to friends or family who are serving in it.

2nd graders stopped here, but 3rd grade classes had time after the story to collaborate in composing their own letters to deployed troops using the Forgotten Soldiers site mentioned above:

letter to a solder from Ms. Beaman’s 3rd grade class
letter to a solder from Mr. Brooks’ 3rd grade class
letter to a solder from Miss Ferrando’s 3rd grade class
letter to a solder from Ms. Hull’s 3rd grade class

These letters, besides giving students a chance to encourage a soldier, also provided us an opportunity to think about how to write for an audience beyond ourselves. For example, we revised one student’s suggestion–“We hope you come back alive” (sweet sentiment, but not the most tactful delivery) to the warmer, friendlier sentence “We hope that you come home safe.”

4th graders began their library visits with the same “Bet You Didn’t Know” video that 2nd and 3rd grade watched, but I chose two more serious and mature read-alouds for this group that focused on the Vietnam War.

Some students personally knew some Vietnam veterans or had visited the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, DC, while others had heard of the war but didn’t know much about it.

Our first read-aloud was the book Patrol: An American Soldier in Vietnam by Walter Dean Myers:

image from indiebound.org

Myers himself served in this war, and his brother was killed in Vietnam in 1968–and the emotions of this come through starkly in this poetic book about a young, frightened soldier who unexpectedly finds himself face to face with “the enemy.”

This book gives me chills.

The soldier’s narration combines with Ann Grifalconi’s collage illustrations to create a haunting and beautiful and terrifying story of war that captivated students from beginning to end.

I paired Patrol–a book that situates readers right in the horrors of war–with Eve Bunting’s The Wall, a bittersweet story about a father who takes his son to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial to see the name of the grandfather he never met:

image from indiebound.org

Reading these two stories together had a real impact on our 4th graders, who gained a better understanding of war’s effects on both the soldiers who fight and their families who are left behind.

As one of the students so eloquently put it, “Even when they didn’t get hurt on the outside, they could still get hurt on the inside.”

4th grade didn’t get to everything that I had planned for them, so I shared a few more links with their teachers to visit in their classrooms or on their own, and I’ll also share those with you here:

I hope this week’s activities had an impact on students–that today, on Veterans Day, they will thank the people in their lives who have fought for our country, and that every day they will remember what an important and difficult job this can be.

And to any service members who might stumble upon this post: Thank you. We salute you.

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