Investigative Question

What are some important symbols of the United States and why are they important?

First-grade students deepen their understanding of national identity and cultural literacy by learning about national and state symbols (Standard 1.3). Students learn to recite the Pledge of Allegiance and sing songs that express American ideals (e.g., “You’re a Grand Old Flag”). As students participate in shared inquiry, they begin to understand the significance of national holidays and the achievements of the people associated with them. They also learn to identify and understand American symbols, landmarks, and essential documents, such as the flag, bald eagle, Statue of Liberty, US Constitution, and Declaration of Independence, and know the people, ideas, and events associated with them. Teachers should focus on how these symbols provide a sense of identity for Americans and a sense of community across time and space. Informational texts and literature such as Deborah Kent’s Lincoln Memorial, Ann McGovern’s The Pilgrims’ First Thanksgiving, Lucille Recht Penner’s The Statue of Liberty, and Patricia Ryon Quiri’s The National Anthem may be used to answer questions such as, What are some important symbols of the United States and why are they important? Students might create a class “big book” of important national symbols, writing informational/explanatory or opinion pieces about these symbols. Teachers may also read to students The Wall by Eve Bunting, which helps them to understand the symbolic nature of monuments and how they represent civic values.

This inquiry set introduces students to symbols of California and the United States. These symbols have come to define how California and the United States are represented to the population of their state and nation. Some of the symbols in this inquiry set may be more recognizable to students than others. Begin this activity with a discussion about symbols in general. We see many symbols in our daily lives — from stoplights that keep us safe on the street to commercial logos like the famed golden arches signifying McDonalds. Though the purpose of symbols varies widely, make sure that students have a general sense that symbols are intended to convey a message through a simple and recognizable image. In kindergarten students learned about some symbols that represent the United States, especially the American flag and bald eagle. In first grade, students learn about symbols that are intended to communicate messages about their community and state.

The sources in this inquiry set show not only the symbols themselves, but they also show the ways by which Californians and Americans have used these symbols to create music (through the covers of sheet music, for example) or to create visual art. Students can talk about the symbols themselves, discuss places where the symbols appear, and then discuss the message those symbols are designed to convey to Californians and to Americans in general.

Students should begin viewing the symbols from both California and the United States. Following the prompts in the "for the student" and "for the teacher" sections, students should be encouraged to discuss the symbols' significance, or message, and where they may have seen the symbols. After viewing and discussing the symbols, students will create symbol passports in booklet form as a keepsake of symbols from California and the United States. An additional literacy activity can be used as an extension to reinforce academic language.

There are two additional resources that feature important national and state symbols:

The Library of Congress primary source set Symbols of the United States is an excellent reference for teachers.

The California State Library collection of state symbols is another resource for California teachers.
Literacy Activity Teacher Directions: Symbol Passport Directions:
  1. Copy the passport template onto card stock, or copy and glue onto 9 x 12 construction paper folded in half.
  2. Distribute miniature images of the symbols. Instruct students to cut out each symbol and sort them into California symbols and United States symbols. (There are shapes in each corner to use as clues.) Note: Students have the option to draw their own images of the symbols.
  3. Glue the images onto the correct page of the passport. There should be four pages: flag, song, landmark, and seal. The California image should be displayed on the left side, the national image on the right side.
  4. Students then complete the sentence frames, first by identifying the image and then indicating what the image represents.
  Vocabulary Activity Directions:
  1. Copy passport vocabulary words and definitions onto card stock and cut out. Place definition cards face up on a table. Place vocabulary word cards face down on a table. Each student will select one vocabulary word card and match the word with its definition. The student will keep the pair of cards. The next student will then take a turn. Continue until all the cards are matched up.
  2. This activity may be completed in pairs so that students can discuss where each symbol appears as they go through sources. They should consistently be encouraged to have a conversation about why the symbol is important. As an extension, students could ask caregivers why certain symbols are important to them.
1.3 American Symbols Student Handout
  • The Library of Congress. The Library of Congress’ Primary Source Analysis Tool supports an inquiry model of instruction by asking students to first observe, then reflect, then question. Their customizable tool includes specific prompts for student interrogation of books and other printed materials, maps, oral recordings, photographs and paintings, and many other types of primary sources.
  • The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA). NARA has developed a vast collection of document analysis worksheets, ready for classroom use. Their website offers teachers a wide collection of customizable tools – appropriate for working with photographs, maps, written documents, and more. NARA has also customized their tools to meet the needs of young learners, and intermediate or secondary students.
Teachers should be mindful that students and their families come from a variety of socioeconomic, cultural, religious, ability, nationality, gender, and racial/ethnic backgrounds. Their families, hometowns, and friends might share, or not share, cultural, religious, social, national, or architectural aspects from past symbols of patriotism and statehood shown in this exercise. This standard will then help to provide a more inclusive interpretation of what symbolizes American values while also helping students analyze how and why symbols play a part in showcasing nation-building over time.