The Controversy of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Design

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SWBAT gain understanding of the artist's intent in designing a memorial wall by reading her proposal and identifying what may have caught the juror's attention.

Big Idea

Maya Lin's design proposal painted a clear image of the wall in the juror's minds and I hope it does the same for my students.


The Things They Carried has offered students a look into difficult experience of soldiers who fought in the Vietnam War. Today we begin to look into a related topic, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Specifically, I am introducing students to the controversy surrounding the design proposal. Before doing this, students are taking a quiz on the eight chapters they have already read in The Things They Carried. After today, students will be reading the rest of the novel on their own at home. They are now familiar with the structure and style of this novel and the language is pretty accessible. Finishing the rest of the novel on their own is a totally doable task.

Taking A Quiz

15 minutes

Students have finished reading the first eight chapters of The Things They Carried. A good part of this reading has been done at home. It is always a challenge to assign reading outside the classroom to students who openly express a dislike for reading. A measure of accountability is necessary to increase the chances that they all do the reading. Assignments that are directly tied to the reading is one way making sure they do the reading, although many will still try to skim or scan for information that they can use in the given assignment and not do most of the reading. The only other method that has worked for me is giving them a comprehension quiz. For some reason, the word quiz sets off alarms in their head and pushes them to do the reading. So I am giving them one quiz today for the reading they have done so far. I downloaded the quizzes for chapters 1-4 and chapters 5-8 from this teacher website and gave them to my students.

Students get 15 minutes to complete it and turn it in. These quick quizzes allow me to show students that the reading they do will count on their grade.

Introduction To the Vietnam War Memorial

10 minutes

I am introducing students to the controversy surrounding the design proposal of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. This project is meant to engage students in a process of closely reading texts, evaluating the author’s intent and taking a position on the controversy. These are all activities that allow students to practice the reading, writing and speaking skills important in the Common Core. Specifically, they are going to: read the original design proposal of the wall, read an article that expresses opposition to this design, and write a response to this article. Today we begin with the first reading.

I begin by asking students if they have ever been to Washington D.C. Not one student has. Additionally, only one or two students is aware of the fact that the well-known Vietnam memorial is a wall that now sits in Washington D.C. This is not terribly surprising of a group of students who rarely leave the community where they grew up. The implications this has on instruction is actually exciting as I will be introducing them to this very important piece of public art. For students who have been to the memorial or are familiar with it, the controversy surrounding its development is still interesting to learn.

I explain to students the following points in this Vietnam Veterans Memorial powerpoint. They immediately ask why there was opposition to the design, but I do not tell them the specifics of the opposition. They are about to learn of these in the next readings.


Reading Maya Lin's Proposal

20 minutes

I give students a copy of the written part of Maya Lin’s design proposal and ask them to read and highlight it. Specifically, I want them to highlight details that can help them answer the guiding question I give them: 

What do you think captured the attention of the jurors?

To answer this question, students will have to do a close reading of the text and create a picture in their mind of what the wall looks like. This question prompts them to identify the powerful details communicated in the writing as well as the powerful details of this piece of public art that has spoken to so many people. They will see an image of the wall soon, but the fact that they don’t have an existing picture of the wall in their memory means that they have to push themselves to create one based on the text, a very worthwhile thinking exercise.

Here is a sample paper from a student who did a good job of highlighting details that help answer the question. I discuss this student’s copy of Maya Lin’s proposal in this video


Share and Quick Write

10 minutes

There are only a few minutes left of class and I use them for students to do a quick write where they explain why they believe this design caught the attention of the jurors. This is meant to help students digest the information they just read as well as be prepared to understand what the opposition was arguing against. I give them a few minutes for the quick write. It is important to look over their shoulder as they write in case they are confused about the task. One point of confusion I notice today is that some want to praise her writing and make general observations like “she explained it well. It is clear.” I have to make the task more clear by asking them to cite specific details of the design and of her reasoning. I ask them to think of what captured the jurors’ imagination. I pose another question: What was it about her design that the jurors thought was going to work well?

Once they are finished writing I ask a few to share their thoughts. Most think there are details in the design that are “cool.” They are talking about the circular pattern the names create. They also appreciate that there is meaning behind every detail. Here is one student’s quick write about this monument. We only have enough time to share a few thoughts and some students were still offering generic comments so I ask students to try and add to their quick write tonight. I ask them to make sure they add specific details to their quick write.