Vietnam War Memorial-Understanding the Power of Public Art

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SWBAT get a sense of the intended viewer experience in front of the wall by standing in front of a projected image. SWBAT learn about the controversy of this design by reading an article against it.

Big Idea

I can't take student to go see the monument, but an LCD projector may bring part of it to us.


In the previous lesson, students read the design proposal Maya Lin submitted of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall. They are going to read the opposition this design faced, which will lead to a written opinion paper.

Sharing Homework

5 minutes

Students were asked to add details to a quick write they worked on in class the day before. The quick write was supposed to answer the question: what captured the attention of the jurors who selected Maya Lin’s proposal for the current Vietnam Veterans Memorial wall? I open class by asking students to share what they came up with for homework. Students share the following they appreciate in the design:

            How the first date meets the last.

            Actual names of dead soldiers are on there

            Peace and quiet

            It’s a simple design

            It points to Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial

Now that students have spent a good amount of time learning of this design, I show them a picture of the memorial wall. Some students vaguely remember seeing it on TV or the internet. We will be discussing it in more detail later in class so we move on.


Introduction To the Opposing View

8 minutes

I let them know that there were people who were opposed to Maya Lin’s design and to predict their reasons. I let them know they will be reading the article Tom Carhart, a Vietnam War veteran, wrote to express his strong opposition to this design. I want them to predict his reasons. I have them discuss in small groups first. Talking about their thoughts helps them organize and develop their thinking. I listen in on their conversations and hear several groups predict that Carhart was probably upset over the fact that only those who died would be included on the monument and that this would unfairly exclude those who made it back alive. I don’t hear much discussion over other points so I interrupt them to push them to get into Carhart’s shoes. I tell them that I have only heard them discuss one point and that they need to consider the following:

  • The war was long and over 58,000 soldiers died.
  • This is the monument to remember such event.
  • We’ve seen the wall completed, even if just in a picture. When Carhart wrote this, he had no such visual in his mind.
  • Carhart had an idea of what a memorial for this purpose should look and this design did not match that. Think about his idea must have been and why this design failed to match that image.

With these words, I ask students to continue their discussion.

I then ask the to share. A few speak of their prediction that Carhart will have a problem with the fact that only the names of the dead would be included. Some begin to state their opinion of this, suggesting that they would not be upset because they actually survived. Other students predict that the monument doesn’t sound “flashy enough.” 


Virtual Visit To the Monument

5 minutes

I tell students we are taking a little fieldtrip. I want them to get a sense of what it is like to go up to that wall. This will help them understand Maya Lin’s intent and will prepare them to respond to Carhart. I project this image of the the Vietnam memorial wall on a classroom wall. To give them a glimpse of the magnitude of this piece of public art, I place the LCD projector as far away from the projecting wall as will allow me to project the image from floor to ceiling. I explain that this is the center where the two walls meet. I ask students to walk up to the wall and get a sense of what it may be like to walk up to the real one. This is a weird request, and students need a little encouragement to imagine, but I believe that it makes a difference to see it this big, covering an entire wall, rather than looking at a small picture of it. In this video, students are trying to comply with my request. They begin to ask questions such as “Is there a person with my last name?” “Are there any names of females?” “Is that the last person who died?” These are the types of questions that prompt them to get closer to the wall and look around, like I wished they would. While students stand in front of the projected image of the wall, I have them jot down some notes about what they imagine people experience when they visit the actual monument. Here are some of the notes students wrote.

I ask them to share some of their thoughts. One student says you would only have a response if you know someone on that wall. I ask if that means she would have no reaction. She said, “Well, I would be thinking.” I share the response I had when I went to see it. I talked about the silence, the weight of all those names, that the wall invites you to touch the names, that I was with a woman who touched the wall and said, “I’m so sorry guys” and how touching that was.


Reading the Opposing View

30 minutes

The article students are reading was written by Tom Carhart, a Vietnam War Veteran, who was central in the open opposition of this design. He wrote and article for the New York Times explaining his opinion. I distribute copies of Tom Carhart's article. Like they did with Maya Lin’s proposal, students read this article and highlight the central points, specifically the points that illustrate his opposition to the design.

I want students to verify any predictions they made earlier so I ask them to think of any predictions that were correct. They identify the line that where Carhart says, “Yes, we lost 57,000, but what of the millions of us who rendered honorable service and cam home?” as one example of a prediction that was made earlier. They also point to the prediction that, according to Carhart, this monument was not flashy enough.

I then ask students to use the available space at the end of the article to make a bulleted list of the central points they identified in Carhart’s opinion. I let them know they will be writing a response to this article and that the bulleted list must include specific points they are going to address in their paper. This is the work one student did on his copy of Carhart’s article.