Most of my middle school social studies students studied civics and government last year, and we will be jumping into early American history this year. As a quick connector activity between these two subjects, our first assignment of the year showed each student's interpretation of the American culture and identity.
To begin, we brainstormed some defining ideas of "Americanism." I prompted them by asking them questions like What is the American identity? What makes us different from other countries? What are some of the American ideals of which we are all proud? As usual, the students came up with some great, insightful ideas, many of which I had not considered. A quick example of our brainstorming sheet is shown below:
Taking this discussion further, the students were given the opportunity to create their own Great Seal of the United States. I held off on showing them the official seal until after the assignment was completed.
I handed out a sheet with several common symbols used in flags, icons, and American popular and historical culture. I included images like the scales of justice, the Masonic pyramid and the olive branch.
I handed out some poster-sized paper that was printed with a circle template for the students to design their own seal. My only parameters were that the seal include at least a few symbols from the sheet or other sources and that each symbol thoughtfully represented some part of the American identity. I also gave them a list of common Latin phrases and mottos and asked them to choose one of these, as well.
The right side of the poster is left blank at this point. Later on, we will add an image of the real Official Seal of the United States and analyze its symbolism according to the Founding Fathers' design.
The students created their own symbolic seals that they felt represented the ideals and identity of the American people. Below is an example from a student who chose to emphasize the enduring nature of the United States and contrast war with peace.
Once all students have completed their own seals, I printed color copies of the real seal. I printed them to the same dimensions of the circles on the poster. After reading a little about the seal design and its symbolism in our textbook, we pasted the official seal onto the poster and labeled it in the same way that we had labeled our own designs.
This was a really fun, relaxed, yet meaningful way to begin the school year for us. I actually got to know many of the new students better based on their interpretations of the assignment and some really great discussions arose at the tables.