Download a PDF of this Lesson Plan
Subject: American History, Civics
• Define and provide broad examples of
acts of valor (in the military and beyond)
• Describe the purpose and basic elements of the Medal of Honor
• Brainstorm and examine additional, potential, and/or unidentified
“heroic” acts that might merit the Medal of Honor
• Become familiar with major wars in which the United States
• Extend the parameters of the Medal of Honor to include a
broadened base of acts that could merit recognition
• Analyze the treatment of minorities in the military, particularly during World War II, and its influence on the awarding of the Medal of Honor
•Examine and report on historic and current race relations in the armed forces
Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning
27: Understands how certain character traits
enhance citizens' ability to fulfill personal and civic responsibilities
2: Understands the historical perspective
• The film American Valor (www.pbs.org/shop)
• Television and VCR or DVD player
• Chart paper and markers
• Sticky notepads (one each per discussion group)
• Picture, drawing, or actual Medal of Honor
• Computers with Internet access
• Lists of and/or access to Medal of Honor minority recipients
• Medal of Honor fact sheet
• Medal of Honor statistics
The complete lesson requires 5 classroom periods for each activity. To shorten classroom time students can conduct some research outside of the classroom. You may also choose to complete only one individual activity.
To become acquainted with the Medal of Honor’s
history and parameters, refer to Medal of Honor: History and Issues
This piece might be a good primer for students (with some modification
for younger grades). Additional sites providing essential background
information are The Official Site of the Medal of Honor http://www.cmohs.org/
and Home of the Heroes http://www.homeofheroes.com/.
1) Divide students into small groups. Distribute
one sticky note pad to each. Write VALOR on the chalkboard or chart
paper. Ask students to discuss the term, writing one-word or short-phrase
associations on separate note pad sheets (one word/phrase per sheet).
For example, heroism, bravery, saving a life, etc. Have one person
from each group post the terms on a classroom wall or the chalkboard.
2) Invite the class to review the postings, removing
overlapping terms/phrases. As they review the collection, have them
brainstorm umbrella categories under which associations might be
grouped. For example, one category might be service to the public,
under which students would, after discussion, group select terms/phrases from those posted.
Based on the terms/phrases, have students offer a definition of
3) Building on student associations and definitions,
provide a definition of valor. (If desired, provide synonyms, which
include gallantry, heroism, valiance, valiancy, bravery, courage,
and courageousness.) Some definitions follow:
• Strength of mind in regard to danger;
that quality which enables a man to encounter danger with firmness;
personal bravery; courage; prowess; intrepidity.
• The qualities of a hero or heroine;
exceptional or heroic courage when facing danger (especially in
• A soldierly compound of vanity, duty
and the gambler's hope.
4) Invite students to briefly present stories
of valor with which they are familiar and/or to name any awards
for heroic acts. Introduce students to the Medal of
Honor, displaying the award (actual or a visual representation).
Probe student familiarity with it (what it is, who receives it,
etc.). Provide background on the medal. Distribute the Medal of
Honor fact sheets and statistics for students to review. Students
should jot down questions they have about the medal or additional
information they would like to know.
5) Instruct students to conduct additional research
on the Medal of Honor (and make sure they find answers to the questions
they noted in Step 4). Students may work individually or in pairs
or small groups to find answers to all or several of the following
questions (some may be modified or eliminated for younger students):
a) When was the award established, by whom, and
b) Who typically receives the award? How is the recipient identified?
c) How many award recipients are there, to date?
d) How many women have received the medal?
e) How many people of color have received the award?
f) Under what special circumstances is the award issued? Describe
several of these situations.
g) Can civilians helping to fight in combat be eligible for the
h) What changes have been made to medal provisions over the years?
Why have these changes been made?
i) What mistakes have been made when awarding the medal? How were
these errors corrected?
j) Describe instances in which the medal was used abused.
k) Has the medal ever been awarded to the same person more than
once? List examples. Can this still occur?
l) What privileges do medal recipients receive?
m) Have there ever been controversies concerning the award and its
recipients? Explain and describe.
n) Have there been situations when a medal has not initially been
awarded but then is issued later on? Provide examples of when this
has occurred and successes and challenges involved in this reconsideration
o) Describe situations when the award was taken away from a recipient
and then reinstated.
p) What are some of the issues around awarding the Medal of Honor
to people of color?
6) Invite students to share and discuss their
findings, recording any outstanding questions they may have about
the medal’s history, provisions, and recipients. Chart student
questions for later discussion.
7) Tell students they will watch American
Valor, a film based on interviews with medal awardees. Explain
that most award recipients are no longer living, and that of those
surviving, only several agreed to be interviewed for the film. Create
an American Valor viewing chart that students can complete
as they watch the film, with space for recipient names, wars in which they fought, each indivdual's act, story similarities and differences and things learned about the Medal of Honor.
8) Have students share their thoughts and feelings
about the film, discussing what stood out for them. Invite them to discuss the similarities and
differences among the narratives. What is the most common sentiment
regarding the medal among the interviewees?
9) Applying their research on the Medal of Honor,
the various facts and statistics regarding the award, and the stories
presented in American Valor, have students discuss whether
the award’s current parameters are inclusive of all potential
acts of bravery. If they believe so, have them present an argument
supporting this premise. If not, instruct them to add or revise
provisions to make the award more inclusive (i.e., perhaps civilians
assisting in combat might merit a medal). Invite students to share
their arguments and/or revised parameters.
1) Have students review the American Valor segments that highlight Vernon Baker and George Sakato. Tell them that as they watch, they should note the experiences these soldiers had as people of color in the armed forces during World War II. (Students can log onto this site's short bios of Baker and Soto, as well as their medal citations.)
Engage students in discussion about Sakato and Vernon, using some or all of the following questions to prompt reflection. Why were they treated differently from their White counterparts? How were people of color being treated nationally prior to and during the war? When did these and other soldiers of color receive their medals? What prompted this action? Probe students about this treatment and its connection to the essence of civic duty and racial equality as stated in the Constitution. In what ways was this treatment contradictory to democratic principles?
2) Point out to students that, because of racial discrimination, it took nearly 60 years for 29 African-American and Asian-American heroes to be recognized for their actions in World War II. They were finally honored, many posthumously, at ceremonies at the White House in 1997 and 2000. Discuss with students why it took so long for these heroes to receive their awards.
3) Divide students into small groups representing the various arms of the military -- Navy, Air Force, Army, and the Marine Corps (depending on the number of students, there could be at least three groups per category). Assign to each group per category an ethnic group to research-African American, Asian American/Pacific Islander, Latino (these are the primary groupings; students may opt to select other underrepresented parties).
4) Instruct the groups to research and chronologically chart (perhaps an annotated timeline) the treatment of their ethnic groups, within their assigned military divisions, during major wars in which the US was involved (Civil War, World Wars I and II, and the Korean and Vietnam Wars. This list can be extended, if desired. Refer to Lesson II for additional wars.) Their findings should include the following (students should be encouraged to add additional categories as they conduct research):
•Units in which these groups fought (Segregated? Integrated?)
•Specific duties to which they were assigned
•Treatment they received (from rank to awards)
•The policy units of the armed forces established regarding minorities
•Who received the Medal of Honor and when
•Steps minorities took to establish equality in the armed forces
5) Invite groups to share their chronologies/findings. Have groups discuss any differences and similarities in the way the groups were treated during the armed forces; during which time periods racial equality seem to be addressed and established; whether there are other minorities who served in the armed forces who merit a Medal of Honor; and what they believe the present status of racial relations is in the armed forces.
6) Instruct students to research the present-day treatment of minorities in the military. One way to begin is to review the Armed Forces Equal Opportunity Survey (www.dod.mil/prhome/docs/r97_027.pdf.) Have students write an official military report or a journal essay on current racial relations in the armed forces.
Students can quiz each other on their understanding of
the Medal of Honor’s provisions and history. (Or, issue a
teacher-created questionnaire that quizzes students on their knowledge
of the medal.) Use a rubric to assess level of student participation
in group activities and class discussion. Students can critique
each other’s arguments in favor of keeping the award’s
parameters as is or their proposed changes to the award’s
• Create a pamphlet of other military awards
(history, what it honors, who receives it, visual representations,
• Redesign the Medal of Honor
• Conduct research to determine whether anyone in their community
has ever received the Medal of Honor and establish a memorial in
Home of the Heroes
Official Site of the Medal of Honor
Medal of Honor Citations
The Medal of Honor: The Bravest of the Brave
Air Force Magazine Online: Valor
About the Author:
From classroom instructor to an executive director, Michele Israel
has been an educator for nearly 20 years. She has developed and
managed innovative educational initiatives, taught in nontraditional
settings in the U.S. and overseas, developed curricula and educational
materials, and designed and facilitated professional development
for classroom and community educators. Currently operating Educational
Consulting Group, Israel is involved with diverse projects, including
strategic planning and product development.
This lesson has been reviewed by the Center
for Civic Education (www.civiced.org).
[back to top]