Iconography and Culture: Using Monuments and Memorials to Teach Elementary Social Studies

In most communities, memorials, plaques, historical markers, and monuments are erected to record significant events or honor heroes and heroines.

These markers could provide historical, economic, political, or geographic insight to community life and introduce students to the importance of iconography in representing various aspects of culture. Often, monuments and memorials are ignored or taken for granted. Teachers can introduce the importance of iconography in their social studies instruction and how monuments and memorials can impact global and local history.

Below are suggestions to encourage students to research icons from other countries and from their own communities.



Source: iStock by Getty Images / Voortrekker Woman and Children Monument

Iconography Around the Globe

Ask students: Why do people build monuments and memorials? Show students a photograph of the Voortrekker Monument located in Pretoria, South Africa.

Divide the class into groups and have each group discuss the picture by considering the following questions:

  • Which details in the pictures are familiar to you?
  • Which details are unfamiliar or unusual?
  • What do you think the monument/memorial signifies?
  • What culture do you think it represents?

Discuss how the monument represents the Great Trek of the Boers (Dutch-speaking colonists) who traveled into the interior of Africa in search of a homeland apart from British rule. Continue group discussions with the following questions:

  • What role do you think this monument/memorial had in the society?
  • In what ways do we honor important leaders or events?

Discuss the fact that important events or people are often memorialized.



Source: iStock by Getty Images / The Lorraine Motel Sign at the National Civil Rights Museum

Memorials in the United States

Ask students: What iconography represents America? Read Ben's Dream (Van Allsburg 1982) to students. This book tells the story of a young boy who dreams his house floats by monuments of the world.

Have students decide what monuments are represented in the book and mark the location of these monuments on a map. Examine pictures of places such as Mt. Rushmore, the Lincoln Memorial, the Lorraine Motel, or presidential faces on coins and paper money. Have students identify where they are likely to find likenesses of famous leaders/heroes of a culture (statues, money, stamps, paintings). Divide students into groups and have each group investigate several nations and locate representations of famous leaders/heroes.

Create a table and display background information with students. The headings could be: Purpose (Why was this monument/memorial created?), Place (Why was the monument/memorial put in this specific place?), People (Is this monument/memorial important to special groups or everyone in the community?), Proprietorship (Who decides the important people or events to memorialize?); and Pertinence (What does the iconography mean to me?). Discuss the various cultures represented by the iconography, and who is not represented.



Source: iStock by Getty Images /Town Hall Sign on Building Facade

Monuments in the Community

Have students identify their own community icons, and investigate any controversy surrounding the monument/memorial. Use James Loewen’s (2019) book Lies Across America: What Our Historic Sites Get Wrong to read about errors with many historical markers. Ask student to reflect on the following questions:

  • What individuals or groups remained most active in advocating the memorial?
  • Did they encounter any opposition?

Follow up activities could include: researching newspaper articles about such controversies as the Ten Commandments Monument in a Montgomery, Alabama courthouse; studying the artists who designed monuments (e.g., Gutzon Borglum—Mount Rushmore, Frederic Bartholdi—Statue of Liberty, Maya Ying Lin—Vietnam Veterans Memorial); or create a map of the community with symbols for each icon and host a tour for visitors.

Finally, have each group design a memorial or monument to represent an important person or event in the school. List characteristics that should be represented and design symbols to suggest ideas. Students can use any medium to design their models.


Field-based learning is an important tool in social studies instruction. Through these activities, students can gain a stronger connection to and an awareness of their community.

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Kay Gandy is a retired professor of seventeen years and a retired elementary teacher of twenty-seven years. Her goal is to work with teachers in countries around the world and watch movies in foreign theaters. Her books Mapping Is Elementary, My Dear and 50 Ways to Teach Social Studies provide practical lesson ideas for elementary teachers.