Maya Lin

Related Topics: Vietnam War

Vietnam Veterans Memorial

Grade Level: 3rd/4th

Author: Heather Marshall


References and Resources


Time Allotment

Resourrces Needed


Optional Activities




Unlike other wars in United States history, the United States did not leave the Vietnam War victorious. Where soldiers from other wars had returned heroes, soldiers of the Vietnam War were not honored and were often met with hostility. The nation was divided over the war and healing was not in sight. In 1979, Jan Scruggs became obsessed with developing a monument to those who died in the war and others who were still missing. The healing needed to take place for him and others.

Scruggs rallied support for his idea and set up a nonprofit organization called the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Fund. He then started on a campaign to get support, financial contributions, land, and a bill passed by Congress. It took several years to get everything into place but finally all was ready. Scruggs announced a nationwide design competition with a $20,000 prize for the winner.

Maya Lin, a twenty-one year old architecture student at Yale University, was taking a class in funeral architecture. Since the contest to design the Vietnam Veterans Memorial had just been announced, the professor of the class decided it would be a good opportunity for his students to participate. Lin and several of her friends went to the site where the memorial was to be built and she envisioned a design. With her professor's encouragement, she quickly made the necessary preparations and submitted the design.

There were over 1,500 entries (some sources say over 2,500), but Lin's design was unanimously chosen by the contest judges. Lin was an unknown in the world of art and architecture and many wanted to know where she came from.

Maya Ying Lin was born in Athens, Ohio on November 5, 1960. In 1948, when the Communists came to power in China, her parents emigrated to the United States. Her father became the Dean of Fine Arts at Ohio University. Her mother worked as a poet and professor of Asian and English Literature. Provided with an environment rich in art and literature at a young age, Lin began to study architecture when she went to Yale.

The Vietnam Veterans Memorial Lin designed was a V-shaped, black granite wall set into the ground. Etched in white were the names of all the soldiers who died in the war and those who were still missing. Though it was approved by committee judges, Scruggs and others, it met significant opposition. Some said the design was unheroic, or displayed symbols of shame, degradation and dishonor. However, Lin felt it was a symbol of sacrifice and the sorrow of war and didn't want it changed from her original design. After months of negotiations, a compromise was reached. Two additional memorials, one of three soldiers and the other a monument to women in the war, would be added to the memorial a short distance away. This would not detract from the original monument, but would be additional tributes to veterans of the war. An American flag was also added to the memorial. Eight months after construction began, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, without the two additional monuments, was finished. It was dedicated on Veteran's Day, November 13, 1982.

Called "The Wall," the sleek black memorial is a tourist attraction on the National Mall in Washington D.C. It lies on a slope between the Washington and Lincoln Memorials. Millions visit The Wall every year, and many leave mementos as offerings. Everything from notes and medals, to toys and flowers are found by The Wall each day and collected by the park rangers there. They keep everything except the flowers. The items are catalogued and kept in conditions most appropriate for their preservation. Someday these items may be available, for brief periods, to be viewed by the public. Until then, visitors can view the memorial and look for names of loved ones. Park rangers also have paper available to make rubbings of the names, an activity done many times each day.

The memorial Lin designed has lead to a healing of veterans and families of those who died or are still missing. Since the dedication of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial, Lin has designed several other less famous memorials. These include: The Civil Rights Memorial in Montgomery, Alabama; The Elizabeth Evans Baker Peace Chapel at Juniata College in Pennsylvania; The Center for African Art in New York; the Park Presidio in San Francisco; and The Women's Table at Yale University.

A movie about Lin designing the Vietnam Veterans Memorial won the year's best feature-length documentary Oscar in 1995. The movie is entitled "Maya Lin: A Strong Clear Vision." In addition to this tribute, a postage stamp was made commemorating the Vietnam Veterans Memorial two years after its dedication. Maya Lin has made significant contributions to the field of architecture, and has impacted millions of lives with her memorials. Even those not directly affected by the war can be touched by The Wall. It will remain as a symbol of honor and courage, long after those who know individuals on The Wall are gone.
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References and Resources:



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Time Allotment:

Approximately 4 to 5 days (class periods)

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Resources Needed:

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1. Mini-Lecture: Explain to students that after the Vietnam War, soldiers weren't treated as heroes. This was difficult for soldiers who returned, and for loved ones of those who died in the war. After several years, a veteran decided to build a memorial to Vietnam veterans to show support for their sacrifices. Give other information from the background section and discuss who Maya Lin is.

2. K-W-L: After introducing Maya Lin, ask students what they know about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Divide a piece of chart paper into three sections lengthwise and label the columns K, W, and L. In the K column, write what students know about the memorial. In the W column, write what students want to know about the memorial. (Additional information is given in the Appendix.) The L column will be used later to determine what students have learned. Throughout the activities, try to answer students' questions and let their interest be a guide in the direction of discussions.

3. Internet Activity: If possible, allow students to browse the internet for facts on Maya Lin and the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Some addresses on the World Wide Web have been provided in the reference and resource section. Students can work in pairs or groups of up to four, depending on the computer access. Give students approximately 30 minutes to complete the activity. Each group should be required to write down at least five things which either answered questions raised in the K-W-L, or are particularly interesting to them. The internet has wonderful pictures and information as well as a link to look up names on The Wall. If this activity isn't possible, try to get the book Always to Remember or other pictures.

4. Discussion/Mini-Lecture: On the second day, give each group an opportunity to share their findings on the web. Using what the students know, and want to know about the memorial, talk about what the memorial looks like, how it was constructed and why. If students are interested in the additional monuments added to the original memorial, this would be a good place to introduce discussion and information about these structures and their importance. (Additional information is in the Appendix.)

5. Discussion: On the third day, talk about what makes a hero. List these items on the board. Tell students that to many people, Maya Lin is a hero because of the impact she made with her design. She continues to make a difference by honoring people with the memorials she designs. Help students to realize that a hero doesn't have to be someone famous. Maya Lin was an ordinary person who made a difference. Heroes can be people who impact our lives, and though they may be sports stars, actors/ actresses or other famous individuals, they could be a teacher, parent, neighbor or relative. Tell about a personal hero in your family. It could be a great-grandfather who brought his family across the plains, a grandmother who raised twelve children, a mother who got up early every morning to fix breakfast, or any other number of circumstances.

6. Creative Writing- Heroes: Ask students to write about what a hero is to them. Have them also tell about a personal hero and why the person is a hero to them. (Poetry about their hero could also be fun.)

7. Sharing: As a class allow students to share their writing if they wish to.

8. Interview: Assign students to interview a parent/guardian to find out about heroes in their family. Remind students that the person could be a hero to the family or community, or they could be more famous. Send a note to parents describing the activity and the date students need to have the interview complete. Two days to complete the assignment should be sufficient time. (Sample letter is in the Appendix.) Students may write a report if desired, but need only take enough notes to be able to share the story with others.

9. Discussion: On the fourth day, talk about memorials. Have students refer to information learned about the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and any other memorials they know of. Describe the Civil Rights Memorial if desired (Some information is included in the Appendix.) Children should recognize that memorials honor the people or event they represent. Usually, the person or people honored are dead when the memorial is built but this need not always be the case. Ask students to think about who they would like a memorial built for and why. Have them think about what the memorial will look like, what it will be made of, and what it will say. Tell students they will be making a memorial to someone or something and have them write down their ideas.

10. Sharing: On the fifth day, students should have completed the interview assignment. Put students in groups of four or five. Ask students to share the information gathered in their interviews.

11. Memorials: Using the information from interviews, creative writing, and brainstorming, have students make a memorial to the greatest person in their lives. Give students the opportunity to create the memorial in whatever way they would like using available materials. (Some ideas are listed in the resources section.) The only stipulation should be that if asked, the student should be able to explain who his/her memorial honors and why. With older students, they may also be asked to tell what kinds of materials it would be made out of if constructed. Display the memorials with a short paragraph, for each one, about who the memorial honors and why.

12. Closure: Fill out the L column on the K-W-L chart. Ask students why Maya Lin is important to society. Have students explain the importance of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. Ask students if they think the memorial would've been built if veterans had not been treated so badly after returning from the war. Make sure all questions from the W column (Want to Learn/Know) of the K-W-L have been answered.

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Optional Activities:

1. Have a guest speaker come in. This could be an architect who discusses his job and the structure of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial. It could also be a veteran from the Vietnam or other war, who talks about feelings and experiences of the war.

2. Discuss how the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is a type of grave for some of the people listed on the wall. Then take a field trip to the Cemetery. Prepare students with information about appropriate behavior in a cemetery. While there, have students take rubbings of headstones which particularly interest them or have unique characteristics. Tell students that many people take rubbings of names from The Wall. Also, try to find graves of soldiers killed in the Vietnam War, or who served in the war. (Some may specifically say.) Point out that veterans of any war often have flags put near their headstones, especially on Memorial and Veterans Days. This activity will help students gain appreciation for those who have died and the reverence we should have in cemeteries. Afterward, share the rubbings and display them if possible. Have students discuss what would they want people to remember about them?

3. Learn about local memorials and visit or encourage students to visit these sites. Ask students to write a paragraph about something or someone in the town they feel should be memorialized.
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This memorial in Montgomery, Alabama includes the names of forty men, women and children who were killed during the civil rights movement between 1955 and 1968. Dedicated on November 5, 1989, this memorial also contains key events of the movement and the words of Martin Luther King, Jr. "We will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream." Water flows over the black stone, symbolizing the struggle for racial equality.
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February 19, 1997

Dear Parents,

Our class is studying the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and its designer, Maya Lin. In our discussions we have talked about ordinary people being heroes. Your child has been asked to do an interview with you to find out about heroes in your family. They should be able to explain the assignment and the characteristics of heroes that we have discussed. It would also be appropriate to ask your child about the writing they have done about heroes.

The interview need not be long, and your child only needs to take enough notes to remember the story you share. The hero you discuss can be any relative who has been important to your family. It could be a great-grandfather who brought his family across the plains, a grandmother who raised twelve children, a mother who got up early every morning to fix breakfast, or any other number of circumstances. The person could also be famous if they could still be considered a hero. This should be a time for your child to get to know some of their family.

Your child will be asked to share a story about this hero in class on Friday, February 21. Please make this a learning experience for you and your child. Thank you for participating in the education of your child. Your support will make all the difference.

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