Lessons That Honor Identity: Coat of Arms

I begin this lesson by explaining to the children some of the history of the coat of arms. I tell them that heraldry was developed in medieval Europe. Individuals and families used unique heraldic emblems to represent themselves. Coats of arms often reflected heroic deeds of ancestors and values of the family. I then explain that we are going to create our own to reflect the many aspects of ourselves.

Each child is given a blank coat of arms divided into six sections. There is a specific direction for each block. I have used different guidelines as they years have progressed, so I’m giving you the fine-tuned version that I like best:

Section 1: Write your full name in a creative way.

Make sure you have a roster handy because many young children don’t know how to spell their middle names. I tell them up front they can ask me and let them know I couldn’t spell mine as a child (I think Quynh Dao would be hard for any 8 year-old!). Kids who attended the school in kindergarten have read The Name Jar and completed an at-home activity with their parents in which they share the origin of their name as part of the REACH program. Since most already know their stories, it’s fun to circulate and ask them where their names come from.

Section 2: Draw the flag of your family’s heritage.

When I model this, I usually split my block in half (emphasizing that idea of intersectionality again). I draw the Vietnamese flag on one side and St. Andrew’s Cross on the other. I explain that I am half-Vietnamese and half European (including English, Scottish, Norwegian, and others). Scotland is part of my heritage that I’m really interested in, so that’s the one I pick. I have a dictionary with flags of the world that I bring out, and I also show students how to do a Google image search. Many children won’t know about their heritage, and you may get comments like, “I’m not anything.” It’s a good idea to encourage students to have a conversation at home about where their families came from before the day of the activity. You also want to be sensitive to the feelings of your adopted or fostered students. I make sure students know that they can all draw the American flag because we all have that in common!

Section 3: Draw your family.

You need to say explicitly that students may draw anyone they consider to be family. It could be grandparents, extended family, stepparents, step- and half- siblings, birth parents, adoptive parents, godparents, close family friends, etc. Be aware that many students consider pets to be part of their families as well. It is so important for students to get the message from you that there isn’t one “right” kind of family. What makes a family is LOVE. I’ll never forget my first year of teaching when a student asked me if he should draw his siblings who had passed away. As a fledgling teacher, I was so worried about responding the right way. I somehow managed to channel my mother (who ALWAYS says the right thing) and responded, “You can draw whatever your heart tells you.” He walked back to his desk smiling.

Section 4: Color in your favorite color.

Let your kids be creative here. Some of them will divide the block up to reflect all their favorite colors. A few have even done rainbows. One boy a few years ago told me that his favorite color was pink, but that he couldn’t say that because it made his dad mad. Although I let him know that he could absolutely color whatever he wanted, he chose something besides pink. It made me really sad, but it was a good opportunity to discuss with my students that there’s no such thing as boy and girl colors. If you pay attention to what kids say, you’ll find lots of opportunities to counter gender stereotypes.

Section 5: Draw a goal you have for yourself.

I love this one. My students have drawn themselves kicking a goal in soccer, holding a bowling trophy, and earning an award at school. They show themselves as college students, playing football for the University of Miami or studying robotics at MIT. They draw themselves as doctors, teachers, and even parents. When I have modeled this in the past, I’ve shown myself with a master’s degree and depicted myself as a mom (not knowing at the time that I was pregnant with my first daughter). It’s important for students to know that goal-setting is an important part of adults’ lives too.

Section 6: Illustrate your favorite memory.

Most years, I draw a picture of my family camping at the beach in Kalaloch or of my grandma and me at the Globe Theatre in London. I like to have my kids see that I was a kid once too. It’s a good idea to do some brainstorming here. While some of your students have wonderful family trips to Disneyland or cruises as memories, many students live in poverty and have extremely difficult home lives. Their memories may come from school, and wow…doesn’t that tell you how important it is that we make our classrooms warm, inviting, positive places?

Make sure you circulate and talk to your students about their choices. It will help you get to know them better. And finally, put their coats of arms on display!