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Patriotic Arts: Influencing Canadians at War

Patriotic Arts: Influencing Canadians at War

By Gina McMurchy-Barber, 2004 Governor-General's Award Recipient


Grades 3 and up / Creative Writing, Drama, Geography, Language Arts, Social Studies, Visual Arts

View Lesson Plan


How war has shaped Canada and its citizens; the influences of patriotism, propaganda and music on choices Canadians made during war.


It would be best to begin work on this subject as early in September as possible to culminate in a presentation for Remembrance Day in November. At the elementary level, this subject requires a period of five to seven weeks. This time frame allows the teacher to integrate the theme into the language arts, visual arts, music and choir and social studies. It also allows time to plan for guest speakers such as veterans, peacekeepers and grandparents, as well as taking a field trip to the local armory, cenotaph or museum.


This subject has great potential for applying performing and visual arts, and creative writing. The simplest way of doing this is teaching the students the songs that were made popular during World War I or II and the history behind these songs. Also, a dramatic presentation does well for this subject, along with poetry and stories.Students will:

  • study novels; conduct research; write reports, stories and family biographies; read poetry written during this period and write poems; write letters to Canadian soldiers serving all over the world.
  • study drawings and paintings of Canadian war artists, such as Alex Colville; war posters and propaganda; and create original art or posters.
  • learn the songs that inspired confidence and patriotism in soldiers and citizens such as White Cliffs of Dover, When They Sound the Last All Clear, etc.
  • understand timelines of Canada’s involvement in wars; the history behind the songs of this era; the events that led to WWI and WWII; more current events involving Canadian soldiers.
  • learn which countries were involved.
  • be given an opportunity to learn military ranks, emblems and medals.


This theme should begin in September with a general discussion around what the students already know about the subject and what they would like to learn. Some students will be keen to begin doing individual research projects on such subjects as Adolph Hitler, important battles such as Dieppe, inscription, war medals, Canadian veterans such as John McCrae and Billy Bishop, and those who won medals such as the Victoria Cross. This is also a good time to begin a novel study or read a historical fiction novel to the class during story time. This work can integrate spelling and writing exercises.

If the teacher intends to have a Remembrance Day performance, either dramatic, musical or both, then this project should begin by the end of September. Song sheets can be introduced, along with a discussion about their meanings, history and content.

For example: Pack Up Your Troubles was first made popular during WWI, but was also a favourite marching song during WWII. This song has the potential for an interesting discussion of the benefit of singing on people’s emotions; the implications of the government supplying soldiers with as many free cigarettes as they wanted and thereby addicting thousands of people to smoking; the change over time of our language—a fag once meant a cigarette and a Lucifer was a match and so on. Another great song worth discussing is We’re Gonna Hang Out the Washing on the Siegfried Line. The Siegfried Line was a defence line surrounding Berlin.

The teacher should also plan early for guest speakers from the Legions, Veterans Affairs or the Peace Corp. Many armories will be planning Veteran’s Day events as well. By mid-October the students will be informed enough that they may want to write their feelings down in poems or stories. They may also wish to express themselves in pictures, posters etc. These works should be displayed around the classroom, building on the overall importance of this theme and in anticipation of Remembrance Day. Timelines and maps done by the students should also be displayed.


There should be a wide variety of books available, both fiction and non-fiction. The following books were useful when I presented this theme, but the actual material available is huge.


Fiction: (check for age appropriateness)

  • Ellen’s Secret by Jean Booker
  • Wish Me Luck by James Heneghan
  • The War Visitors Trilogy by Kit Pearson (Canadian)
  • War of the Eagles by Eric Walters (Canadian)
  • The Journal of Scott Pendleton by Walter Dean Myers
  • A Brave Soldier by Nicolas Debon (Canadian)
  • I Am David by Anne Holm


  • High Flight: A story of World War II by Linda Granfield
  • In Flanders Field: The Story of the Poem by John McCrae by Linda Granfield
  • When Your Number’s Up by Desmond Morton (Not appropriate at elementary level, but good teacher resource)


  • Frontline! The Liberation of the Netherlands by Canada Remembers Advisory Council
  • Canvas of War: The Art of World War II by Sound Venture Productions and the Canadian War Museum

Educational Packages:

  • Canadian Peace Corp (Excellent information on past and current campaigns; medals, ranks and military decorations)
  • The Royal Canadian Legion (Excellent teacher’s guide and also a collection of poems and essays by Canadian students)
  • With some individual research in the archives section of the library I found poems written by soldiers and books on the songs of this era.


Gina McMurchy-Barber's approach to teaching Canadian history begins with concrete experiences and materials that lead to abstract learning. For each history unit she creates board games, puzzles, timelines or matching exercises for her students, ages 6 to 9. By far her most popular lessons are where students learn history through singing, dancing and acting. Music of different historical periods, combined with plays she writes for her classes, form the foundation of her approach that engenders a love and appreciation for history.


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