Teaching the Pledge: A Strategy for Using the Pledge of Allegiance to Promote Civic Discussion

The Fourth of July has always been a favorite holiday of mine. The fireworks, the food, the abundance of red, white and blue, the obligatory History Channel marathon of something about the American Revolution; it all is precisely in this history teaching, America loving, BBQ enthusiast’s wheelhouse. The Fourth is the day where nearly all of our nation’s traditions and rituals are put on full display, and I hope that our students (and really all Americans) recognize the significance of this nation and the great responsibility placed in all citizens by the Founders.

During the annual fireworks display I always find myself taking a moment and reflecting with pride the origins of our nation and the principles in which we were founded. This opportunity to reflect is really the purpose of our national traditions, but too often we get so caught up in the hectic nature of 21st century life that the meaning gets lost. In terms of school, my mind immediately goes to the recitation of the Pledge of Allegiance by students of all ages. Those schools where this is a daily or weekly requirement display an admirable dedication to honoring America, but I hope the respective social studies teachers in those buildings take the time to remind their students of the magnitude of those words. The Pledge of Allegiance is a powerful act that strikes at the heart of what it means to be a voluntary, active member of our republic. However, without reflecting upon its meaning it can become an empty gesture that is done without meaning or significance. In my class I took a portion of a 45-minute class period to discuss with my kids the significance of the Pledge and what exactly they were doing as they have been reciting it for years.

What follows is the text of the Pledge, followed in italics by the discussion questions that I pose to my students during our Pledge of Allegiance lesson:

I pledge allegiance to the flag of the United States of America

  • What does it mean to “pledge” something?
  • What does “allegiance” mean?
  • If you are pledging allegiance, what do you think that entails? What are the consequences or expectations for pledging that allegiance?
  • If you refuse to pledge allegiance to the flag, what do you think that represents?

and to the Republic for which it stands,

  • What is a republic?
  • What principles define a republic style of government?
  • Do you believe these principles still define the American system of government today? Why or why not?

one nation, under God, indivisible,

  • The words “under God” were added to the pledge in 1954. Do you believe they should still be included?
  • What does “indivisible” mean?
  • The original pledge was written in 1892. (It was approved officially in 1945.) Why might this portion of the pledge have special significance in 1892 (think back to the events of US history during the mid to late 1800s.)
  • Should the United States be one nation, indivisible? Should a state be allowed to end its association with the nation if its people choose to do so? What are the potential consequences?

with liberty and justice for all.”

  • Think of two synonyms for the words “liberty” and “justice”.
  • Have we as Americans followed through on this pledge?
  • Are there any other words that you believe should be included in this portion?

We then conclude the lesson with a recitation of the pledge. I always conclude this discussion by telling the students they absolutely do not have to agree with everything going on by our government to mean the pledge when reciting it. Instead you need to believe in the core principles of our nation; namely that all people have the right to live in a nation where the power of government belongs to the people, and where freedom and justice are the most essential aspects of life that the government is required to protect. (Now what constitutes “freedom and justice” is an entirely different conversation!)  

The Pledge of Allegiance, like the national anthem, is powerful. We live in an age where it is increasingly easy to be cynical, yet I still firmly believe that we are all a part of the greatest experiment in the history of human society and government. I take pride in the principles that guided our Founders, and hope that my students can reflect on those principles each time they hear these words.

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