By Jon Meoli, email@example.com
3:30 PM EDT, May 25, 2012
During her opening remarks at West Towson Elementary's second annual Memorial Day celebration, principal Sue Hershfeld acknowledged that for many students, the holiday meant swim clubs were open, family picnics were held, and summer was officially here.
But through a patriotic program that runs before school, West Towson is now full of students who voluntarily learned about the sacrifices we celebrate each Memorial Day.
"When you know what Memorial Day stands for, it makes you feel more appreciative that you live in America," said fifth-grader Colleen Mader said.
Through the Patriots and Defenders program, which was brought to West Towson by first-grade teacher Judith Rietz and art teacher Renee Whelehan, students voluntarily studied and memorized various parts of American history in order to better their understanding of our country's past.
The kindergarten students, dubbed Yankee Doodles, learned the Pledge of Allegiance and why they read it, and learned to identify President Barack Obama. Every kindergarten student achieved the rank of Yankee Doodle.
First-grade students did the same, plus learn the number of stars and stripes on the flag and how to identify key figures in American history.
Second-graders learned how to pick the United States out of a map and identify American symbols and more historic figures, while third-graders learn about Maryland history as well.
But fourth- and fifth-graders were the stars of Friday's event, which was attended by State Sen. Jim Brochin, Councilman David Marks, and members of the American Legion Towson Post 22.
For the past six weeks, 12 fifth-graders and 48 fourth-graders studied to earn the title of Patriot, which required them to memorize the Star Spangled Banner as well as an excerpt fromMartin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech, and identify all 50 states and Maryland's 23 counties on a map.
Additionally, 18 fifth-graders, including Colleen Mader, built on their status as Patriots from last year and memorized, among other things, the Bill of Rights, Declaration of Independence and the names of all 44 presidents — giving them the title of Defender.
They were given a medal and a Maryland flag, while the Patriots were awarded an American flag.
But the hook that got many of these students to commit their free time and memorize pages of information are the field trips that Patriots and Defenders are having this month.
On Wednesday, the group went on a trip to Philadelphia, where they enjoyed the local fare and toured the city's historical sites.
"We went to the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross' house, and Ben Franklin's house," said fifth-grade Defender Ava Williams, 12.
Next week, they'll be heading to Washington D.C., where Patriot Elisabeth Sampson, 11, said they will see the changing of the guard outside the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at Arlington National Cemetery, and take a trip to the Air and Space Museum.
Many of the students who were recognized Friday, including fifth-graders Miguel Iglesias, an 11-year-old Defender, and Corey Hanlon, an 11-year-old Patriot, said the trip to Washington was a factor in their participation.
Corey said his grandfather, a World War II veteran who earned a Purple Heart, and his grandmother are both buried at Arlington, and he's excited to visit there for a second time.
Several students were also honored for their work in a school-wide essay and poster contest based onJohn F. Kennedy's famous quote about what each could offer their country.
Ally Gaddy, Abi Simmons and Cait Kristoff won the essay contests, while Reed Spaulding, Mia Smith, Kayla Vosburg, Chloe Simpson, Angelica Jameson and Journey Gianna won the poster contest.
Claire Beaudry, who was named a Defender Friday, said all of the recognition the students received at the ceremony made the effort worthwhile.
"We did a lot of hard work," she said.