Ken Burns Classroom

What is Liberty?


The lesson begins by helping students define liberty and then understand how a concept can be embodied or personified in a statue. Students will then study the language of the poem, “The New Colossus” by Emma Lazarus.

Lesson Objectives

  • Define the concept of liberty.
  • Identify how a concept can be embodied or personified by an object.
  • Analyze ways in which the concept of liberty has impacted a variety of groups and peoples in U.S. history



  1. Begin by asking students to define the word liberty.
  2. Write the list of words or phrases they generate on the left hand side of the blackboard, and ask them as best they can to explain what they mean by their definitions. Then ask students for words or phrases that mean the opposite of liberty. Write their list of antonyms on the right side.A potential list of definitions might include:
    Synonyms Antonyms
    Freedom do as you are told
    To have choices to be controlled
    Do what you want oppression
    Be independent being conquered
    Be who you are chained down or enslavement
    Have rights tyranny
  3. Ask students if they have ever met or seen liberty. Can they touch it? Smell it? What does liberty look like? The word liberty is a noun: a person, place, thing or idea. Ask students which type of noun liberty is? Work towards an understanding that liberty is an abstract idea. Explain that the statue is a personification of the idea of liberty: the representation of a thing as a person.
  4. Now view the clip, “ What is Liberty.” Ask students to compare their definitions of liberty with those offered by Milos Forman, Jerzy Kosinski, Carolyn Forche and James Baldwin. Ask students the following questions:
    • Do they agree with Kosinski that liberty is not a synonym for happiness or truth?
    • James Baldwin quotes the Declaration of Independence, and students will recognize the word liberty from the Pledge of Allegiance. What promises does America make regarding liberty? Have we always kept the promises; do we now?
  5. Ask students to imagine that the Statue of Liberty could speak to us. What would she say? Explain that the poet Emma Lazarus wrote such a poem, called “The New Colossus.” Distribute copies of Lazarus’ poem.
  6. Break students into small groups. Have them answer the following questions. Then regroup and discuss the answers as a class.
    • What is the overall message of the poem and how does it make you feel?
    • In what ways is Liberty both strong and “feminine”? What words in the poem convey her strength? What words convey her kindness?
    • The poet mentions Liberty’s torch, eyes and lips. What does each feature convey to us, as the poet describes them?
    • The statue stands in the harbor (between the twin cities of Brooklyn, then a separate city, and New York) bridging the waters between the Old World and the New. What does she (Liberty) want from the Old World? What does she reject? What does she offer to “the wretched refuse” (poor immigrants)?
    • Lazarus gives the statue a new name, “Mother of Exiles.” Who are the exiles? What is her relationship to them?
    • Lazarus’ poem is a sonnet. Ask students to count the number of lines in the poem, to figure out its meter and rhyme scheme. What effect does this formal structure have on the reader or listener? Would it be as powerful in free verse? Why or why not?

Extension Activity: The Symbolism of the Statue

The following activity can be done as a separate classroom lesson, or as individual student homework.

  1. Divide students into small groups and ask them to brainstorm how they would portray a statue personifying oppression, or a synonym for the word, such as tyranny or enslavement.
  2. Have students determine the following to develop a description or drawing of their statue:
    • What form will the statue take? Will it be male, female, or something else entirely? Why?
    • Will the form wear clothing or armor and if so, what will it look like?
    • Will it carry a weapon?
    • Will it have a hat or helmet and if so what kind?
    • Where would you place such a statue and why?

Relevant Standards

This lesson correlates to the Mid-Continent Research for Education and Learning at

Visual Art Standards

  • Understands and applies media, techniques and processes related to the visual arts.
  • Knows a range of subject matter, symbols, and political ideas in the visual arts.
  • Understands visual arts in relation to history and culture.

Language Arts Standards

  • Uses descriptive language that clarifies and enhances ideas… uses figurative language.

History Standards

  • Understands massive immigration after 1870 and how new social patterns, conflicts, and ideas of national unity developed amid growing cultural diversity.
  • Understands federal Indian policy and United States foreign policy after the Civil War.
  • Understands and knows how to analyze chronological relationships and patterns
  • Understands the historical perspective.

About The Authors

Joan Brodsky Schur

Joan Brodsky Schur is Social Studies Curriculum Consultant for the Village Community School in New York City where she has taught Social Studies and English for over 20 years.