Tracy Derrell is a writer with an extensive background in education. She has studied journalism, fiction and non-fiction writing, and spent sixteen years as a middle school English teacher.
When you think of Presidents' Day, great sales at the mall may be the first thing to pop into your mind. But for teachers, this holiday provides an annual opportunity to focus on the contributions of past American presidents. Designated as a federal holiday in the late 1800s to honor the birthday of our first president, George Washington, it has evolved into a day that celebrates the contributions of all presidents.
Incorporating Presidents' Day projects into your curriculum is a great way to engage students in a range of relevant educational activities. Here are a few ways to celebrate with your students. Each activity can be altered based on the grade level you teach, and the time and resources you have available.
Create Your Own Trivia Game
Kids of all ages love to play games and share unique facts. Presidents, as it turns out, are a quirky bunch, and it's fairly easy to find an array of trivia about them. Did you know William Henry Harrison only served 32 days before dying of pneumonia? Or that at 5'4" and 100 pounds, James Madison was the smallest president? Ulysses S. Grant even got a speeding ticket on a horse. These unusual details can be incorporated into a trivia game, and students will be able to expand their knowledge and enhance their teamwork skills by working together. This activity can range from a low-tech board game to a high-tech online activity, depending on your access to materials and technology.
Use the Holiday to Practice Research Skills
Allowing your students to study a president of their choosing is another effective way to teach or reinforce research skills. However, instead of a typical research paper, have your students present their findings with a slideshow or video. Increase the novelty factor by requiring your students to choose from some of our lesser-known presidents, such as John Tyler or James Garfield.
Older students can analyze data and work to answer the question "Who was the best or worst president ever?" Historians have made their cases, but there's always room for further examination and debate, and an approach like this could help students build on their critical reading and thinking skills. Your students could also examine post-presidential accomplishments. For example, Jimmy Carter is an active volunteer with Habitat for Humanity and earned the Nobel Peace Prize after leaving office, and Theodore Roosevelt explored Brazilian jungles with his son and wrote scientific articles and history books. These are just a few ideas that can be explored in depth, giving your students a different perspective on past American presidents.
Celebrate Our First Ladies
Often overlooked by history books, the role of first lady has evolved significantly since our country's early days. These women have had an impact on history, too, and many have been inspiring, involved, and sometimes even controversial. The aforementioned trivia and research activities can easily be modified to include or focus on these women and their accomplishments. Studying past first ladies in February can also provide a relevant transition to Women's History Month (March).
Teach Your Students to Be Leaders
Help your students think about what it means to be a leader and why leaders are important to society. Studying the leadership traits of our presidents, and how those characteristics have helped bring about change, is a way to connect to the past while allowing your students to think about how they want to affect the future. They should also recognize that leadership isn't just for adults. Robby Novak, the internet personality known as Kid President, has an important message: Kids can change the world. This video, one of many featuring Kid President, uses humor to share ways to bring more positivity into the world. Showing this video, and others that are similar, can inspire ideas for leadership-based projects such as planning a food drive to benefit local soup kitchens.
Study the Speeches
If a public speaking unit is part of your curriculum, or if you want to introduce your students to examples of outstanding speeches, have them study past presidential addresses. Some of the most well-known speeches ever given have been delivered by American presidents, and they're easily accessible online. You can even find some speeches, such as Lincoln's Gettysburg Address, on YouTube.
These Presidents' Day projects give you the opportunity to introduce important history to you students. Not only will your class be on the road to becoming informed citizens, but they'll be sharpening their academic skills as well.