*The American Presidency Field Trip

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The American Presidency: A Virtual Overview
By Michael Hutchison, Teacher

These activities are designed to be adaptable for varied levels and abilities. I hope also that these activities will be a springboard for teachers to develop their own activities and resource lists for their classrooms. Some activities are relatively basic. Others require more research and are more complex.

Activities List  
Presidential Report Cards Registering to Vote
Geographic Roots of the Presidents Making Your Voice Heard
Presidential Pets Presidential Character
Presidential Children Presidential Trading Cards
The President as Chief Communicator

Presidential Report Cards


Report cards are a normal part of the school experience every child expects (and sometimes dreads!). In this exercise, students will construct a report card for several US presidents as to their effectiveness in office.

The procedure is relatively simple. First, I'll leave which presidents will be evaluated up to the teacher, based on the period of history they might be studying at the time the activity is held. For example, a teacher might want to make this a "Presidents Day" activity and evaluate Washington and Lincoln. Another example might be to evaluate Kennedy, Johnson, and Nixon as to their ability to lead during the Vietnam War. Again, the presidents to be evaluated can be left to the discretion of the teacher, but my opinion is that there should be some common thread that binds them.

Second, some sort of criteria for evaluation should be developed. For example, these categories might be used:

Foreign policy; Domestic policy; Leadership ability; Trustworthiness; Dealing with Congress; Making good on promises; Statesmanship; or any other category the teacher can think of.

Third, some sort of grading scale needs to be developed. My thinking here is just to use the common A, B, C, D, and F grading scale.

Fourth, the "evaluator" has to give some sort of rationale for the grade he or she gives. For example, if a student grades FDR with an "A" mark for leadership, they might relate to his speaking ability or his ability to instill confidence in the American people.

Fifth, some sort of evaluation instrument must be created. Lower aged students might do this by simply drawing a report card grid on paper, or all ages might be able to use a word processor or database software program (whether or not you do this will depend partly on your computer expertise, also) to develop a report card. Remember that you'll have to have space for students to write the justification for why they graded the presidents the way they did.

Sixth, you as the teacher will need to develop some sort of evaluation policy for grading. Since this is a highly subjective activity (for example, a student might not evaluate JFK as highly as persons who lived during the Kennedy years might) the teacher has to have some sort of logical method of evaluation. My suggestion here would be to assure the student that you do not intend to grade him or her based on whether they answer the question in a similar manner to how you would, but rather you intend to check his or her research to determine if they have adequately researched the president to make a valid judgement as to the grade.

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Geographic Roots of the Presidents


This activity involves student research into what areas of the country have produced the most presidents. Further exploration can be used to determine why certain areas of the country at certain times have seen more presidents come from that geographic area.

First, students should be given an outline map of the 50 states. My feeling is that, especially with younger students, you'll want them to write the name of each state on the map. However, with older students, you may feel that that exercise is basic. However, it might reinforce earlier geography lessons.

Next, using the web sites, have the students mark the state in which each president was born. (Note: a follow-up activity here would be to compare the state of each president's birth with the state that president would consider "home". For example, we normally associate Illinois with Abraham Lincoln; however, Lincoln was born in Kentucky, and didn't move to Illinois until he reached adulthood. The only president of the United States to actually be born in Illinois is Ronald Reagan, who most people associate with California.)

For younger students, the activity can end here. If mapping all 42 presidents might be too great a task for younger children; the teacher may elect to assign students a certain number of presidents to map rather than the entire list.

For older students, a follow up question might deal with what geographic area most recent presidents have come from (the South and West.) Ask students to research why there has been a shift of the number of presidents who have been born and who hail from the eastern states to these. Is it population shifts alone that have caused this? This type of evaluation might require some thinking skills that some students may easily exhibit, or the teacher may find that they need to lead the students toward the investigation.

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Presidential Pets


This activity is primarily for elementary kids, but one link they may see and feel with presidents and First Families is that of what pet(s) the president may have had. In recent years, presidential pets have shared the public limelight with their masters. For example, George and Barbara Bush's dog, Millie, "wrote" her own book; President Gerald Ford's dog, Liberty, was parodied on Saturday Night Live, visitors to the White House web site can "hear" Socks the Cat "meow", and of course, who could forget how Richard Nixon used his dog, "Checkers".

Once students find information about the presidential pet they're interested in, they might try the following activities:

  • Draw a picture of the pet
  • Write a story about what a day in the life of that White House pet would be like
  • Find out about unique presidential pets (probably the best place to search for this would be anything involving Teddy Roosevelt)

The teacher might also elect to construct a small worksheet in which students would have to find which president had which pet. (Perhaps a "matching quiz". . . For example, which president had beagles named "Him" and "Her"? Answer: Lyndon Johnson)

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Presidential Children


Another link between younger children and presidential families deals with children of presidents. For many of us, what a president's children do is just as interesting and important as what the children's father does. John Kennedy Jr. and Caroline Kennedy are good examples of the impact of presidential children.

Younger children might want to guess what life in the White House might be like, especially if the presidential children being researched are of a similar age to the class. They might want to write a story about daily life in the White House for these children as an activity. Although it's not in the scope of the resource tour, there have been several children's books written about First Children that may be helpful here.

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The President as Chief Communicator


This activity might be adaptable for younger students, but is primarily written for older grades. Often, we recall presidents based on what they say more than what they do. To us, phrases such as "The only thing we have to fear" and "Ask not what your country can do for you" are part of American legend as much as American history. In this activity, students will investigate and evaluate the president's ability as "Chief Communicator".

  1. Have the students link to the Vincent Voice Library. You may let them decide which president they want to evaluate, or you may have assigned a president for them in advance from the list.
  2. Have the students download the sound file and listen to the clip. (Note: some of the files may be of substantial length and may take awhile to download and play. In addition, the teacher should determine ahead of time whether to have the student use the. Mpeg file or the .au file.
  3. Have the students listen for specific instances that prove leadership skills or lack of those skills. Have them look specifically at the tone of voice the president used the confidence that he exhibited or didn't exhibit.
  4. Once they have listened to the clip (they may need to play the clip more than once) ask them to assume they are that president's new speech writer, and the president has asked them to re-write the clip to make it more effective. Have the students re-write the clip so that, in their mind, they have made the president's words more effective. Again, evaluation of such an assignment might be difficult. Probably the best course is to assure the student your primary interest is to determine how the student researched the clip and the effort they made to re-write the speech, rather than to judge whether they made a president look good.

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Registering to Vote


This activity might be best used in a senior level government class, but might also be of use in classes of younger students to reinforce procedures to register to vote.

  1. Have students access the "Election Central" web site of the League of Women Voters.
  2. Have them link to the voter registration information.
  3. Have them investigate the procedure for registering to vote.
  4. Have them report (either orally or on paper) the procedure for registration in their home state or community.

(Note: Several years ago, Congress passed a bill, which President Clinton signed, called the "Motor Voter Bill", which streamlined voter registration. Registration procedures are similar now because of the bill. However, individual states may have individual requirements as to exact age to be eligible to register, residency requirements, and so on. It might also be an idea for the teacher to acquire registration forms ahead of time so that the students can see an actual registration form.)

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Making Your Voice Heard


In a participatory democracy, it's necessary for public officials to interact with their constituency (those who select government officials, and to whom those officials are directly responsible.) Millions of persons have written letters to public officials, but the Internet and World Wide Web have made even the process of sending a letter to an elected official part of the Information Age.

In this activity, students will research a topic of importance and interest to them, and write a letter to the President stating their position, and urging the President to take a specific course of action.

(Note: The White House web site does allow for e-mail to be sent from site. However, my suggestion is to have students write their letters on paper first for your evaluation, and then, should a letter meet your standards, the student can submit the letter to the President via e-mail. )

The keys here are that students need to research a particular subject; the subject needs to be within the scope of the president's duties (something dealing with school policy, such as making up snow days, probably, for example, wouldn't fit here); and the letter needs to be written in a way that is respectful and grammatically correct. The League of Women Voters' and the Vote-Smart sites are good ones to help find information.

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Presidential Character


With this activity, I don't necessarily mean any debates about the president currently holding office. However, in the 1970s, political scientist James David Barber classified presidents based on a study of past presidents and the energy they put into the office. For purposes of clarity, I will not only identify each of the categories, but also give examples of presidents who fit each category. Do not share the examples with students.

Positive presidents (enjoy the power and responsibilities of the office; they like the challenges and are confident of meeting it)

Positive/Active: highly energetic, self-confident, flexible, dynamic. These presidents aim for results and want to make significant contributions to the art of government. (Examples: Franklin Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and John F. Kennedy.)

Positive/Passive: likable, agreeable, cooperative. These presidents want to be loved and respected by others. (Examples: William Howard Taft, Warren Harding.)

Negative presidents (serve out of a sense of civic duty or a wish to prove themselves; they find the job burdensome, but think they should do it)

Negative/Active: ambitious, aggressive, inflexible, eager for power. These presidents take criticism personally and are angered by it. (Examples: Woodrow Wilson; Richard Nixon)

Negative/Passive: virtuous, principled. These presidents enter political life out of a sense of duty but often try to remain "above politics," avoiding political conflict. (Examples: Calvin Coolidge, Dwight Eisenhower)

Share the category information with the class. Have the class work in groups, and together find at least five presidents that fit each category. Either orally, or in a written report, have the groups justify their selections.

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Presidential Trading Cards


This idea essentially came from a series of "Presidential trading cards" that appeared on a series of snack cakes several years ago. It follows a similar theme of baseball cards or other sports-related trading cards. The teacher may want to divide the class into groups or teams.

Students may either select presidents or the teacher may assign certain presidents or assign the presidents who served during a particular period of US History. Students will then work to create trading cards on the presidents they have been assigned. The teacher may want to use a card stock that is acceptable to an ink-jet printer. Students can use Microsoft Word or a pick from a variety of project software to "layout" the card. (I use Print Artist, by Sierra Home Software).

The card should include the following:

  1. A picture (perhaps scanned or taken from a web site. The White House web site has pictures of all US presidents.
  2. The name of the president and the years he served
  3. A short biographical statement (birth date, death date, family, other achievements, etc.)
  4. At least three (you might want to insist on more) achievements or events that happened during that president's term of office.
  5. Any other presidential trivia or presidential facts the group feels important.

Once the "cards" are completed through the software, the ink-jet printer can print the cards on the card stock. (Card stock is a heavier paper than normal ink-jet paper. It is roughly the same thickness as a paperback book cover. Avoid shiny paper due to poor ink drying.) The students can cut the cards from the card stock. The end product is the students will have a set of cards they can use to review presidential facts or quiz each other on presidential accomplishments.

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