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.
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
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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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
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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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
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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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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
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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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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.
- Have students access the "Election Central" web site
of the League of Women Voters.
- Have them link to the voter registration information.
- Have them investigate the procedure for registering to vote.
- 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
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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
(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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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
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,
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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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:
- A picture (perhaps scanned or taken from a web site. The White
House web site has pictures of all US presidents.
- The name of the president and the years he served
- A short biographical statement (birth date, death date, family,
other achievements, etc.)
- At least three (you might want to insist on more) achievements
or events that happened during that president's term of office.
- Any other presidential trivia or presidential facts the group
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
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