A Lively History Activity for Presidents’ Day
A MiddleWeb Blog
“Vote for me! Andrew Johnson! I’ve already been impeached. Twice! But I’ve learned my lesson!”
When the two of us started our middle school history collaboration six years ago at our school, each social studies grade was in charge of leading a school-wide event for holidays. Our eighth grade U.S. History classes, understandably, were tasked with creating an experience for Presidents’ Day.
Historically, there had been an assembly that focused on the Presidential All-Stars: Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, JFK, etc. We knew that we wanted to create something different – an experience that required students to actually engage with the presidents, and all the presidents, not just the “all-stars.”
Goals: Student leadership and engagement
So we thought about what kind of educational experience we could facilitate for the middle school that would get the eighth graders to take a leadership role and would allow the sixth and seventh graders an opportunity to do more than sit and passively take in information.
In our brainstorming session, we imagined an event in which each eighth grader would take on the persona of a president and then campaign to be re-elected. The “audience” would obviously need to suspend disbelief and imagine a whole room of presidents come to life in the present: glad-handing, campaigning, each pushing to be the next president.
The end result of this brainstorm has been a bit chaotic. And loud. But great!
The Preparation: Gaining more historical context
In order to prepare for this, students had to really research their president, and not just their president but the historical period. They needed a great deal of historical context that we had not, and – depending on the time period – likely would not, cover in our course’s curriculum.
Therefore, the onus for gathering background knowledge was entirely on the students. We spent almost no class time working on this; they turned in their work along the way for feedback, but the success of this event can be credited to the amount of ownership the students took with their material.
Students were not just researching a random historical character, they were learning their president, discerning what important issues their president really cared about, and making sure that they were representing their president well (or, at least accurately, if “well” wasn’t necessarily in the cards based on that particular president’s record.)
A good organizing tool for independent research
One of the methods of research to prepare for the Presidents’ Day event was for each student to complete a body bio, a deceptively simple looking organizational tool that requires students to make inferences beyond the surface level information about a historical figure. (Find out more about the body bio and Jody’s use of video instructions in her flipped classroom posts.)
This body bio research required students to really focus on the time period of their president’s term in office, instead of doing a full life scope which in many cases could muddle some of the main points and issues of each presidency.
We also asked students to look closely at the presidents who came before and after to see what past influences the student’s president was grappling with — positive or negative — and then how their own president’s’ term(s) affected the next president.
Some students had an easier job with this than others, just by virtue of the presidents they received. The teacher can be discerning in how the assignments are given – students could choose (though that might limit the students’ vision and have unknown or unpopular presidents left unchosen).
So the teacher can carefully differentiate while choosing based on the ease of expected research and availability of material, or the students can pick out of a hat. In each case, there will be students who will struggle with either:
(1) finding enough actual information about their president’s presidency (can you say William Henry Harrison?); or
(2) finding redeeming qualities about their president’s presidency. In the latter case, students can be coached to put an “I’ve improved!” spin on their current campaign — much like the Andrew Johnson quote above.
Selling their Presidents: Campaigns, slogans, costumes
After they do the research, students then write a reelection speech for their President. We required that a “President” had to run based on their record from their first term(s); highlighting their successes and acknowledging (though trying to make light of) their failures.
Students from the lower grades toured the room at their own pace to hear each president try to “get their vote” before their attention was grabbed by a more successful campaign. Presidents would often eavesdrop on the pitches of their predecessors and successors, leading to arguments about who was going to be better and why — all in the effort of to convince the 6th and 7th graders to give them their vote. Slogans filled the room:
“Don’t be Fierce, Vote for Pierce.”
“Many Men. Many Women. One Millard.”
“If You Were Thinkin’, You’d Choose Lincoln.”
The Presidential Reelection Fair!
For our annual event, student candidates were placed all around the perimeter of our school gym in chronological order. Each student had a table that was their home base, which helped to provide and maintain a semblance of chronology, structure, and context.
The sixth and seventh grade students would come around to the front of each president’s home base table and learn more about why they should vote for him/her.
To help them really “become” their characters, students dressed the part. Every year, someone stuffed a pillow under their shirt to play Taft, borrowed the wheelchair from the office to be FDR, or donned a Nixon, JFK, or Clinton face mask.
We also encouraged the students to create campaign promotional materials to help voters remember their message. While all students were required to make a visual to be displayed at their station, some printed their slogans on stickers to be passed out to voters.
Others made commercials advertising their candidacy and played clips at their stations, and still others taped their slogans around pencils. Their goal was to have their name stand out in the younger students’ memory when it came time to vote.
The assembly concluded when the younger students cast their vote. We tallied the results and announced the returning president over the school’s PA system, giving the winner a moment of fame.
Also, as a way of giving more students a chance in the spotlight, we gave the runners-up positions as Vice President and cabinet members (which obviously are not necessarily voted into office, but, you know).
Our first year, Andrew Jackson won. Clearly, the “Presidential Reelection of All Time” allowed for some interesting choices. Students really did do a good job of selling their presidents – even those whose records may have been less than spotless by 21st Century standards. Remember that campaign promises were made based on “lessons learned” — and that kind of reflection is interesting.
Troubleshooting and lessons learned
Thinking about the sometimes surprising outcomes, it would be helpful to have the voters explain why they chose the presidents that they voted for. Was it because of the campaign? Popularity? Prior knowledge?
In fact, the past few years we have done the presidential reelection of all time without actual voting — to maintain the engagement of the activity without some of the inherent pitfalls of voting. We will say, though, that both ways have worked. It’s really up to the teachers and administration to decide what’s best for their school’s context.
We have organized this assembly (or a similar iteration) for six years now. Each year, we are able to fine-tune our process. Here are some suggestions we have for those trying this for the first time:
- Bring a bag of neckties. Some students will inevitably forget to dress up. As anachronistic as a necktie might be for many presidents, it is a simple way to create an insta-costume for students.
- Do NOT allow students to hand out candy as part of their promotional materials. Though “Laffy Taffy for Taft” is memorable, it changes the tenor of the event. Voters quickly get amped up on sugar and are more likely to use “how good the candy was” as a motivation for their vote.
- Candidates must remain behind their station table. Enthusiastic eighth graders can intimidate the younger kids and exponentially increase the amount of pandemonium in the room unless they are physically constrained to one area.
- For larger schools or classes we would recommend running multiple assemblies with smaller batches of students; for example, two sets of each president in two separate assemblies. This will cut down on the amount of noise in the room and give all students the chance to be president (assuming that there are more than 43 students in the grade).
Ultimately, troubleshooting aside, each year we love to see how our students make their president their own, and how they are able to engage the younger students in conversations about historical concepts. At the very least, our students know why they have Presidents’ Day off from school.
Do you already have a cool and interactive program that you do for Presidents’ Day? We would love to hear about it. And if you want to try this, or some iteration thereof, let us know if you need help!
If you want to add a primary-source focus to your election fair or other celebrations of Presidents’ Day check out this Explore Primary Sources repository offered at no cost to students and teachers by SAS® Curriculum Pathways. You need to create a login but it is a free online resource. Students can filter by year or author to find documents associated with particular presidents. Historical context and content-based questions are included to encourage active reading.
So cool. Thanks for sharing.