Activities & Lessons
Teachers: As the country gears up for Inauguration Day on January 20, we wanted to share classroom activities with you, along with easy-to-read background information for your students.
This year, Inauguration Day will be one for the history books. In a blow to the peaceful transition of power, Donald Trump will become the first president in more than 150 years to skip the inauguration of his successor, citing baseless claims of election fraud. He now faces calls for impeachment or removal from office under the 25th Amendment, after a pro-Trump mob stormed the U.S. Capitol on January 6 in an attempt to stop lawmakers from certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s win.
Current and previous living U.S. presidents typically attend the inauguration as a show of unity. Only three other presidents have refused to participate in their successor’s inauguration—John Adams in 1801, John Quincy Adams in 1829, and Andrew Johnson in 1869. Those expected to attend this year’s ceremonies are Vice President Mike Pence and former Presidents Barack Obama, George W. Bush, and Bill Clinton. Former President Jimmy Carter, who is 96, has said he will not attend.
The coronavirus pandemic is also affecting typical Inauguration Day ceremonies. Due to health and safety concerns and to minimize the spread of the airborne disease, the usual inauguration crowds will be missing and the parade will be virtual. Despite the pro-Trump siege on the U.S. Capitol, President-elect Joe Biden and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be sworn into office on the Capitol steps.
But this year's scaled-down affair can still deliver fundamental lessons (see inauguration activities for students below) about the ceremonies and traditions involved in the transfer of power. If you’re watching the live Inauguration Day broadcast with your students, here’s what you can expect. After the swearing-in ceremonies, Biden will deliver his inaugural address, which will highlight his plans for ending the pandemic, rebuilding the economy, and uniting the country. Next up is the Pass in Review, a military tradition reflecting the peaceful transfer of power in which Biden inspects the readiness of our troops. He’ll then be escorted by the military to the White House.
Also on the schedule is a virtual parade to mark the end of the electoral process and welcome the new administration. According to the inaugural committee, "The parade will celebrate America’s heroes, highlight Americans from all walks of life in different states and regions, and reflect on the diversity, heritage, and resilience of the country as we begin a new American era."
Inauguration Classroom Activities and Lessons
Here are five activities that will help you teach students about the presidential inauguration and its ceremonies and traditions. They can be adapted for a range of learning levels.
1. I Do Solemnly Swear (Grades K–12)
Share the presidential oath of office (see below) with students. Consider previewing some of the words (solemnly, swear, affirm, execute, preserve) beforehand. You might also explain that the Constitution is the highest law in the United States and it lays out how our government works. (Here are six activities for teaching students about the Constitution.)
If you're teaching older students, ask:
- What does it mean to “faithfully execute the office of President”?
- What is the Constitution and why must the President promise to defend it?
Students can learn about presidential duties, qualifications, and skills in Article II, Sections 1–4, of the U.S. Constitution.
If you're teaching younger students, ask:
- What is an oath?
- Why do you think Presidents must take an oath?
- What is the President promising to do?
- Do you think this is a necessary part of becoming the President? Why or why not?
Finally, have students write another promise to add to the oath that they think the President should make to the American people. Allow time for students to share their ideas with the class.
2. Compare the Speeches (Grades 5–12)
Tell students that George Washington began a tradition that future presidents would take up when he delivered the first inaugural address on April 30, 1789. Ask: What do you think is the purpose of an inaugural address? What do you think the president should try to accomplish in the speech?
Challenge students to compare and contrast two inaugural speeches of their choice. Find links to all U.S. Presidents’ inaugural addresses at the American Presidency Project. After the inauguration, you can find Biden's address at bideninaugural.org. Have students take notes on the similarities and differences in a Venn diagram, which you can download for free on Shaped. Here is a list of questions students might consider as they analyze the speeches:
- What is the tone of the speech? How can you tell? Point out specific words and phrases to support your idea.
- What is the purpose of the speech?
- What can you tell about the country's challenges from the speech?
- What are the president's goals for the country?
- What do you think the president hopes to accomplish with the speech?
- What did you learn from comparing the two speeches?
3. My Fellow Americans (Grades K–12)
This was a particularly hard-fought election. But a primary purpose of the inaugural address is to bring the country together after all of the divisiveness. Ask: What do you think President Biden should say in his inaugural speech to unify the country? Why do you think that would help?
Challenge students to write a one-minute speech aimed at bringing Americans together. Allow time for students to recite their speeches for the class. Younger students might simply draw a picture of what unity looks like to them or complete the following sentence starter: My hope for America is __________.
Watch Biden's speech with your class on Inauguration Day. Have older students take notes on Biden's calls for unity. Discuss student's findings after the speech. Ask: Were the attempts at unity effective? Why or why not?
4. Plan a Parade (Grades K–12)
Tell students that due to the pandemic, the inaugural parade will be virtual. Ask: Why do you think inaugurations include a parade? Imagine that you are in charge of planning Biden’s inaugural parade. What events would you include? Make a list of ideas.
Share this description of the plans for the inaugural parade with your middle or high school students: “The parade will celebrate America’s heroes, highlight Americans from all walks of life in different states and regions, and reflect on the diversity, heritage, and resilience of the country as we begin a new American era.”
Separate students into groups and provide each with one theme from the description:
- America’s heroes
- Americans from all walks of life in different states and regions
- Resilience of our country
Tell students their challenge is to figure out how to showcase their theme in a virtual parade. For example, the first group will brainstorm ways to celebrate America’s heroes. They should consider: Which American heroes should we spotlight? How will we spotlight them virtually? Those in Group 3 might consider what diversity in America looks like and how they can celebrate that diversity in a virtual parade. Each group should write up a plan for their portion of the parade and share their ideas with the class.
5. Share Your Story (Grades K–12)
Biden's inaugural committee has put out a call for people to create short videos in which they answer one of the following questions:
- What does it mean to you to have Kamala Harris as Vice President?
- Why is giving back important to you?
- What is your vision for America?
Have students partner up to share responses to one of the questions. Then have them write their response in a paragraph. Younger students can draw a picture or write a sentence. Students with parental permission can record and upload videos sharing their responses on the inaugural committee website.
More Ideas for Teaching the Inauguration
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