In 1879, President Rutherford B. Hayes signed into law Washington’s Birthday, a day to remember George Washington’s legacy. The holiday at first applied only to federal offices in the District of Columbia, but was expanded to the whole country in 1885. The Uniform Monday Holiday Act of 1971 established a collective Presidents’ Day to be observed on the third Monday in February each year. On this day, we reflect on the nation’s history and the contributions of its leadership.
Presidents’ Day offers some great opportunities for student discussion and in honor of the occasion, we would like to offer some prompts that can help teachers open a space for dialogue in classrooms. It is never too soon to begin conversations about history and leadership; for younger elementary school students, it is possible to kick off a simple conversation using some of the overarching themes below, like importance of education or what leadership means to them.
1) Imagine Washington’s America
In 1789, George Washington became America’s very first president. At the time, there were 11 states. Check out the extensive educational resources and primary source materials offered by the experts at Mount Vernon Estate, Washington’s homestead, and use them to help kids imagine what his world was like.
- What would George Washington think about the United States in 2015?
- What do you think has changed over the years?
- What would Washington be most proud of today in the United States?
- Are there important qualities that all presidents should possess, regardless of whether they governed in 1789 or 2015? What are these qualities?
2) Reflect on Education
Abraham Lincoln’s birthday is also in February. The nation’s 16th president is most often remembered for his leadership during the Civil War, the Emancipation Proclamation and the Gettysburg Address. Education was also very important to Lincoln. He taught himself law and even passed the bar exam without formal legal study. Share the quote below from his first political announcement with students.
“Upon the subject of education…I can only say that I view it as the most important subject which we as a people can be engaged in.
- Why do you think education is so important?
- What do you like best about learning/school?
- Why are schools an important part of the community?
- What are the qualities of a good education?
- What would you change about your education?
3) Discuss the Meaning of Leadership
Spend some time talking about the general concept of leadership. Remember, you don’t have to be the President to also be a great leader! Encourage kids to think about the leaders in their lives – like coaches, siblings or teachers – and discuss the different ways that people lead.
- What are some qualities of a good leader?
- Why are these qualities important?
- Who are some of the leaders in your life?
- What are ways that you can serve as a leader?
Let your students’ curiosity guide the conversation. They’ll offer unique insight and ask questions that will open the door to new interests. The Library of Congress offers more presidential primary source material to inspire future classroom research and discussion.
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