All 45 U.S. presidents have impacted the history of our nation in some way. So how can your classroom honor those who have served in this position?
Every year on the third Monday of February, we celebrate Presidents’ Day, which was originally created to recognize President George Washington’s birthday on February 22. Today, Presidents’ Day is popularly viewed as an opportunity to celebrate all of our country’s presidents from 1789 onward (though this Washington Post article explains that there’s really no universal agreement about who, exactly, is supposed to be honored).
Presidents’ Day can be a great time for you to teach your students about the institution of the presidency, the history of the men who have held the position, and how a president is elected—and maybe someday in the future, we’ll be able to say that this day honors the history of the men and women who have served as president!
Presidents' Day Activities for Middle and High School Students
We’ve compiled six Presidents' Day activities for you to consider, which you can also combine and turn into a lesson plan of your own! While these activities are mainly for students in Grades 6–12, many can be adapted for younger students as well.
Activity 1: The Presidential Pen Pal (Writing)
Have students conduct research online and choose their favorite U.S. president. Then, have them write a letter to that president as if they are communicating with him from the future. First, students should explain why they selected this particular president—for instance, do they agree with an important action he took? Are they simply fascinated by the decisions he made or the obstacles he overcame during his term? Then, have students write about a key issue their selected president addressed during his presidency. In particular, knowing what we know today, how do they feel their president addressed the issue? What do they wish this president had known about the outcomes beforehand? What could he have done differently?
Activity 2: Presidential Powers (Research)
Tell students that they will create a help wanted ad for the job of U.S. president, using details from the Constitution and sample help wanted ads. First, provide students with a few sample ads. Ask: What kind of information do the ads include? (Students should note that the ads include job duties, qualifications, and skills.) What do you notice about the way the information is organized? (Students might note the use of bulleted lists, bolded words, or the order of information.) Next, provide students with a copy of Article II, Sections 1–4, of the U.S. Constitution and the activity sheet "Help Wanted." Tell them to take notes on presidential duties, qualifications, and skills on the “Help Wanted” handout using information they find in the Constitution. Finally, have students use their notes to write a help wanted ad for the position of commander in chief. Allow time for students to share their ads with the class.
Activity 3: How a President Is Elected (Presentation)
Divide your students into four groups. Have each group focus on a different stage of the presidential election cycle: (1) primaries and caucuses, including requirements for somebody to run for president; (2) the national conventions; (3) the general election; (4) the Electoral College. Each group should create a PowerPoint of 3–4 slides to present in front of the class. They should define all relevant terms for their classmates, explain how each stage of the process works, and be encouraged to get creative by using photos or video clips from past presidential elections in their presentations. Ultimately, these presentations should together tell a story about how a president is elected.
Activity 4: Exploring the Electoral College (Essay)
It’s a topic that has sparked debate in the past as well as the present: should the U.S. keep the Electoral College system? Have your students write a persuasive essay arguing one way or the other. They should also include a brief general background about the Electoral College: what it is, how it works, and why it was established in the first place. Then, they should provide 2–3 reasons why they feel the Electoral College does or doesn’t work. For extra credit, they can find a recent news article about the Electoral College and reference that article in their paper to support their argument. If you want to take it a step further, select pro and con supporters to hold a debate, staged like the presidential debates.
Activity 5: Presidential Portraits (Art and Research)
Choose a presidential portrait to analyze with the class here. Display the portrait for 30 seconds, then have students describe what they remember most. Ask: What do you remember about the color or setting? What do you remember about the subject’s facial expression, pose, or clothing? Display the portrait again. Ask: What character trait shines through? How do particular elements (setting, color, facial expression, pose, clothing) bring that character trait out? Next, have students do research on a president’s life and accomplishments, taking notes in the organizer “A President’s Life.” They can start their research at here. Finally, they should choose what they think is their president’s most noteworthy character trait and create a portrait of the president in the medium of their choice that emphasizes that trait.
Activity 6: Tell the President (Letter Writing)
Ask students to research an issue that concerns them, such as health care, immigration, taxes, the environment, education, or the economy. Tell them to summarize the different views on the issue before deciding where they stand. Once they’ve done their research, have them write a letter to the president describing the part of the issue that they find most concerning and how they would wish the president to address the problem. They can send an email to the president here or send hand-written letters to:
The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW, Washington, D.C. 20500
Presidents' Day Lesson Plans
You can download the free Presidents' Day lesson plans below from HMH Classroom Libraries. Note that while certain activities included require you to purchase certain texts, students may complete other activities by conducting some online research.
For additional classroom activities and resources, check out HMH’s newest presidential election 2020 sites for students in Grades K–5 and Grades 6–12. You will find relevant, age-appropriate election resources that can be used in the classroom. As important milestones and events evolve throughout this election season, HMH is committed to providing classrooms nonbiased and reliable resources to educate and foster today’s young citizens.
This blog post was updated in February 2020.
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