Activities & Lessons

9 Presidents' Day Lesson Plans and Activities to Foster Engaged Citizens

6 Min Read
Presidents Day Lesson Plans And Activities

Every third Monday in February, we celebrate Presidents’ Day. But did you know this federal holiday is officially called Washington's Birthday?

The holiday was originally created in 1879 to recognize President George Washington’s birthday, on February 22. An Illinois representative in 1968 argued for the holiday to also celebrate Abraham Lincoln's birthday, on February 12. Today, what we've come to know as Presidents’ Day is popularly viewed as an opportunity to celebrate all those who have served as commander in chief from 1789 onward. (This article explains why there’s no universal agreement about who, exactly, is supposed to be honored.)

Uncertainty over which president to honor aside, Presidents’ Day can be a great time to delve into U.S. history, presidential powers, and the election process—lessons that are sure to foster informed and engaged citizens.

Presidents' Day Activities for Middle and High School Students

We’ve compiled nine Presidents' Day lesson plan ideas for Grades 6–12 that can be delivered as mini-lessons, or made into a longer lesson or unit on the U.S. presidency. While these activities were written for upper grades, many can be adapted for younger students. For even more ways to celebrate our commanders in chief and make your classroom look great, check out our Presidents' Day bulletin board ideas

Activity 1: Learning from Historians

Students can engage in online talks with historians and National Park Service rangers about the lives and legacies of U.S. presidents and First Ladies. They'll also get the chance to virtually visit presidential libraries, national parks, and national monuments across the country. These free events are part of the Presidential Primary Resources Project. Check out the program and register your class for the sessions, which are offered through April 2024. Archived recordings of past sessions are also available. 

Activity 2: Presidential Powers 

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: The Election Process 

Divide your students into four groups. Have each group focus their research on a different stage of the presidential election cycle: (1) primaries and caucuses, including requirements for somebody to run for president; (2) national conventions; (3) the general election; (4) the Electoral College. Each group should create a slideshow of up to four 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 include photos or video clips from past presidential elections in their presentations. Ultimately, these presentations should tell a story about how a president is elected.

Activity 4: Electoral College Debate 

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 include a brief background on the Electoral College: what it is, how it works, and why it was established. They can start their research on the National Constitution Center website. Tell them to include at least two reasons why the Electoral College should remain in place or done away with, and provide evidence from recent news articles to support their arguments. Remind them to address the opposition as well. If you want to take this activity a step further, select pro and con supporters to hold a classroom debate.

Activity 5: Presidential Portraits

Choose a presidential portrait to analyze with the class. Display the portrait for 30 seconds, then have students describe what they remember most. Ask: What do you remember about the setting or background colors? What do you remember about the subject’s facial expression, pose, or clothing? What objects are in the portrait? Display the portrait again. Ask: What story is the artist telling about the president? How do particular elements (setting, background color, facial expression, pose, clothing) tell that story? 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 with these biographies of the presidents on the White House website. Finally, they should think about what story they would like to tell about the president they researched. For instance, they may want to portray the president as a great environmentalist or a master of international relations. Then, challenge them to create a portrait that captures the story in the medium of their choice.


Activity 6: A Presidential Podcast

Have students research a defining moment in a U.S. president’s term and create a podcast that tells the story. They might choose from the following topics, or come up with their own ideas.

  • President Abraham Lincoln’s decision in 1861 to enter the Civil War
  • President John F. Kennedy demanding the removal of Soviet nuclear missiles during the Cuban Missile Crisis of 1962
  • President Lyndon B. Johnson signing the Civil Rights Act into law in 1964
  • President Richard Nixon’s impeachment in 1973
  • President Ronald Reagan’s demand in Berlin for Soviet leader Mikhael Gorbachev to “tear down this wall”

Students should ensure that their podcast answers these questions:

  • What events led up to the moment?
  • What obstacles had to be overcome and how?
  • What was the final outcome and impact on history?

Encourage students to include audio clips of relevant speeches or interviews.

Activity 7: Letter to the President

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 or send hand-written letters to:

The White House
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue NW
Washington, D.C. 20500

Activity 8: Remaking a Holiday

There are fireworks on the Fourth of July, parades on Memorial Day, and a wreath-laying ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Virginia on Veteran's Day.  Aside from shopping for bargains, what are the Presidents' Day traditions? Challenge students to remake the holiday into a memorable event that puts the focus on honoring U.S. presidents. Separate students into groups and task them with designing one event or ceremony that will spark feelings of patriotism and remind Americans why they have the day off. Provide each group with a 5 W's organizer to describe the event or ceremony. Allow time for students to share their ideas with the class. 

Activity 9: Presidential Pop Quiz

Students can test their knowledge of the U.S. presidents with this interactive quiz from the nonprofit Pew Charitable Trusts. Then, challenge them to create their own quiz based on research and using a free online quiz maker or a slide presentation program. Tell them to be sure to provide a brief explanation of the correct answer. For students who need more direction, have them focus on one of the following categories:

  • Presidential fun facts
  • Powers of the president
  • Famous quotes
  • Key policy decisions
  • Defining contributions

Share Presidents' Day Lesson Plans

How do you immerse middle school and high school students in presidential history? We'd love to hear about your best Presidents' Day lesson plans and activities. Share them with us on Facebook, Instagram, or via email at shaped@hmhco.com.

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Find more lesson plans and classroom resources on Shaped.

This blog post, originally published in February 2020, has been updated for 2024.

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