President's Day Activities
Primary source documents, iconic paintings, and reenactments bring Washington and Lincoln alive in the classroom.
By Carrie Jackson
President's Day is a United States federal holiday designed to honor George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, both of whom were born in February. Dedicate class time to exploring the major contributions these two distinguished presidents made to the establishment and growth of the United States.
George Washington, Military Commander-In-Chief
Nearly all students recognize George Washington; at the very least, they have seen his face on the one-dollar bill. But do they know that he was the commander-in-chief of the armed forces during the American Revolution? Under his watch, Patriot troops defeated the British in several battles, including those at Saratoga and Yorktown. Many artistic renderings exist for these and other famed events of the war, including the difficult winter at Valley Forge and the famous crossing of the Delaware River. These paintings offer a rich opportunity for young historians to walk in the shoes of the soldiers, exploring how they may have felt and why they chose the actions they did. Bring in a British text recounting the same experience to foster a discussion on perspective–the same story looks quite different depending on who has the pen (or quill) in their hand.
George Washington, United States' Commander-In-Chief
After the colonists defeated the British, Washington longed to return home to his farm, but was reluctantly persuaded to switch gears and become president of the newly created nation. His wisdom and careful planning set many precedents for the United States which are still observed today. Take some time to discuss, or even re-enact, the variety of decisions George Washington and his fellow congressmen had to make as the first leaders of a new country. For instance, Washington opted to step down after two terms as president, a precedent that was followed for over one hundred years. Have your class research which presidents sought a third term, how many president(s) actually served more than two terms, and when it became a law that presidents could only serve two terms (Answer: Twenty-second Amendment, 1951). Other advice that Washington imparted, such as avoiding the dangers of political parties, was not adhered to by following generations; this could fuel a fascinating debate on the merits of our two-party system. Edsitement offers a great resource uncovering many other challenges Washington faced during his years in office.
While many problems Washington dealt with were peculiar to that of a first president, a whole other set of issues was present by the time our sixteenth president, Abraham Lincoln, took office.
Abraham Lincoln, Commander-In-Chief of a Divided Country
Abraham Lincoln's presidency marked a major turning point in the history of the country. Just like Washington, he served two terms and faced many difficult decisions. However, while Washington entered office at a time when the country sought to join together, Lincoln faced the prospect of a nation divided, and led the country during the Civil War. For those working to implement Common Core State Standards, the Gettysburg Address, Emancipation Proclamation, and Thirteenth Amendment are highly rigorous informational texts that provide a plethora of opportunity for discussion, debate, and academic vocabulary development. Differing points of view were at the heart of this war, and primary documents abound for both the blue and the grey. Be it secession requests from southern states, the dilemmas of slavery, or plans for Reconstruction, every decision Lincoln faced stood to drastically impact the future of the nation. Take advantage of these real-world issues to engage your class in critical thinking and evidence-based reasoning.
While Lincoln is touted for many victories, help your class gain a more realistic view of his heroism by including a discussion of set-backs and failures. Whether your class learns about Lincoln from the perspective of the Civil War, or by tracing his rise from log-cabin poverty in Illinois, each student is bound to resonate with some aspect this great man's life.