President's Day in the 21st Century

Celebrate Two Distinguished US Presidents in a Twenty-First Century Way.

By Greg Harrison

American Flags surrounding the capitol building

What a great nation we live in! Here we are in the twenty-first century celebrating two men who performed magnificently in a position that was established in the eighteenth century. George Washington and Abraham Lincoln are widely regarded as two of the finest presidents our country has ever had. There are good reasons for this distinction. They led the country through the two most challenging times the nation has experienced: the first eight years of the country's existence, and the Civil War.

Here in the twenty-first century, educators are striving to provide their students with learning experiences that will build life skills, require critical and creative thinking, and build communication/collaborative learning skills. In this article, I will propose an activity which combines these learning goals with a President's Day theme.


The Top Ten Presidents

While President's Day is most often associated with George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, it is also meant to be a day that honors all of our presidents. I believe a worthwhile activity would be to divide your students into four groups and assign each of them the same task: they must compile a "Top Ten" list of America's greatest presidents. The presidents who are honored on Mt. Rushmore will almost certainly appear on each group's list. But, who will the other six be? In what order, one through ten, will each group rank the presidents they chose? The group will be charged with researching all forty-four presidents and deciding which ones belong on their top ten list. They must then rank their presidents and create a PowerPoint presentation. The presentations should contain an image of each president, and a slide that gives the five most compelling reasons for choosing that president. Obviously the slides should be order in the presentations. Each group can decide if they want to ascending or descending order. Here are two excellent websites that your pupils can access in order to conduct their research and find images of each president: The Presidents of the United States, and The History Place - Presidential Portraits. The groups should be encouraged to explore other sources as well. Before turning the groups loose to do their research, have a discussion with your class that helps them think of some indicators as to whether or not a president should be considered for top-ten status. Here is a list of questions to get you started:

  • Has the class ever heard of the president before?
  • Was he a one or two-term president? Generally speaking, two-term presidents are more highly regarded than one-term presidents.
  • Did he successfully lead the country through a crisis - such as a war, or an economic downturn?
  • Is he known for greatly improving America during his presidency?
  • Does his image appear on a coin or currency note?
  • Are there any famous monuments or places named after the president?

This project would work best if the groups make their presentations on a day that is close to President's Day. Here are some other lesson ideas for you to peruse as President's Day draws near.

President's Day Lessons:

A Day as President

It's never too early to begin teaching pupils the President of the United States, and what he (someday, she?) does. This particular lesson is designed for kindergarten and first graders. The class discusses the meaning of the term leader, and discovers that the president is the leader of our country. After discovering some of the things that a president actually does, student pairs complete a worksheet titled, "A Day as President."

From the Post Office to the Oval Office

Another outstanding lesson from The New York Times! Middle-elementary students take a look at actual letters that were sent to President Obama, and past U.S. presidents, and determine which criteria are necessary in order for a letter to actually reach his desk. Students compose their own letters to President Obama, and send them off. Awesome idea, and a very well-designed lesson.

Presidential Gallery

Fourth through sixth grade learners engage in this very rich lesson, which has them identify important events and accomplishments in the life of one US president. Additionally, they consider the major national issues and events faced by that president. They choose one major event and show how the system of checks and balances were put into play. A high-level lesson!

U.S. Constitution - Selecting the President

This simple, yet very effective, lesson invites middle to high school pupils to take a close look at the Electoral College. They debate it's merits and drawbacks, and answer ten questions which lead them to a higher-level of understanding of the nuances of this system.