Teaching Presidential History with Context and Inquiry





Presidential history is a complex issue in a 21st century social studies classroom. Forty-three men (sorry Grover, I’m only counting you once) have steered the executive ship of this country for 226 years. Students should analyze these men, their actions, their successes, challenges, and beliefs. But it is easy to fall in a presidential history trap and ignore other important facets of U.S. history. I taught AP U.S. History for a decade, before the most recent course revisions from the College Board. I very regularly had to stop myself from over-teaching presidential history, from drilling my students with rote-style Wikipedia-like narratives of these men so they would get a multiple choice question correct on the exam. We also cannot escape the fact that all 43 of these executives were/are male, and all but one were/are white.

One trap is teaching about these men in this narrative rote style can contribute to teaching presidential history with a “white-savior” frame. I was reminded of this when I read a recent Rolling Stone interview with Ava DuVernay, director of Selma. The movie made headlines the past few months as some questioned the accuracy of her depiction of Lyndon Johnson. In the interview she remarked, “The script was the LBJ/King thing, but originally, it was much more slanted to Johnson. I wasn’t interested in making a white-savior movie; I was interested in making a movie centered on the people of Selma. You have to bring in some context for what it was like to live in the racial terrorism that was going on in the deep south at that time. The four little girls have to be there, and then you have to bring in the women. So I started adding women.”

If a social studies teacher only teaches The Civil Rights Act of 1964 and Voting Rights Act of 1965 as grand landmark legislation signed into law by the empathetic Southern Democrat Lyndon Johnson, students miss the context of the time period—the activism that led to the passage of those laws, the debate not only between African Americans and white lawmakers and authorities but the debate within the African American community. This chapter of history also allows students to see the power of nonviolent youth activism and ways to influence government before voting age!

This is just one example. I could make similar comments about George Washington freeing his slaves in his will, Abraham Lincoln issuing the (often misunderstood) Emancipation Proclamation, Eisenhower ordering federal troops to Little Rock, and so on.

These are important aspects of history, but our students need to understand presidential history with inquiry and with context.

Here are just 3 ways to teach presidential history with inquiry and context.

1. Use inaugural speeches to contextualize a time period


I often say context is culture, not cause. In other words, what was going on at the time? What influenced a speech, an action, an event? What was the national mood? Students can analyze presidential history through inauguration speeches specifically to delve into the context of a time period. I especially like this with FDR, as he’s the only president with 4 inaugural addresses (each at a different reading level) on record–great opportunity for students to analyze change over time. In his first address in 1933 (audio/transcript), FDR makes reference to “leadership” 7 times. A Common Core standard for English/Language Arts in Social Studies requires students to “determine the meaning of words and phrases as they are used in a text, including analyzing how an author uses and refines the meaning of a key term over the course of a text.” Students can close read (or listen) the speech and analyze how FDR unpacks this concept of leadership and what it reveals about the context of 1933. He introduces that the country is in crisis, which requires bold leadership. Simple enough. Why is the country in crisis? He speaks a lot about banking and economics. He goes on to suggest to solve this crisis, a leader must take bold action. What is his point of view? What bold action does he suggest? He claims the government must increase regulation over business, and goes on to say executive leadership in times of crisis means the executive branch should have more power than the legislative branch. Bold claims, but by analyzing how FDR speaks about leadership in his 1933 speech contextualizes the time period, and gets students analyzing point of view. Students can also do this with “democracy,” which was referenced 8 times in his 1937 inaugural.

Some of my other favorites include, of course, Lincoln’s inaugural addresses (1861/1865), and Taft’s inaugural is quite peculiar. In it he claims “Personally, I have not the slightest race prejudice or feeling…” then goes on to explain how “ignorant” African Americans should not be allowed to vote. What great nuggets for students to contextualize race relations in the Progressive Era.

Discovery Education has a plethora of inaugural speech resources for teachers and students. One resource of note, because I love teaching with artifacts (check out my vintage political button collection), is Smithsonian Institution: Presidential Inauguration, which explores some unseen history located in the storage facilities of the Smithsonian Institution. Two historians search for programs, buttons, invitations, and even menus from the Presidential Inaugurations of George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama.

The Miller Center also compiles an extensive collection of presidential primary sources.

2. Explore behind the scenes of the presidency

Rather than teaching about an event occurring on this date, or a president giving a speech about this topic, have students explore context by peeking behind the presidential curtain.

Discovery’s American Heroes Channel produces fantastic videos in their “Commander in Chief: Inside the Oval Office” series.

Some highlights:

Commander in Chief: Inside the Oval Office: Kennedy and the Cuban Missile Crisis

Commander in Chief: Inside the Oval Office: The Gulf War

Commander in Chief: Inside the Oval Office: The Obama Raid

Discovery’s documentary, The Presidents’ Gatekeepers, also brings viewers behind the scenes of the presidency through an analysis of all the modern White House Chiefs of Staff.









These videos can be one component of a lesson in which students are presented with a dilemma through primary sources, then write how they would handle the situation based on the evidence available at the time. Students can then compare their decisions with the decisions of the President and/or the Chief of Staff.

3. Have students brainstorm dialogue of presidents

Rather than only having students analyze the actual words of presidents, give students various sources from a time period and have them imagine what presidents might have said. This forces students to process content rather than just absorb it. I often do this with speech bubbles.

All Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook sections have an “elaborate” tab that includes a bank of related primary and secondary sources. The Civil Rights Movement section includes the following sources:

Excerpt from President Lyndon B. Johnson’s Voting Rights Act Speech

Excerpt from President John F. Kennedy’s Civil Rights Speech

Discovery Streaming has the video of JFK’s speech, along with reaction by Martin Luther King.

Background reading can also be provided to further build the background knowledge students need to access the higher level historical thinking skills. Discovery Education Social Studies Techbook has background readings at multiple reading levels on the events of 1963 related to the image, including Taking a Stand in Birmingham.

Students can analyze these sources and either on paper or on a personal learning device, insert dialogue into the following photo to gauge their understanding to drive your instruction and provide feedback.













What’s great about this photo too is too often we confine analysis of civil rights leaders to King, Kennedy, and Johnson. But some lesser known and very influential leaders are in the room too, like Roy Wilkins, Executive Secretary of the NAACP, A. Philip Randolph, long time union organizer and head of the Brotherhood of Sleeping Car Porters, and John Lewis of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee, now a U.S. Representative for Georgia’s 5th congressional district. Additional sources about these men can be provided for further analysis and assessment.

Once students have examined source material to brainstorm dialogue, a teacher can reveal some of the actual dialogue from the meeting, then students can compare and draw conclusions. This would be effective to formatively assess contextualization skills.





  1. Kyle Engdahl said:

    Teachers trying to use primary sources as a starting point to better understand and contextualize the real men who’ve inhabited the White House can also use the American Presidency Project from the University of California, Santa Barbara by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley. It is a most excellent source.

  2. Pingback: “All we want is make us free.” Letter from an 11 year old Amistad captive to President John Quincy Adams – DEN Blog Network

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