The Democracy Project

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Painting Presidential Portraits

Subjects: Social Studies/Language Arts

Estimated Time of Completion: six fifty minute class periods

  1. I. Summary
  2. II. Objectives
  3. III. Materials Needed
  4. IV. Procedure
  5. V. Classroom Assessment
  6. VI. Extensions and Adaptations
  7. VII. Relevant Standards

I. Summary

This lesson offers the opportunity for children to look at the duties of the president. The featured guide for this lesson is the online game, "President for A Day." The students can express themselves through art and creative writing, as they design new U.S. currency with presidential portraits, facts, and figures.

II. Objectives

  • Students will know the duties and powers of the president.
  • Students will use timelines.
  • Students will recognize former presidents.
  • Students will identify important events of the past associated with presidencies.
  • Students will research to find information.
  • Students will improve communication skills.
  • Students will recognize the importance of the arts in documenting historical information.
  • Students will chronologically sequence material.
  • Students will increase vocabulary related to government.
  • Students will improve reading and listening skills.

III. Materials Needed

  • Computers with Internet access
  • Picture of the Presidential Seal
  • Portrait of a well-known president
  • White board or chalk board
  • Art paper
  • Crayons, markers or coloring pencils
  • Desktop publishing software such as Broderbund's Print Shop (optional)

IV. Procedure

  1. Play an audio file of "Hail to the Chief," found at Grolier's Online Presidency site. Ask if students recognize this music; explain that this is a special tune that has been used to announce the president?all the way back to 1837! Why are presidents so special in this particular year? Identify that it is an election year, and explain that students will be learning more about the important duties of the U.S. President.
  2. The students will visit the online activity, "Be President for a Day" to learn what the president has to do during the day. Brainstorm some of the words, symbols, pictures and colors associated with the president. Questions to spark discussion might be: What does a president do all day? With whom does he or she talk or work? What things are important to him or her? Where does the president work? How powerful is he or she? What decisions does the president make? After discussion, instruct students to design a new presidential seal for homework (review the current presidential seal and explore the choice of images and detail there). Make sure that they incorporate some of the brainstorming ideas. Completed seals may be displayed and discussed.
  3. Explain to the class that presidents usually have portraits made during their term in office; a collection of these is available online through the Portraits of Presidents and First Ladies site by the Library of Congress. Explain that a portrait is a picture of a person. The portrait may be "painted" in pictures or in words and knowledge.
  4. Ask students where presidential portraits appear (answers may include: buildings, textbooks, and money). Elaborate on the "money" idea by explaining that the U.S. Treasury uses the portraits of six historical figures?most of them presidents?on paper money ranging from $1 to $100. For more information about paper currency, visit the PBS Online NewsHour feature, "On2 Money" or NOVA's "Secrets of Making Money."
  5. Explain that the U.S. Treasury is currently redesigning paper money (if possible, show examples of the old versus new $20 or $10 to illustrate what you mean). Ask students to imagine that the Treasury wants to use six different people on the new paper money, and it's their job to select six former presidents for the new bills.
  6. Research these sites that offer historical presidential information:

    • White House Historical Association
    • The American President
    • The White House
    • American Presidents: Life Portraits

    Suggestions for research are birth dates, death dates, famous quotations, inauguration, friends, enemies, wars occurring during term, domestic and foreign problems or triumphs, family, previous careers, political offices, changes in the White House, famous members of his staff, hobbies, assassinations, pets, home state, monuments, presidential library and funeral.

  7. Design new paper money featuring selected U.S. presidents. Students should also write paragraphs defending their choices and providing details about that president's life. (Note: for younger students, teachers may wish to limit the activity to redesigning the $1 bill with a new president, and offer students two to three former presidents to research and choose from.)
  8. Conduct a poll to see which past president is most popular. Assign students to poll other classes, other teachers or students' parents. Compare and contrast results.

V. Classroom Assessment

  • Presidential seal shows elements discussed during brainstorming session
  • Research yields detailed information about former presidents' lives and accomplishments
  • Students present persuasive evidence for their new presidential currency choices in written paragraphs

VI. Extensions and Adaptations

  • Send students' currency redesigns to Treasury Department officials. Contact information is available at the U.S. Treasury Web site.
  • Add a presidential face to a print of Mount Rushmore.
  • Make a Top 10 newsletter pertaining to the presidency (e.g., oldest, most children, longest time in office, longest speeches, etc.). A print resource for this activity would be Lives of the Presidents: Fame, Shame and What the Neighbors Really Thought by Kathleen Krull.
  • Read the Mouse books (by Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes and Betty Shepard) to understand a president's interaction with other branches of government.
  • Students could try "Positively Presidential," an online presidential quiz.

VII. Relevant National Standards

These are established by McREL:

Social Studies

  • Understands ideas about civic life, politics and government
  • Knows that the United States is one nation and that it interacts with every other nation in the world
  • Knows what political leaders do and why leadership is necessary in a democracy
  • Knows the major duties, powers, privileges and limitations of a position of leadership (e.g., class president, mayor, state senator, tribal chairperson, president of the United States); and knows how to evaluate the strengths and weaknesses of candidates in terms of the qualifications required for a particular leadership role
  • Understands how certain character traits enhance citizens' ability to fulfill personal and civic responsibilities
  • Understands the importance of political leadership, public service and a knowledgeable citizenry in American constitutional democracy responsibilities