American Presidents

John Adams American Presidents Teacher Guides

Historical Detective:
Exploring the Personality & Character of Thomas Jefferson
Recommended Use:
Secondary and Elementary Levels

Developed by C-SPAN Champion Teacher Steven Vetter who teaches at West Hernando Middle School in Brooksville, FL. C-SPAN is provided to his area by Time Warner.

Goal: Using C-SPAN's American Presidents video as a primary source, engage students in a study of the personality and character of Thomas Jefferson by learning about his life, career, and his home, Monticello.


Students will:

  • Learn about character traits by reading classroom materials and viewing segments of C-SPAN's American Presidents series featuring Thomas Jefferson's life.

  • Determine what can be learned about a person by examining his or her home or room

  • Write a descriptive paragraph about their own rooms and possessions

    Materials & Tools
    Video of the following C-SPAN American Presidents: Life Portraits programs on Thomas Jefferson:

    • Live program from Monitcello
    • Booknotes program featuring interview with Willard Sterne Randall
    • Program featuring Thomas Jefferson impersonator, Bill Barker
    Biographical materials about Thomas Jefferson

    KWL chart on poster board

    American Presidents web site

    Time: 90 minutes

    Classroom Activity: Historical Detective

    Preparing for the Case: Thomas Jefferson
    1. As a class, create a K-W-L chart for Thomas Jefferson. In the "K" or "Know" column, list the facts students know about Thomas Jefferson. In the second column of the chart, list the questions the class has about Thomas Jefferson. Phrase each of these items as a question. Tell students the "L" or "Learned" portion will be filled out at the conclusion of the lesson.

    2. Use the following dialogue as a model and lead the class in a discussion about how a modern historian is similar to both a detective and an archeologist.

    Q: How is a historian like a detective?
    A: Historians are like detectives because they search for clues to piece together a profile of their historical subject.

    Q: How is a historian like an archeologist?
    A: Historians are like archeologists because they search for and examine artifacts and geographic sites associated with their historical subject.

    3. The students will act as historical detectives and will work to uncover clues about the interests and character traits of Thomas Jefferson by watching a videotaped segment from C-SPANís American Presidents program from Monticello. Cue the tape to the portion of the program featuring a tour of Thomas Jefferson's cabinet or "sanctum sanctorum," the private rooms where visitors were rarely admitted.

    Researching the Case
    4. Have students prepare a sheet of paper with two columns, one headed "Thomas Jeffersonís interests" and the other headed "Thomas Jeffersonís possessions." Students will then watch the program and list Thomas Jeffersonís interests and possessions in the appropriate columns.

    5. After viewing, have students draw arrows from items in one column to the other to indicate connections between Thomas Jeffersonís interests and his possessions. i.e. His interest in astronomy corresponds with his telescope.

    6. On a second sheet of paper, have students create two columns; label the left side, "My interests" and the right side, "My possessions". Students should list three objects of personal value in their own rooms in the right-hand column. Then, discuss together: What do these objects reveal about your interests and personality? Have students list their corresponding interests in the left hand column.

    7. Offer a writing prompt: What can we learn about Thomas Jefferson's personality by exploring the rooms in his house? (Possible responses: He was interested in science and farming; reading and thinking; he wrote many letters; he had a lot of free, or leisure time.)

    West Hernando Middle School Students
    We discovered the following traits that describe Jefferson:
  • Curious
  • Lifelong learner
  • Inventor
  • Loved to read
  • Soft spoken
  • gracious
  • thinker
  • Elegant writer
  • Good host
  • Smart
  • Quiet
  • Achiever
  • Expensive taste
  • Widower
  • Musical - played the violin
  • Interested in science
  • 8. Using their personal interests/possessions charts have students write a descriptive paragraph in response to the following prompt: What does your room tell a visitor about your interests or talents? What objects found there reveal something about you as a person?

    Some West Hernando Middle School Student Responses:

    My room contains things that would describe my personality. First, there are the decorations. By looking at the walls in my room, you can tell that I like flowers and mythical creatures, such as dragons. Also from my bed you can tell that I'm not neat and organized. Lastly, from my room you can tell that I like to read. My bookshelf is overflowing with books.
    --- Alaina

    My room tells a lot about me. First of all, you can tell that I collect Beanie Babies. They're all over my room. Second, you can tell that I like music because I have CD's everywhere and a big CD player. I also love hats, especially floppy ones. I also love to talk on the telephone. My phone is right next to my bed and is cordless so I can walk around with it. Lastly, my friends are very important to me. I have Christmas, Get Well, Valentines, Birthday and Friendship cards from my friends all over my shelves. I also have photos of them on my bulletin boards. As you can see, I have many interests and my room reflects them.
    ---- Mona

    Investigating Places and People
    9. As an additional activity, using the American Presidents series, have students view additional segments from the video showing the entrance hall, cabinet, gardens, and slave quarters. Have students consider and write down ideas in response to the following question: What does Thomas Jefferson's estate, Monticello, reveal about our third president's character and personality?

    10. View the first ten - fifteen minutes of the Booknotes segment featuring Willard Sterne Randall's biography of Thomas Jefferson. Have students take notes and then discuss additional information about Thomas Jefferson's interests and talents.

    Discussing the Case
    11. Lead a discussion on the term "renaissance person" based on the following prompt: Which of Thomas Jefferson's traits do you admire? Which did you least admire? In what ways was Jefferson a "renaissance man"?

    12. Conclude the video portion of the lesson by watching the first fifteen minutes of the C-SPAN program featuring Thomas Jefferson impersonator, Bill Barker. As they watch this segment, the students will take notes and add to their list of Thomas Jefferson's interests and character traits.

    13. After watching this segment, the students will respond to the following prompt: If you could ask the elderly Thomas Jefferson two questions, what would they be?

    Questions generated by West Hernando Middle School Students:
    Do you in any way feel guilty about owning slaves?

    Why did you have slaves if you thought all men were equal?

    What are some of your unachieved goals?

    What kind of books do you like to read?

    When in life did you realize that you wanted to do everything that you are doing today?

    Review and Evaluation
    1. Fill out the L (Learned) portion of the K-W-L chart based on what the class learned from this lesson.

    2. Have the students rewrite their descriptive paragraphs about their own rooms on framed paper. Display these paragraphs on a bulletin board and have the students try to match each paragraph with the author/owner of the room.

    3. Have the students create travel brochures about Monticello featuring information that they learned from the Thomas Jefferson programming on C-SPAN.

    4. Have the students exchange the questions that they would like to ask Thomas Jefferson and ask them to answer the questions in writing as if they were Thomas Jefferson.

    5. Have the students write a short summary of the life and career of Thomas Jefferson for the inside flap of a soon-to-be-published biography of the former president.

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