American Presidents

Using Letters of the Presidents in the Classroom

Steven Vetter, 1999 C-SPAN Teacher Fellow

"When studying the past, it can be very useful to study primary source documents in the classroom. Letters are an especially effective way to learn about both historic figures and everyday people.

This lesson can be used by both middle school and high school students to learn about the personalities, political lives, and the personal lives of the 41 American presidents. A letter written by each president can be found on individual presidents pages from the C-SPAN's American Presidents' web site. Some of these letters are written to family members, some are letters written to communicate about that president's experiences in the White House, and some give us insight into the relationship between the correspondents.

The discussion of a letter of a president can be done each week in conjunction with C-SPAN's American Presidents television series. As with the segments of the television programs, students enjoy reading the letters of historic figures because they make these important people seem more real. Letters, diary entries, and other forms of personal writing can be important because they allow the students to relate to the president as a real person and therefore be able to learn from the experiences of that person or perhaps emulate that important person in our history.

Students will relate to a young Ulysses S. Grant who describes his life at West Point and comments to his cousin that he wishes "some of the pretty girles (sic) of Bethel were here just so I might look at them." Or they can read Thomas Jefferson's advice to a young man, or Andrew Jackson's letter to his wife, expressing his love for his young son, revealing an emotional side the students may not otherwise see.

I have found it very effective to extend students learning beyond simply reading the letters by having them rewrite the letter in modern language or to have them respond to the letter by writing another one in return. There are many ways to use the letters from the web site and use them in the classroom."

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