American Presidents

American Presidents Timeline Poster

This Teacher Guide was developed by 1999 C-SPAN Teacher Fellow Steven Vetter who teaches reading to 7th graders at West Hernando Middle School in Brooksville, Florida. C-SPAN provided by Time Warner.

Paths to the Presidency

Goal: To examine the different career paths that US presidents have taken preceding the presidency.

Students will

  • read a timeline for information; (teachers can obtain an American Presidents Timeline Poster by contacting C-SPAN at

  • explore the various ways in which our presidents have been involved with public service;

  • discuss how these early experiences have prepared these individuals for the presidency;

  • discover the various paths that have led our presidents to the White House;

  • draw conclusions about the relationship between individual presidents' public service careers and the presidency.


Part 1: Introduce the timeline
1. Write the following information on the board: John Adams was born in 1735 and died in 1826. He served in the Continental Congress from 1773-77; in George Washington's cabinet from 1789-97 and was president from 1797-1801.

Ask students: How would you display this information in a timeline? Discuss their answers together and evaluate the value of displaying information on a timeline.

2. Display the American Presidents Timeline poster. You may want to duplicate a portion of the timeline poster on an overhead so that all students may view the key and some of the individual timelines together.

3. Divide your class into groups of three to explore the various paths that the U.S. presidents have taken as they prepare for the White House.

Part 2: The timeline
1. Invite students to view the timeline, two groups at a time, and have each group record some of the "rules" for reading the timeline (i.e. Each vertical line represents one year; the presidents' portraits are placed on the years of their birth; years in state legislature are designated with a lavender colored bar, etc.)

2. Discuss how to use the timeline as a source of information. Ask students some sample questions and have them practice "reading" the timeline to locate simple facts:

A start point: When was George Washington born?
An end point: What year did Thomas Jefferson end his service in the cabinet?
A time span: How many years did Martin Van Buren serve in the Senate?

Part 3: Synthesize Information
Continue with some higher order questions that require students to gather and synthesize two or more pieces of information from the timeline. Review together the steps necessary to answer the following questions:

  • Who was president when Ulysses S. Grant began his military service?
  • What was the sum total of years Ulysses S. Grant served in the military?
  • Which presidents were alive when Ulysses S. Grant was in the last year of his presidency?
  • Which president had the most service in state legislatures?
  • How many served in the cabinet immediately preceding their presidencies?

Part 4: Raise new questions
Finally, ask students to generate some new questions that are raised through their exploration of the timeline, for example:

  • Why was Ulysses S. Grant's military service interrupted?
  • Is serving in the cabinet a stepping stone to the presidency?
  • Of the six presidents that Dwight D. Eisenhower served under, whom did he admire the most?

Part 5: Evaluate the usefulness of a timeline
What information can the timeline offer, that a simple list of names and dates cannot? What information cannot be found on a timeline? What are a timelines limits?

Part 6: Explore the timeline
Have each group of students use the timeline to answer the following questions about the background and work experiences of our presidents. Student groups may work one or two at time, while other groups work on other projects or generate new lists of questions to explore through the timeline.

Small Group Activity: Travelling the Paths
Student Activity Handout

Directions: Answer the following questions with information from C-SPAN's American Presidents timeline.

a. Which presidents played a role in the founding of the U.S.? What presidents played a significant role? Explain your choices.

b. Which presidents had early executive experience as governors? Explain your answers.

c. Which presidents have a significant military career prior to becoming the commander in chief? Explain your answers.

d. Which presidents served as members of the legislative branch?

e. Which presidents served as vice-president of the United States?

f. Which president had the longest term in the White House?

g. Which president has had the longest running political career?

h. Which president served two non-consecutive terms as president?

i. Which president served as a Supreme Court Justice?

j. Which presidents had little or no political experience prior to the presidency?

Additional Activity: Study a president
Part 1: After groups have answered the questions, ask them to explore the background of one of the presidents in detail using the C-SPAN American Presidents web site, as well as reference books from the media center. Answer the following question: How did the president's prior experiences in public service prepare him to be president?

Part 2: After the students have completed their research, have them create a poster to display in the classroom with details and information that reveal how these early experiences may have prepared this individual for the presidency.

Additional Activity: Study the presidency
Ask students: What questions has your exploration of the timeline raised about the presidency in general? Solicit some responses and create new groups to answer one of those questions or one of the questions below. Students should answer the question with information from the timeline poster and additional resources.

a. What are the three branches of government and how do they interact? In what ways do these three branches of government act as a system of checks and balances to ensure that one branch does not assert inappropriate authority?

b. How might a legislative career effectively prepare a person to run for the presidency? What role does the president have in the drafting and passage of legislation?

c. How might experience as a governor prepare a person for the presidency? In what ways is the presidency different from a governorship?

d. How might military service be an effective indicator of success as the commander in chief? How might a person's military career be an effective indicator of leadership qualities or an ability to perform under difficult circumstances?

e. Why might it be difficult for a person with little political experience to attain the presidency? Why is public service an important first step in the pursuit of the presidency?

f. Why have few presidents served on the Supreme Court? Why did the founders decide to appoint the Supreme Court justices for life?

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