American Presidents

American Presidents Teacher Guide and Classroom Results:
Poetry and the American Presidents

This Teacher Guide was developed by 1999 C-SPAN High School Teacher Fellow Steven Vetter and is based on poems written by Mrs. Marino's 5th grade class at Kingston Elementary in Kingston, MA where C-SPAN is provided by Adelphia.

"Poetry can be a very effective way to allow students to respond to what they are learning about the American presidents from C-SPAN's American Presidents: Life Portraits. Students can create poems about the life of an individual president, they can respond to an event in the life of a president by writing a poem, or they can creatively use poetic images to relate what they have learned about a particular president.

It is important to show young students that poetry is essentially playing and manipulating language in fun ways. Students can be reminded that poetry can be used to tell a story or to express feelings and emotions. But most of all, poetry should be fun. One exercise which children enjoy is using the names of the presidents to create lines of poetry." - Steven Vetter

The Poem Activity

Note to teachers: Use the following three steps to design and implement a lesson on poetry and the American presidents.

Part 1 - Research the Presidents' Lives
Familiarize your students with the lives of the American presidents through various sources, including C-SPAN's American Presidents series and web site.

Students may choose to focus on one president or several presidents for their research.

Part 2 - Choose and Complete a Poetry Activity
Have students choose from one of the following six poetry activities so that they may focus their research.

Activity A
Write a line of poetry about a president or the presidents by using the names of that president as part of your poem. You can turn the president's name into everyday English words. Examples from Mrs. Marino's 5th grade class, Kingston Elementary, Kingston, MA.

I will fill more of the candy in the bucket tomorrow. - Jessica Marsh

"Mommy, Will I ever go to the White House and see the president?" "Of course you will, son." - Katie Murphy

Don't be mad. I sonared the dolphin so that I didn't lose track of it. - Dan Hurley

Let's go outside and see the green bush, son. -Kevin Pratt

Did you buy a Hoover vacuum cleaner? - Marcus Smolic

Why can Edy sleep over and Sally cannot. - Marah Joelle Strickland

George was washing a ton of clothes when he smelled a cherry bud under his nose. - Kyla Bossung

"Whose son is that?" "Oh, that's John's son." - Molly Colter

I am washing tons of cars this weekend. - Jacquelyn Shuster

"You are getting older." "Really, how can you tell?" Your face is getting harry, son." - Chloe Chasse

I am selling Ford cars for a life! - Catherine Cleveland

Please, my son, fill more of that water in the pail. - Patrick Calter

"Did you do your homework, son" "Yes, mom." "Then you are a true man." - Jessica Sheridan

Activity B
Experiment with creating images or written snapshots that show the reader a moment captured in time. What might be some important snapshots in the lives and careers of some of our presidents that could be used to create interesting poems or images?

Snapshots to consider:

* President Washington at the inauguration of John Adams
* President Lincoln delivering the Gettysburg Address
* President Franklin Roosevelt immediately after his first meeting with Winston Churchill and Joseph Stalin
* President Truman's decision to drop the atomic bomb
Instruct students to consider a moment in the life or career of the particular president that they would like to capture in a poem. If you could choose one event in the life of this president, what would it be? Why would you choose this event? What mental images does this event evoke in the mind of the student? What are some descriptive adjectives that can be used to describe this event? What does this event reveal about the personality or character of the president?

Activity C
Create a simile or metaphor to describe a president. A simile is a comparison using the words like or as, and a metaphor is a direct comparison of two things (that does not use like or as.)

Based on what you have learned about a particular president, have the students create a simile or metaphor for the president.


President Lincoln was as honest as a __________?
President Taft was as large as a __________?
President Truman was as sincere as __________?

Activity D
Using your knowledge about a president, create an acrostic poem. In acrostic poems, the students create a short line or a word that starts with each letter of the president's name. These words may be adjectives or traits that describe that president, or they may be words that are associated in some way with that president.

Example: This is an acrostic poem written with traits that could be used to describe President Eisenhower.

E nergetic I nteresting
S oldier
E nthusiastic
N eeded the help of the Congress
H onorable
O rdered the citizens of Germany to visit concentration camps
W ar hero
E ntered politics as a result of his popularity as a war hero
R espectful

After the students have created their acrostic poems, ask them to share their work with the rest of the class. Remind them to be able to explain the traits and descriptive phrases that they used.

Activity E
A bio-poem can be a way for your students to demonstrate what they have learned about the president they are studying.

Students should use the following prompts to create the lines of their poem.

Name of president:
Three traits
Related to:
Who cares deeply about:
Who feels:
Who needs:
Who gives:
Who fears:
Who would like to see:
Resident of:

For example, the following bio-poem is about President Lincoln:

Abraham Lincoln
Tall, honest, committed
Related to Mary Todd Lincoln
Who cares deeply about preserving the Union
Who feels that he has a tremendous job
Who needs an aggressive general
Who gives attention to his children
Who fears that his wife is unstable
Who would like to see the emancipation of the slaves
Resident of Springfield, Illinois

Activity F
Older students will also benefit from reading poems that American poets have written about individual presidents or have responded to an event in that particular president's administration. For example, Walt Whitman has several poems that were written after the assassination of President Lincoln. Two such poems are "Oh Captain, My Captain" and "When Lilacs Last at the Dooryard Bloom'd". After you read these poems aloud in class, ask the students to consider the following questions:

  • What important event compelled the poet to write this poem?
  • What poetic images does the poet use to convey his feelings? Are similes or metaphors used?
  • Describe the poet's use of symbols or themes. How are these symbols used to convey the poet's message?
After the students have read several poems based on the life of a president or on an incident in that president's life, encourage them to write their own poems in which they express their thoughts or feelings about that president or have them respond to a particular incident in the life or administration of that president.

Part 3 - Share Your Poems
1. Consider sending in a poem as an entry to C-SPAN's American Presidents contest
2. Display your poems along side portraits of the president in a museum exhibit in your class
3. Set up a poetry reading, attended by students from other classes.
4. Write a letter to the presidential library, the descendents of the president, or another site associated with the president in your poem. Include a copy of the poem, and explain why you wrote it.

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