In my early American History curriculum, three complete units focus on individual presidents. Rather than just teaching students the facts about them I believe it’s important that we teach them how to evaluate the actions of a president – a far more useful tool in life.
That’s why I really enjoy my Jefferson’s Embargo lesson. It gives students the chance to compare the actions of presidents throughout American history, and gives me the opportunity to introduce them to more 20th century events that they have most likely never heard of before. Plus, we get to work on their skills of summarizing, collaborating and evaluating.
In this lesson, I use four readings from the Britannica Blog’s article “Top 10 Mistakes by U.S. Presidents.” It’s based on the book Failures of the Presidents: From the Whiskey Rebellion and War of 1812 to the Bay of Pigs and War in Iraq by Thomas Craughwell.
The four readings that I use are “Jefferson’s Embargo,” “Hoover’s Attack on the Bonus Army,” “Japanese Internment,” and “The Alien and Sedition Acts.” There are six others to choose from. You can see all of them here.
I break my students up into groups of three and four. Each student chooses one of the readings. If a group only has three students they still can choose to read any of the articles, but one person has to read Jefferson’s Embargo.
Once they have read their articles, they share out to their group and summarize the event for each other. Their goal is to then rank the events from the absolute worst event to the not-as-bad. I setup a page using my Smartboard so that they can physically come to the board and move the events into the order that they want. Each group is assigned their own color.
It’s a straight-forward lesson that really only requires a few copies and a Smartboard file. What I love is that there is no right or wrong answer. We discuss each of the events and why each group put the events in the order that we did but, in the end, nobody feels wrong.
It’s also very interesting to see how they determine what makes an action bad. Sometimes it’s the sheer number of people that are impacted that make it the worst. Sometimes it’s the shock value. But only the most astute students put the Alien and Sedition Acts as the worst. Those students are looking past the more tangible outcomes like number of people killed or amount of money lost. They understand that rights taken away once have the potential to be taken away again.
Here are some ways you can extend this lesson idea for different classes or styles:
- Would you like to avoid focusing on presidential mistakes? Pick some positive events for them to rank instead. You can certainly choose any other set of events that you would like!
- If you teach World History you can do the same with actions of monarchs. I’d love to try this lesson with the “Age of Absolutism,” and have them rank some of the actions of Europe’s greatest absolute monarchs – good or bad.
- If you don’t have a Smartboard, you could easily cut out the event titles on construction paper and tape them to the board. Students can still come up and move them into their order.
Which of the 10 events from the blog would you choose? Which other events from history would you add as alternatives?