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Portraits Of Power: American PresidentsPortraits-Of-Power-American-Presidents

  • Subject: U.S. History
  • |
  • Grade(s): 9-12
  • |
  • Duration: Two class periods

Lesson Plan Sections


Students will
  • Discuss the role of the presidency in the United States.
  • Consider the people's relationship to the presidency, referring to evidence in the program.
  • Write an essay describing the presidency, the people's relationship to it, and why presidential decisions can result in strong reactions.



  1. Ask students: What role does the president play in the U.S. government? Record students' ideas on a sheet of newsprint so you can refer to it at the end of the lesson. Answers may include the following:
    • The president is the most important person in the government.
    • He runs the country and makes many important decisions.
    • He is the commander-in-chief of the armed forces.
    • He works closely with the other branches of government.
  2. View the "Crime-Scene Investigations: The White House" segment in the Portraits of Power: American Presidents program .
  3. Divide students into small groups and explain that they will discuss the role of the presidency as portrayed in the program. Suggest that they start the discussion by answering the following questions:
    • What actions did each of the presidents discussed in the segment-Abraham Lincoln, James Garfield, Zachary Taylor, and Richard Nixon-take that provoked strong responses from individuals?
    • What do the actions of these individuals tell you about the relationship between some members of the public and the presidency?
    • Based on what you saw in the segment, has the role of president changed since George Washington's presidency?
    • Could the kind of incidents relayed in the program happen again? Why or why not?
  4. Give students time in class for the group discussions. Then have each student write an essay expressing his or her opinion about the role of the presidency, the public's relationship to the presidency, why incidents described in the segment took place, and whether they think these incidents could happen again. To supplement the information from the program, send students to the following Web sites.
  5. During the next class, have students share their essays and discuss their ideas. What do they think about the role of the presidency? About the public's relationship to its highest official? Do they think such incidents could happen again?
  6. Conclude by reviewing the ideas recorded on the newsprint at the start of the lesson. What do students know now that they didn't know before? How have their ideas about the presidency changed?

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Use the following three-point rubric to evaluate students' work during this lesson.
  • Three points:  Students were highly engaged in class and group discussions; developed a deeper understanding of the role of the presidency in the United States; produced a compelling essay, with all the requested components.
  • Two points:  Students participated in class and group discussions; developed a somewhat deeper understanding of the role of the presidency in the United States; produced an adequate essay, with most of the requested components.
  • One point:  Students participated minimally in class and group discussions; did not increase their understanding of the role of the presidency in the United States; produced an incomplete essay with little or none of the requested components.

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James Garfield
Definition: The 20th president of the United States; he was shot on July 2, 1881, by Charles Guiteau, an emotionally unbalanced individual who was unhappy that he had not been appointed consul in Paris.
Context: James Garfield died on September 19, 1991, as a result of poor medical care after having been shot 80 days earlier.

Abraham Lincoln
Definition: The 16th president of the United States who saw the country through the Civil War; he was assassinated by John Wilkes Booth on April 14, 1865.
Context: Historians continue to debate whether the assassination of Abraham Lincoln was the act of a single man-John Wilkes Booth-or whether there was a planned conspiracy in place.

Richard Nixon
Definition: The 37th president of the United States and the only president ever to resign from office; his involvement in the Watergate burglary and his attempts to cover up the crime led to his removal from office.
Context: Samuel Byck planned to assassinate Richard Nixon, and his weapon-a commercial airliner-eerily foreshadowed the September 11, 2001, attack on the World Trade Center.

Definition: The chief executive of the United States, responsible for leading the country, working with Congress to pass laws, and leading troops in time of war
Context: The presidency in the United States is one of the most powerful jobs in the world, and many people aspire to this office.

Zachary Taylor
Definition: The 12th president of the United States who died of mysterious causes on July 9, 1850.
Context: As suspicious as Zachary Taylor's death appeared, most scientists now believe he died of natural causes, possibly from bacteria in the milk or the sudden onset of a severe ulcer.

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Academic Standards

Mid-continent Research for Education and Learning (McREL)
McREL's Content Knowledge: A Compendium of Standards and Benchmarks for K-12 Education addresses 14 content areas. To view the standards and benchmarks, visit
This lesson plan addresses the following national standards:

  • Historical Understanding -Understands the historical perspective
  • Language Arts: Viewing -Uses viewing skills and strategies to understand and interpret visual media

The National Council for the Social Studies (NCSS)
NCSS has developed national guidelines for teaching social studies. To become a member of NCSS, or to view the standards online, go to
This lesson plan addresses the following thematic standards:

  • Time, Continuity, and Change
  • Individual Development and Identity

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