I cannot tell a lie—Presidents’ Day is an incredible opportunity for ESL teachers.
You can teach interactive English lessons and discuss American history in one fell swoop.
Not to mention, American presidents are fascinating, important figures for students to learn about.
While Presidents’ Day is popularly celebrated by recognizing all American presidents, it began as “Washington’s Birthday” and is still officially celebrated as such in some states. No matter how it’s celebrated regionally, it’s always done on the third Monday of February in honor of George Washington’s actual birth date.
Don’t let this patriotic holiday pass by unnoticed!
As ESL teachers—especially for those of us in international classrooms who don’t get the day off—we can use this federal holiday as an excellent excuse to dive into American history, politics and culture. If you do get the day off, come back on Tuesday and start the class with the question: “Who knows why we had a day off from school yesterday?”
Here we’ll give you five fun classroom activities to get students psyched to learn more about English and the United States of America.
5 Star-spangled Presidents’ Day ESL Activities
1. Money Talks
One aspect of teaching students from around the world that I’ve always loved is talking about culture. Culture-oriented activities are always a hit with my ESL students—there’s nothing quite so interesting as learning about people in other countries, how they live, how they think and what they celebrate.
This activity does double the work, since it’s both focused on culture and discussion. In particular, you’ll start discussion on a topic that matters to them: Money.
No, I’m not saying your students are learning English for financial gain, or that they only care about money. I’m saying that money is a topic that everyone can relate to. It’s something we touch and use every day of our lives. Every student probably has a few bills or coins in their pocket as they sit in class, excited about the activity you’re about to present.
What a country puts on its cold, hard cash speaks to what’s important to them as a people, and for this reason many countries choose to display portraits of famous historical figures.
If you’re teaching ESL in the United States or a country where American currency is used, your students should be familiar with what’s on the money—but they may not know the history behind the chosen illustrations.
Here are some interesting topics you can cover in class. Every link below leads to a snippet of text or a documentary clip that your students will love:
- Benjamin Franklin
- Susan B. Anthony
- Andrew Jackson
- The American Bald Eagle
- The United States Treasury
Whether or not your students have ever handled American money before, be sure to bring in a few coins and bills—or print out some fake versions. You can bring out these play dollars and these play coins. As you hand out your play money, teach students who all the important figures are and what all the important symbols are.
The big activity we’re leading up to is: Who belongs on money? Who do they think deserves to appear on money? You can start with just American money and American people. Which American figures, modern or history, would they put on a new denomination? Make sure every student has a chance to present a new idea.
Finally, if there’s extra class time, give your students a turn to discuss by letting them tell their classmates what’s on the money in their home country and why those people and symbols are important. If they need more time to prepare, have them go home and chat with their parents so they can bring in a small amount of money from their home country—or perhaps they can print out or draw pictures if they don’t have any on hand—and you can host a little show and tell during your next class period.
2. The Father of Our Country
George Washington is commonly referred to as “The Father of Our Country.” It doesn’t have anything to do with his personal procreation, though at first glance it might seem that way. This might be tricky for ESL students to understand immediately, because this phrase is an idiom—a phrase whose meaning is something other than the literal combination of the words.
ESL students at all levels need to learn about idioms and how to use them. This is especially true for students currently living in the United States and learning English, as they’ll bump into idioms all the time. Introducing students to some political idioms on Presidents’ Day may be just the way to do it this week.
Start by writing on your board, “George Washington is the Father of our country.” Ask your students what they think that means. Clue them in if no one knows the correct answer. Then ask if they know any other political idioms.
You can find a good collection of political idioms here. Present them to your students either one at a time or in one big list. Ask your students to guess the meaning of each idiom.
Then give them a randomized list of the correct meanings. Have students work together to match each idiom to its definition before telling them the correct pairings of idiom and meaning. If your students work best together in one big group, then you can make flashcards or sheets of paper with the idioms and meanings that they can work together to pair up.
If you’d like, you can follow the discussion by asking your students to write a paragraph about the United States and its presidents by using as many of the political idioms as they can.
3. Get It in Writing
Our country is now celebrating our forty-fifth president. (Fun presidential fact: Only forty-four men have filled the office, but since Grover Cleveland served two non-consecutive terms he holds both the twenty-second and the twenty-fourth spot.)
In 2016, soon-to-be-President Donald Trump was named TIME Person of the Year. Here are some possible questions that you can ask students related to this:
- If the U.S. had a President of the Year every year, who should it be?
- Should “President of the Year” always be the current president, or should we take the time to honor those of the past. If so, why?
- Who should get the honor this year? Why?
- If the U.S. had a President of the Century, who would win for the 18th, 19th, 20th and 21st centuries?
Ask your students to do a little research on some U.S. presidents. You can either assign specific presidents to individuals or pairs of students—telling them they need to make the case why this president should be the president of the year, or president of their respective century—or let them choose a president their own. Then head to the computer lab or pull out your smartphones to read up on what these presidents did. You could also collaborate with the U.S. history teacher down the hall (if there’s one at your school) and borrow some history textbooks that cover all the presidents.
After they’ve done a little reading, ask students to choose who this Presidents’ Day president of the year should be. Have each student share their thoughts in a persuasive essay.
For the most effective essays, have your students follow this format.
- First Argument For
- Second Argument For
- Third Argument For
- Rebuttal (Arguments Against)
At the end of the day, share this fun presidents song from “Animaniacs.” It’s a little out of date, but gives a nice, catchy overview of most of the U.S. presidents—with English subtitles!
4. President for a Day
What would you do if you were president for a day? What would your students do? Would you even want the office for such a short term?
Ask your students what they think in a class discussion. Before or during your discussion, take some time to teach or review how to form future possible conditionals in English.
Then have each person write a campaign letter asking people to vote for them as president for a day. In the letter, they should be sure to articulate the things they’ll do as president. Encourage students to use the conditional form as they write. Post the letters on an empty wall of your room and let your students vote. Then let your winning president for a day make a few rules for use in the classroom.
Rather than focusing only on writing, you can also opt to have your students deliver their campaign promises out loud, in front of their potential voters.
5. Playing the Game of Politics
How much do your students know about the presidents of the United States? How much can they remember from a reading selection?
You can make learning about the U.S. presidents fun with this combination playing-and-reading activity.
Start by giving your students a short description of some or all of the U.S. presidents. You can find good information on each president here, on the official White House website. You might want to have each student take one or two presidents and then write down the key points about each president they research.
Then have your class work as one team or divide them into two teams for a presidential game of Guess Who? The object of the game is for students to guess which president you’re pretending to be by asking yes/no questions.
Each team should write the name of each president on an index card and lay the cards out in front of them. They should then take turns asking you yes/no questions about yourself as you pretend to be a specific president. Students can use the notes they took when reading about each president, but they can’t return to the original reading selections.
If you have two teams playing, choose a president for each team to discover. Whichever team figures out your presidential identity first wins the game.
I’m usually the kind of teacher who avoids politics in the classroom, but these fun Presidents’ Day activities are a way to bring in a little U.S. history and still get your students learning and using English.
Most of them take almost no preparation before class, and they focus on the more positive elements of American history, politics and culture.
There’s no better time to celebrate American history with one (or more) of these fun activities than Presidents’ Day!
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