Forgotten Presidents

In the last weeks of school, the other 8th grade US history teacher and I survey students to gauge their interest in topics we’ve haven’t covered that year. We then compile their responses and the teach classes on the topics that emerge as the favorites by class. Since we teach overlapping periods for most of our students. I’ll teach some of his students for the week and he’ll teach some of mine, depending on their interests. Some of the topics are four day seminars and some are one day seminars. This always feels like a crazy short time period for the topics, but students get exposure to topics they wouldn’t otherwise and I think the variety is welcomed as the school year winds down. The topics that were chosen this year for four day seminars are the history of comedy, history of/in the movies, and forgotten presidents. The one day seminars are history of music (that we haven’t already covered), history of sports, disability and GLBT rights, and history of computers.

The forgotten presidents topic is a new one for this year. It’s challenging to decide exactly who should be on the list, but the below list represents the presidents with which I think students will be least familiar. My goal isn’t necessarily for them to learn facts about these presidents, so much as to gain some general familiarity with presidents that aren’t often taught in any depth and consider why we remember the presidents we do.

Martin Van Buren (1837-1841)
William H. Harrison (1841)
John Tyler (1841-1845)
James K. Polk (1841-1849)
Zachary Taylor (1849-1850)
Millard Fillmore (1850-1853)
Franklin Pierce (1853-1857)
James Buchanan (1857-1861)
Rutherford B. Hayes (1877-1881)
James A. Garfield (1881)
Chester A. Arthur (1881-1885)
Grover Cleveland (1885-1889, 1893-1897)
Benjamin Harrison (1889-1893)
William McKinley (1897-1901)
William H. Taft (1909-1913)
Warren G. Harding (1921-1923)
Calvin Coolidge (1923-1929)
Gerald R. Ford (1974-1977)

Day 1

Take presidents quiz (circle names of those who have been president from a list of names, some presidents and some not), turn over and write down the names of all the presidents you can remember

Discussion in two large groups– What are the differences between these two lists? Why do we remember some presidents and not others?

Record on large sheet of paper (save for Day 4) and share with whole class

Discuss in smaller groups– What do people look for in a president? How has technology changed campaigning? Does physical appearance matter? (Heights of presidents and presidential candidates)

Day 2

Watch Animaniacs Presidents What types of facts does it highlight about each president?

Assign each student a forgotten president. Read his biography and develop a 30 second elevator pitch for that president. Cover at least the following…

*What time period in US history/what else important was going on?
*What political party did the candidate represent?
*Significant achievement/issue of presidency
*Fact people most likely to remember about this president

Have students deliver elevator pitches with the class. (Project a picture of each president from my computer as they pitch)

Day 3

Look at examples of campaign memorabilia from forgotten presidents

Van Buren Pull Card 
McKinley Paper Hat
Cleveland-Harrison Scales
Harrison Paper Lantern

Choose a forgotten president and create a campaign poster highlighting and (if time) a piece of campaign swag

Day 4

Quick 5 point quiz

Re-visit 1st day’s discussion- Have your opinions changed? What similarities do forgotten presidents have with well-remembered presidents (assassination, presidency during war time, good looks, popularity or infamy, etc.)

Watch segment of Michael Gerhardt on Morning Joe

Working with a partner- Create the ultimate (fictional) candidate. What would be the best set of characteristics/events to assure a president’s memory is preserved?

If needed for any of the four days…
Chicago Tribune Presidents Quiz 
Presidential Trivia
45 Odd Facts Video
Presidential Facts- History Channel 


One thought on “Forgotten Presidents

  1. I want to be in this class! I would not be able to shut up during these activities. There was definitely a period of time when the presidents seemed to be less important than the “robber barons.”

    I’m also struck by how this list syncs up with historian Sean Wilentz’s list of worst president. Two of his “worst” are on this list: Buchanan and Harding. (Wilentz made his list as a way of framing a discussion about whether or not George W. Bush ws actually the all-time worst. The article originally appeared in Rolling Stone, but it looks like it’s no longer free. Here is the NYT summary of it:

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