Closer Readings Commentary

How Teachers Can Make the “Most of The Roosevelts: An Intimate History”


To say the Roosevelts—Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor—had an influence on American history is an understatement. Their impact on America deserves a much deeper examination. The Roosevelt legacy begins in the final decades of the 19th century. The Civil War had ended and most of the United States was enjoying a burgeoning industrial revolution. The country had changed from a weak former British colony to a world power. The Roosevelt family traced its roots back to 1644 when Klaes van Roosevelt came to New Amsterdam from Holland and settled on Manhattan Island. Over the next 200 years, the family built its fortune on Manhattan real estate, banking, and trade and became prominent members of the patrician class. Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor were born into this family and could have been perfectly content to live the lives their mothers and fathers had established for them. Instead, they decided to go into public life and make the lives of other Americans better.

The Film

Ken Burns’ seven-part, fourteen hour film The Roosevelts: An Intimate History illuminates over 100 years of American history as the country transitions between “politics as usual” and reform, isolation and internationalism, a laissez faire economy and government regulation, and international war and peace. The film chronicles the history the Roosevelts helped to shape—from the Square Deal to the New Deal; San Juan Hill to the Western Front to D-Day; from the digging of the Panama Canal to the creation of the Tennessee Valley Authority; from the preservation of the Grand Canyon to the expansion of the National Parks; and from defeating the Axis Powers to the founding of the United Nations. Through their stories, the film explores how the three Roosevelts’ shared sense of stewardship of the American land, their unfeigned love for people and politics, and their uncanny ability to rally men and women to their causes.

The Roosevelts: An Intimate History also presents the individual lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor interwoven into a single narrative. Like a Shakespearian drama, the NEH-funded PBS series tells the tale of a single family with all its human flaws and virtues on display and the constant struggle between trying to do good and fulfill one’s duty. The Roosevelts were wounded people: things happened to them that they had to overcome—Theodore’s early childhood illnesses, Franklin’s polio, and Eleanor’s abusive childhood. Somehow, they learned how to overcome difficulties and that it was worthwhile to help other people overcome theirs.

Episode Descriptions

Each episode of documentary, from episode 1: “Get Action” 1858–1901, to episode 7: “A Strong and Active Faith” 1944–1962,encompasses a broad spectrum of the humanities though compelling photographs and newsreels, newspaper accounts, diaries and personal letters. The family bonds that shaped the individual personalities and how those bonds was strengthened and tested over time reads like a classic drama. In addition, the law, national politics, and governmental policies of both Roosevelt administrations are explored as they redefine the relationship Americans had with their government and with each other and redefine the role of the United States within the wider world. [To review individual episodes, follow the “Watch Videos” link, available at the end of the feature.]

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Educational Resources

The curriculum can be found at the website. [See the “Classroom” section link below]. Both full lesson plans and “Snapshot lessons” (lessons that can be completed in a period or two) are offered. In designing these lessons, authors Joan Brodsky Sure, Michael Hutchison, and Greg Timmons wanted to chronicle the lives of Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor Roosevelt and their 100-year influence on American history through the transformative events that surrounded them. At the center of the lessons are carefully selected video segments from the series that are posted on the lesson webpage and integrated into the classroom activities to highlight content themes and enhance student understanding. Lesson activities incorporate active learning to engage students in questioning strategies, stimulating discussions, and problem-based learning. Culminating activities provide students with opportunities to explore solutions and take action through civic engagement.

The lessons also integrate technology applications that are familiar and comfortable and provide students opportunities to share their creativity with broader audiences outside the classroom. The lessons are developed for grades 7–12 and can easily be adopted to other grade levels. All activities are closely aligned to content-based and Common Core standards that will be usable for many years to come. Here are some description of classroom-ready resources already available and to come.

Lesson Descriptions

President Theodore Roosevelt: Foreign Policy Statesman or Bully?

It’s January 6, 1919. Former President Theodore Roosevelt has died. Students take on the role of a newspaper editorial team developing a balanced assessment of TR’s foreign policy legacy. Students examine a compelling question: "To what extent did Theodore Roosevelt's record on foreign policy mar or enhance his record as U.S. president?" Students work as an editorial team, researching and evaluating the deceased president’s record, formulate a criteria, and publish a feature on Theodore Roosevelt’s foreign policy record.

Evolution of the Presidency: Theodore Roosevelt to Franklin D. Roosevelt

The two Roosevelt presidents expanded the powers of the Executive Branch as few presidents had before them. Both men believed government could do anything not expressly prohibited in the Constitution. In this lesson, students examine Article II of the Constitution and the actions of past presidents. Students discover that how much power presidents have is sometimes a matter of interpretation. Students then examine how the two Roosevelts exercised their power during their respective terms in office and then produce a documentary examining on one of the Roosevelt president's execution of power during a crucial time in history.

Universal Declaration of Human Rights

Eleanor Roosevelt dedicated her life to promote human rights. As a delegate to the new United Nations, she help draft the Declaration of Human Rights. Students will examine Eleanor’s legacy and the Universal Declaration of Student Rights, examining closely the responsibilities that come with guaranteed rights. In this lesson, students analyze the impact of the Declaration and Eleanor Roosevelt’s influence. They then develop a “Web 2.0” persuasive presentation in an effort to create a declaration of student human rights. Students will engage in a conference to discuss and debate ideas and make recommendations for a Universal Declaration of Student Human Rights.

Forthcoming Lessons

Civil Rights in the Era of the Roosevelts and Now

Both Theodore and Franklin Roosevelt faced issues on race during their presidencies and in their own way, tried to blaze a trail for civil rights. During these times, their sense of fairness and doing the right thing was severely tested. In this lesson, students analyze the different ways the Roosevelts addressed discrimination and civil rights. Then they examine issues of discrimination in their school or community—race, gender, or sexual orientation. Students are then given a chance to exhibit some leadership by formulating a plan to address these issues.

Restored to Useful Citizenship: FDR and the Effects of Polio on his Leadership

Since 1934, President Franklin D. Roosevelt spearheaded a fundraising drive every year to fight polio hosting a Birthday Ball on his birthday. FDR used these festive events, held throughout the country, to raise money for a cure for infantile paralysis, better known as polio. In this lesson, students will analyze the transformational effect polio had on FDR personally and how it affected his leadership. Students then analyze film clips, photographs, and written documents to assess the president’s leadership in relation to his experience with polio and write a culminating essay. In an extension activity, students have an opportunity to stage their own fundraiser in support of cause of their choosing.

Master of the Airwaves: How FDR used Radio to ease the Public’s Fears

Presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt used his iconic “Fireside Chats” to inform, comfort, and console the public leading them through the Great Depression and WWII. In this lesson, students will investigate FDR’s mastery of the airwaves by reviewing video clips from the series as well as listening to examples of his radio talks. They then research economic and political issues of the Depression and World War II eras and develop podcasts (21st century “fireside chats”) using “FDR style” techniques of persuasion.

New Deal Agitators: FDR takes on his Opposition

Not all Americans believed FDR’s New Deal policies were effective in solving the problems of the Depression. Some criticized the president for usurping too much power while others felt the New Deal policies had not gone far enough in helping people. Students analyze the wide ranging views of FDR’s political opponents and working in groups representing these views participate in a colloquium presenting and defending their positions.

Eleanor Roosevelt and Political Activism

Eleanor Roosevelt overcame a poor self-image to become one of the most influential women of the 20th century. Through her marriage to Franklin Roosevelt, her political career started and soon became a consuming passion. She used her position as First Lady to address issues of civil rights, labor reform, gender equality, veterans’ care, and political extremism. In this lesson, students will gain an understanding of who Eleanor Roosevelt was and the political influence she had. Students will examine her political evolution and some of the causes Eleanor fought for and formulate a presentation chronicling these causes and reporting on their status today.

Lessons in Leadership, Roosevelt Style

Though born into privilege, the Roosevelts cared little about social class. They loved the American people and embraced opportunities to help them. In this lesson, students will examine the leadership qualities and assess their own leadership abilities. They will explore major events of the two Roosevelt administrations where each president exercised leadership in challenging situations and create “Web 2.0” presentations on these events and the leadership the president displayed. They will then analyze one of these events and answer the question “What would you do if you were President?”

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Additional Resources on the Website

The website for The Roosevelts: An Intimate History contains many features that enhance viewers experience with the film and students exploration of the lessons. In addition to the section on classroom materials, the site also includes an episode guide; archival footage and photographs; information about the music in the series; online access to viewing the series; an interactive timeline; and an image gallery. The website will also serve as a base for the overall digital strategy with many interactive tools such as “Roosevelts on the Map” where viewers can share their connection to the Roosevelts legacy by posting a photo or video and “Email Postcards” to personalized email postcards using images from the series. 

Selected Links from the Website

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