Lesson Plans: Grades 6-8

Women in the White House

Created September 29, 2010


The Lesson


Women in the White House: First Ladies

In this lesson, students explore the role and impact of recent First Ladies through research and family interviews, then work in groups to present a documentary portrait to the class.

Guiding Questions

How have recent First Ladies contributed to American society?

Learning Objectives

  • To learn about the political and non-political careers of recent First Ladies.
  • To explore the possibilities and limitations of the position of First Lady.
  • To conduct historical research through oral history interviews.

Lesson Activities

Activity 1. What does the term "First Lady" mean?

Begin by talking with students about the First Lady. What do we mean by that term? Who is the First Lady today? Who are some other First Ladies the students may know about (e.g., Martha Washington, Eleanor Roosevelt)? What does the First Lady do? Explain that in this lesson they will learn more about the role of the First Lady by exploring one recent First Lady's career in the White House.

Activity 2. Set up research team

Divide the class into small research teams of 3-4 students and assign each team one of these recent former-First Ladies:

  • Barbara Bush
  • Nancy Reagan
  • Rosalyn Carter
  • Betty Ford
  • Pat Nixon
  • Lady Bird Johnson
  • Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis
Activity 3. Former First Lady research

Have students research their First Lady using the resources of the National First Ladies Library website on EDSITEment. Click the "Bibliography" button on the website's homepage for a visual index of all the nation's First Ladies, shown in chronological order. Click any picture to access bibliographic information about that First Lady, including lists of magazine articles, books, and manuscript collections, as well as a link to a brief biography of the First Lady at the White House website.

Activity 4. Formulate questions chosen First Lady's time in the White House

As they gather facts about their First Lady, have each student research team brainstorm questions they will ask older family members about the First Lady's time in the White House. Direct students to draw up a list of at least five questions that all members of the group will use as the basis of their at-home interviews. These should include:

  • Biographical questions about the First Lady's personality and memorable moments of her White House career.
  • Viewpoint questions about the issues she championed as a First Lady and her impact on public opinion.
  • Contribution questions that ask family members to sum up what the First Lady accomplished while in the White House or what she will be remembered for.
  • Assessment questions that ask how the First Lady compares to other First Ladies the family member has known.
Activity 5. Interview older family members who lived during chosen First Lady's time

Have each student team member interview one or two older family members who lived during the First Lady's time in the White House. Students can record their interviews using a tape recorder or video camera, conduct the interview by email, or simply take notes. Encourage students to ask family members for their personal impressions and memories of the First Lady in order to gain a sense of her relationship with the American public and the role she played in society.

Activity 6. Prepare a documentary portrait of chosen First Lady

After they have conducted their interviews, have each student research team prepare a five to ten minute documentary portrait of their First Lady for presentation to the class. These presentations should include:

  • A brief outline of events during the First Lady's time in the White House: major political and social developments, along with other historical landmarks.
  • A short account of the First Lady's accomplishments: issues she championed, programs she supported, policies she helped establish.
  • A description of the First Lady's influence on Americans of her time, based on the opinions and recollections gathered from the students' family members: What was she like? What did people think of her? Does she seem more or less significant looking back on those times today?
Activity 7. Class discussion: man as First Lady?

Close this lesson with a class discussion on how students think a man will fit into the First Lady's role when Americans elect their first woman President. To what degree is this a gender-specific role, a focus for public concern with stereotypically feminine issues (family, children, health, beauty, culture)? To what degree is it a role open to any "partner in power" willing to take advantage of the public forum afforded by the White House? Conclude this discussion by having students write a brief imaginative news story about a male "First Lady" of the future, describing what he would say and do on a visit to your community.

Extending The Lesson

Have students use the resources of the National First Ladies Library website to investigate how the role of the First Lady has changed throughout our nation's history. To what extent have our First Ladies reflected prevailing American attitudes about "a woman's place" in society? To what extent have they helped change attitudes?

The Basics

Time Required

2 class periods

Subject Areas
  • History and Social Studies
  • Literature and Language Arts > Genre > Biography
  • History and Social Studies > U.S. History
  • History and Social Studies > People > Women
  • Literature and Language Arts
  • Critical thinking
  • Gathering, classifying and interpreting written, oral and visual information
  • Internet skills
  • Interview/survey skills
  • Oral presentation skills
  • Research
  • Synthesis
  • Technology