Grinding students through the barest, vital information is Herculean, but there are ways to make cleaning out the stables a hell of a lot more enjoyable. Besides air freshener, natch.

1. Break long lists into chunks.

Having trouble getting them through the presidents? If they first remember that Lincoln is the 16th president, they’ll have cut the amount of memorization they have to do in half. Introduce that method as a “march to the sea” and you’ll teach two historical concepts at once.

Thing is, once you have Lincoln down, Pierce and Buchanan before him come pretty naturally as “the guys who come before Lincoln,” and Johnson, Grant and Hayes as “the guys who come after.”

2. In general, convince them that there are easy items.

The secret, of course, is that Arthur is no easier to remember than Lincoln if you have never before heard of either. This way, they’ll be shamed into remembering at least one of the two.

3. If it’s chronological, work your way backward.

I first learned my presidents by starting with the most recent. Washington, Adams and Jefferson are just as easy to remember as recent presidents like H.W. Bush, Clinton, W. Bush and Obama.

4. Make items memorable.

Sure, this is easier for crazy-man and unthinkably democratic Jackson than it is for, say, Benjamin Harrison, but most presidents have some anecdote everyone “knows” about them. Upon hearing them, who could forget the apocryphal legend about Millard Fillmore buying a bathtub, or the true legend about fat ol’ Taft getting stuck in one?

5. It’s easier if the students have some background.

Before I even tackle the little stuff like who was president during the War of 1812 — Madison — I first get them grounded in the arc of American history. When were all those wars and all those famous dates in American history? Wars are fun to learn about, and are generally memorable. In my book, associating a name to something memorable is easier to do than associating something memorable to a name.

6. For maximum effectiveness, keep coming back to it.

After the first three weeks of the year, my students should have memorized every president and generally when he was in power. But that’s not all. They’ll take the quiz five or six times, and I’ll mix it up a little by having each successive quiz add a new column of information they should fill out on each president.

By the end of the year, they’ll also have learned how many terms each president was elected to, which war he presided over, whether or not he was assassinated, and the exact years he served as president.

As soon as I figure out how to upload them, I’ll go ahead and share the worksheets I’ve made up.

Any thoughts?


  1. Howabominable (aka Lindsey ^_^)

    I’ve always been interested in past US presidents, especially those in the 1800s, so I am always reading books about them, etc. Every president has had an issue or trial that he has presided over that the students can be made aware of. The more they know about a president, the more they will remember them.

    The Taft-bathtub story is a good one, but honestly Taft is known for a lot more and did a lot more in office so they don’t even need to lean on that little fact to learn about him.

    There are two books you might want to check out: “U.S. Presidents Factbook” by Elizabeth Jewell is the first. She painstakingly goes over every president, listing the normal facts such as date of birth, last words, the members of their cabinet, etc, and also goes into detail about their presidency – a majority of which is never talked about in normal school textbooks. It also talks about how the presidents lived their lives and a bit about who they were and how they grew up, not just how they served in office.

    If students are having trouble remembering presidents, remember that often the first ladies of these presidents are often just as interesting. There is a newish book that I bought a couple of years back called, “Secret Lives of the First Ladies” by Cormac O’Brien. It is similar to the first book I mentioned, only about the first ladies of every president (that had one) and their lives. This could be a useful tool as well.

    I’ve learned a lot from just reading these two books and I often re-read them just for fun. There are a lot of fascinating things about our less-known presidents that most people will never know about because they are not taught them in school.

  2. When we do our unit on social reform, we’ll cover Taft’s trust-busting and all that, but until we get to that point, the bathtub gets him on the radar.

    I used to have one of those factbooks when I was growing up. I read it a few times before losing it in my room.

  3. Katy

    Setting things to music can help too. Maybe there’s some way you could use the Animaniacs version of the list of presidents. (Grover Cleveland’s two terms get elided a bit.)

  4. I didn’t know there was such a song. See, I never actually watched the Animaniacs. My parents disapproved of the Saturday morning cartoon thing.

    My loss.




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