Teachers can use this page as a resource to build lesson plans around the history and heritage of the White House. Most of the questions, discussions, and activities are aimed at grades 6 to 9, but some discussion points are appropriate for older students. Use the information on the Overview and Residence pages to discuss White House history. Use the information on the second floor and third floor pages to discuss the family residence rooms.
The White House Historical Association also has a classroom page with helpful aids you can download.
You clan also find high-resolution overview diagrams of the White House that you can print out as visual aids.
It was obvious that the president of the new United States would need a place to live, but it wasn't necessarily obvious that the government should provide a fancy house for him and his family. The vice-president didn't have a house until 1974, when Congress designated One Observatory Circle as the official residence of vice-presidents.
- Ask the students to discuss how George Washington saw the city of Washington DC as a grand seat of government.
- Discuss how the executive mansion would be a part of that vision.
- Pierre L'Enfant, the architect of Washington DC, originally proposed a mansion four times the size of the one Washington eventually approved. Ask the students why Washington did not ask for a palace and if, given how it has been expanded, it should have been much bigger in the first place.
"Each president adds a little something."
The construction of the White House lasted from 1792 to 1800 and beyond.
- Ask the students to speculate about why it might have taken so long to build the mansion and why President Adams would move into it before it was complete.
- Ask the students to discuss if the fact that the White House was not finished when John and Abigail Adams moved in contributed to the many additions it has had since then (conservatories, East and West Wings, third floor, expansion of the wings, etc.).
The White House was nearly destroyed by fire in the War of 1812. Later, President Truman had it completely gutted and rebuilt because it had become structurally unsound.
- Ask the students to speculate about why, on both occasions, the White House was rebuilt to be almost exactly the same.
- Discuss why many presidents have made big changes and additions to the White House aside from these reconstructions.
- Ask the students if the White House were destroyed today by a hurricane, would we rebuild it to look the same or would we build a whole new house for the president?
Congress has to approve all funding for repairs and additions to the White House; some first families have been successful at getting funding to make changes and others have not.
- Ask the students how this might have affected the size and luxury of the White House.
- In the late 19th century, the White House was thoroughly updated to the Victorian style. Ask the students why this might have been done and why Theodore Roosevelt removed all the Victorian ornamentation and decor when he renovated in 1902.
- Ask the students if they were in charge of the White House, would they update it to today's contemporary style?
First Cowpoke Quentin Roosevelt and friend Rosewell Flower Pinckney in 1902 (LOC - FBJ)
Many different families have lived in the White House. Some presidents had grandchildren and some had small babies. Some had a large family and circle of friends who stayed at the White House, and some hosted no one outside the president and first lady themselves. As a result, they have all used the White House rooms a little differently.
- Ask the students, if their parents were president, would they want to go to live in the White House or—if they were old enough—continue living in their regular home or on their own, and why.
- For those who would want to live in the White House, ask them which room they would like to live in.
The White House has many butlers, maids, cooks, and ushers, many of whom work at the mansion for many years and see many families come and go.
- Ask the students if they would like to have servants and how they would treat them.
- Ask the students to discuss what the servants might think of the many first families they've served in the White House.
The White House is surrounded by large lawns and gardens.
- Ask the students to discuss how this helps to keep the president safe and his family life private.
- Ask them what the situation would be like if the president lived in a building that was right on the street like a high-rise apartment building.
- The grounds include not only gardens but a tennis court, jogging track, swimming pool, putting green, horseshoe pit, basketball court, and more. Ask the students how they would use these facilities.
- President Carter's daughter Amy had a treehouse on the south lawn. The Kennedys had a trampoline and a swing. The Kennedys and the Theodore Roosevelts both kept their children's pony on the White House grounds. Ask the students what they would like to have in the president's back yard if they lived at the White House.
- The home of the Prime Minister of Canada is very secluded and little talked about. Ask the students why that might be and why that's not true of the President of the United State.
Presidential children have been married in the White House, held dance parties in the Sun Room and East Room, movie parties in the Family Theater; and proms in the East Room.
- Ask the students if they would like to host a party in the White House or have their wedding in the White House.
- Ask the students what kind of party they would host and what they would ask the White House staff to provide (cake and punch, famous musicians, etc.)
White House Offices
The president has the unusual situation of living in the same building where he works. Use the information on the Residence, East Wing, and West Wing pages to discuss the layout of the White House.
- Ask the students to discuss how this might affect the family life of presidents and the business of the nation.
- The president conducts the business of the nation out of offices in the West Wing. The first lady conducts the social affairs of the first family out of offices in the East Wing and/or the Residence. Ask the students how this allows them to manage the White House and their family life.
- Ask the students how they think this arrangement might change if a woman were president or if an unmarried man were president (there have been several non-spouse White House hostesses).
- The West Wing includes space for people who work for the news media. Discuss why presidents allow these people to work in the White House even though they are not paid by the president or the government.
There are many security features at the White House and all around the president and his family, and it is clear that they are unfortunately very necessary.
- Ask the students to speculate about how this might affect his personal and family life. Ask the students if they think all world leaders have similar security measures.
- Ask them to discuss if they would like to be surrounded by bodyguards wherever they go.
- Elliott Roosevelt, Margaret Truman and Susan Ford have all written mysteries set in their former home. Discuss why this might be and if the White House seems like a good place for a mystery story.
The making of a president
Ask for volunteers to run for president and spouse (some male, some female) and have the students elect a president after a short speech and supportive remarks from the "spouse." Assign students to be Secret Service bodyguards for both the president and the first spouse. Have the class act as the press and public and ask questions of the first couple about policy and family life (what programs and diplomacy will be pursued; how the White House will be redecorated, etc.). To answer each question, have the president or spouse walk over to the questioner... accompanied closely by the Secret Service agents.
West Coast House
Tell the students that the president has decided that future presidents should have a new residence and office on the West Coast to use part-time (or perhaps all the time while the original White House is preserved as a museum). Have them design and draw their own versions of what such a residence should be. Let them work in small groups to discuss if it should it be a western ranch, a contemporary mansion, an office skyscraper, or some other kind of facility.
The West Wing
Divide the students into small groups of 4 to 6 each. Have them choose from among them one to be president and one to be the press secretary. Ask the administrations to draft a public response (to be delivered by the press secretary) to the issue that you give each one on a slip of paper:
- The Secretary of Labor reports that the president's jobs program is not helping the economy as much as hoped. According to government figures, overall job figures are down 9%, although jobs just among minorities are up 6%.
- The president's daughter was reading a book at a state dinner, which some regard as an insult to the president's foreign guests (this actually happened to President Carter).
- The leader of US ally Luptova has begun massing troops on his border with US enemy Blarmoka. The two countries have a history of bad relations, and it would be advantageous for Luptova to take over Blarmoka, but the international community is against it.
- The president's son was arrested while protesting pollution from an industrial plant run by a major contributor to the president's campaign.
- According to a possibly-biased study by a women's group, the president's education policies have helped raise college enrollment overall by 4%, but enrollment among women is down 2%.
- In an overly candid moment, the president's assistant for domestic policy publicly criticized the president's handling of domestic issues.