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Teacher's Guide: Suggestions for Active Learning

Abigail with young John reading John and Abigail Adams offers insights into topics in American history including the birth of American democracy, the American Revolution, life in the colonies, the Founding Fathers, the branches of government, policymaking, lawmaking, politics, and the election process. Use part or all of the film, or delve into the rich resources available on this Web site to learn more, either in a classroom or on your own.

The following activities are grouped into four categories: history, government, society, and politics. You can also read a few helpful hints for completing the activities.


History | Government | Society | Politics

  1. Which Founder was which? Hold a class contest to see which student knows the most about four of the Founding Fathers: John Adams, George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, and Benjamin Franklin. First, divide the class into four groups and assign each group one of these persons. Each group must prepare ten questions highlighting this person's life, achievements, and personality. All questions should follow the same format as this sample: I was the nation's first President. Who am I? A: George Washington.

    Submit your questions to your teacher for approval. When all of the groups' questions have been approved, the teacher should mix them up and read them one at a time to the class. Each student should write down the answer to as many questions as he or she can. See which student gets the most correct answers.

  2. Imagine that with the 50th anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence approaching, John Adams and Thomas Jefferson had been well enough to meet one final time. What might they have said to each other?

    Working with a partner, write the dialogue of a conversation in which the two men look back on their lives, recall their proudest moments and their greatest regrets, and remember the high and low points of their long friendship. Then have each team read the dialogue for the class. How similar are the ways in which the teams portray the two men?


History | Government | Society | Politics

  1. Read about the Alien and Sedition Acts, and take the Online Poll on whether Adams should have signed them. Then with copies of the Alien Act and Sedition Act in front of you for reference, discuss as a class the specific parts of the Acts that you think were (or were not) justified.

    Next discuss as a class the degree to which the United States today faces the same kinds of challenges it did in 1798, such as a conflict against dangerous foreign enemies and growing bitterness between the political parties. What are the similarities and differences between the two situations? Keeping your discussion about the Alien and Sedition Acts in mind, would you support anti-terrorism laws that would allow the government to:

    • find out what books you have taken out of the library or what movies you have rented;

    • deport a non-citizen who associates with terrorists, even if the person did not know they were terrorists;

    • jail a non-citizen whom the government believes to be a threat to national security, without having to prove to a court that the person is dangerous; or

    • stop and search people in airports, trains, and buses simply because they appear to be ethnically Middle Eastern?

    Give your reasons for supporting or opposing each of these measures.

  2. Adams's Thoughts on Government Letter and his annotations to Mary Wollstonecraft's book on the French Revolution show that while Adams was a revolutionary, he was not an idealist when it came to human nature. Review those two documents and copy any passages in which Adams discusses the danger of assuming that individuals or organizations will not be tempted to abuse their power. How did Adams propose to prevent government from abusing its power?

  3. Then review the events that transformed Adams from a loyal British subject into one of the most forceful advocates of revolution. Is it surprising that someone who believed strongly in law and order eventually became a forceful advocate of rebellion? Explain how you think this came about.


History | Government | Society | Politics

  1. How did John and Abigail Adams make their marriage work for more than half a century, and what lessons could they teach us today? As a class, prepare a "how to" manual on a successful relationship based on the Adamses' marriage. Draw on material relating to their courtship, their letters, the timeline of their lives, their son John Quincy Adams, and their other children.

    You could structure the manual as an imaginary conversation between John and Abigail, as a set of "dos" and "don'ts" for a successful relationship that uses their marriage as an example, or in some other way. Be sure to address the kinds of challenges their relationship faced (such as his long absences and the sometimes-troubled lives of their children) and how they tried to meet those challenges.

  2. To get a broader sense of the era in which John Adams lived, divide the class into five groups -- representing the fields of art and architecture, music and painting, literature and philosophy, science and medicine, and war, politics, and exploration -- and have each group find at least five persons who made great contributions in this field between 1735 and 1826. Each group should present its findings to the other groups along with a sample of the person's work, such as a brief excerpt from a novel, a passage from a symphony, or an explanation of how a new invention worked. Then list these persons and their accomplishments on a timeline, along with the major developments in Adams's life.


History | Government | Society | Politics

  1. While there have been frequent complaints about the negative, personal tone of modern politics, the writings of James Callender show that "attack politics" is at least two centuries old. Imagine that the class is a committee of citizens that has been appointed to create a set of rules forbidding certain kinds of negative statements about a presidential candidate during a campaign. (These rules would be voluntary; the committee would ask political parties and news outlets to agree to follow the rules in the interests of promoting more positive campaigns.)

    To begin, have the committee discuss and vote on whether Callender's statements about Adams should be considered acceptable under these voluntary rules. Then consider whether Callender's statements about Jefferson and Sally Hemings, if they had been made during a presidential campaign, would be considered acceptable.

    You then might want to consider certain hypothetical situations. For example, do you think it should be acceptable to mention:

    • a candidate's past history of drug or alcohol abuse, if there is no indication that the problem still exists?

    • a candidate's previous extramarital affair?

    • a candidate's past treatment for depression?

    • criticisms of the candidate by family members, close friends, or an ex-spouse?

    • information about any health problems the candidate may currently have?

    • opinions the candidate has expressed on issues that he would not deal with as President?

    • information about the candidate's religious beliefs?

    • information about personal or legal problems experienced by members of the candidate's family?

    Using your conclusions from these discussions, list the kinds of statements you would ask political parties and media outlets not to circulate. You should not try to list every specific statement that would not be allowed; instead, you should provide general guidelines on what is not acceptable.

    When you are done, consider how voluntary rules like these might change the tone of an election campaign. Do you think they might cause the campaign to be more educational and issue-oriented, or simply less interesting?

  2. In his decision to defend British soldiers accused of shooting civilians in the Boston Massacre and in his later decision as President to continue seeking peace with France despite the XYZ Affair, John Adams did what he thought was right at the risk of his popularity and his career.

    To examine other potential "profiles in courage," divide the class into five groups and assign each group one of the following presidential decisions: Jimmy Carter's decision to hand over control of the Panama Canal to Panama, Ronald Reagan's decision to fire air-traffic controllers after they went on strike, George H.W. Bush's decision to break his "no new taxes pledge" and raise taxes, Bill Clinton's decision to push for national health care, and George W. Bush's decision to invade Iraq. Each group should prepare a five-minute presentation for the class in which it explains the circumstances of the decision, why the decision was potentially risky, and what price (if any) the President paid for his decision. In the group's opinion, does this count as a courageous decision? Why or why not?

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John & Abigail Adams American Experience

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