Historical Figure Presentations

This semester in my upper-level early national and Jacksonian US class (1790-1848), I tried out an alternative to a short paper: oral presentations on historical figures which focused in on one primary source by that figure. Students chose from a list of figures I provided that would mesh well with the reading for that week, and I gave a sample presentation early in the semester to model what I was looking for. To encourage students to take notes, I gave them notetaking worksheets and explained that they could bring these to the midterm and final. They would serve as cheat sheets for short answer questions asking them what selected pairs of figures would discuss. You can skip down to the prompt, or read about pluses and minuses first.

Some big advantages of this kind of project:
-it’s student-centered learning–not just a buzzword, but something the students specifically said they liked
-gives students a stake in the work–some of them got really excited about the people they researched
-encourages independent research and analysis of primary sources
-builds public speaking skills
-less grading–I filled out a rubric as they spoke and just made a few additional notes before giving a grade
-created a very successful set of exam questions which drew out thoughtful and creative replies

Some challenges:
-getting students to use books and scholarly articles; perhaps setting a required number would help
-students often found great images of historical documents online, but if the transcription wasn’t posted with the images, they didn’t do good research to find it (esp. if it was only available in a book)
-they generally copied the format of my sample talk
-the biggest miss was on the supplemental images, objects or documents–they would show images, often from later eras, as illustrations but failed to analyze them

Assignment Prompt

For this assignment, you will choose one historical figure from the list of options for your chosen date and find one primary source document by or about that person. You will then craft an oral presentation that connects the person and source to that week’s theme.

Your presentation must include:

  • Brief background on the life and significance of the historical figure
  • One primary source document, a copy of which you can post digitally or hand out paper copies
  • Two supplementary images, objects, or documents
  • Analysis of your source and supplementary items in connection to the theme and reading for that week
  • Visuals of some sort, via handouts or digital presentation
  • Bibliography of web and scholarly sources

The presentation can take any form you would like: a powerpoint with a talk; an historical reenactment; a short film or media presentation. You may work individually or in pairs. Individual presentations should last 7-10 minutes, while those crafted by a pair should be 15 minutes.

A list of websites and databases which will be useful for locating primary sources is available on Canvas. Cite all sources. Your biography should draw from reputable scholarly sources; do not rely on websites.

You will also take notes on each presentation on a worksheet, which you will be able to bring with you to the midterm and final.


I scored the presentations based on the following:

  • Presentation
  • Enthusiasm
  • Visual Aids
  • Organization
  • Primary Sources and Supplements
  • Knowledge of Content

Figures as options, by week:

4: Thomas Jefferson, Aaron Burr
5: Abigail Adams, Mercy Otis Warren, Judith Sargent Murray, Phyllis Wheatley
6: James Monroe, John Quincy Adams, Tecumseh
8: Nat Turner, Harriet Jacobs, William Lloyd Garrison
10: Joseph Smith, Charles Finney, John Jacob Astor, Robert Fulton
11: Andrew Jackson, Henry Clay, Margaret Eaton, John Ross (cherokee chief)
13: Ralph Waldo Emerson, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Elizabeth Peabody, Emily Dickinson

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