As Inauguration Day draws near, many educators are wondering how to address the ending to one of our most controversial election cycles. Instead of focusing on who won the election and who didn’t, consider teaching about the inauguration itself with a critical literacy lens. This non-partisan approach acknowledges history in the making while also acknowledging the history that led up to this point.
You can start by teaching about what occurs during an inauguration. Inauguration Day usually includes nine activities planned by the Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies. USA.gov provides a comprehensive overview of Inauguration Day routines and traditions that you can review with students.
One tradition many presidents have upheld is to choose words and actions to unite the country in a common goal and purpose on this day. One example can be found in Richard Nixon’s choice to have public prayers led by Christian, Jewish and Greek Orthodox ministers. Ask your students what message they think Nixon was sending and how a modern president attempting to send the same message might do so. Have students research other inaugural acts and discuss their findings with each other.
Inaugurations can also be a time for a new president to make a significant symbolic gesture. Abraham Lincoln invited African Americans to march in his second inauguration in 1865, a presidential first. Fast-forward to President Barack Obama’s second inauguration in 2013 when he swore his oath on two Bibles, one owned by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and another used by Lincoln at his 1861 inauguration. Ask your students: How did this act symbolize the significance of our nation’s first African-American president? If you were president, what symbolic gesture would you make to show the American people the type of president you would be?
Of the inaugural traditions that have developed over the years, one is constitutional: The president-elect is required to pledge an oath before they can assume their duties as president. However, the oath is a mere 35 words long. Have students break down the oath and come up with revisions: Should the president’s oath mention specific groups of people, concepts or ideals for the office to uphold? Can you think of examples in which presidents have not upheld the oath when it comes to certain groups of people, concepts or ideals?
A more recent tradition is that of poets reciting their work during the inaugural ceremonies. Robert Frost was the first, reciting “The Gift Outright” at John F. Kennedy’s 1961 inauguration. The next instance of an inaugural poetry reading didn’t happen again until 1993, when Maya Angelou famously read “On the Pulse of Morning” during Bill Clinton’s 1993 ceremony. Each of these poems emphasizes unity and the individual being a part of something greater together. Angelou said about her inaugural poem, “In my work, in everything I do, I mean to say that we human beings are more alike than we are unalike, and to use that statement to break down the walls we set between ourselves because we are different.” Have students read or listen to different inaugural poems and analyze their respective purposes through close reading and engaging tasks and strategies.
Inauguration Days of the past have seen their fair share of demonstrations, and 2017 is no different. For instance, a Women’s March is planned for the day after the inauguration this year. Tie this march in with other marches on Washington, and discuss how protest and resistance have played pivotal roles in our country’s history. The women’s suffrage parade, held the day before Woodrow Wilson’s inauguration in 1913, is an excellent example. Using these events as case studies, discuss women’s involvement in social justice movements and introduce your students to some female activists they may not be familiar with.
Inauguration Day is also a chance to teach about the long road to the White House. Many facets of the electoral process are unique to the United States, from winner-take-all primaries and caucuses to the Electoral College. Consider taking students through interactive videos and graphics that explain these processes. Then, encourage them to think about the right to vote and voting access. In spite of constitutional voting rights, American history is riddled with struggles to actualize those rights and with examples of widespread voter disenfranchisement for a number of groups, including American Indians, African Americans, Mexican Americans, women and former convicts. The Voting Rights Act of 1965 is considered one of the most far-reaching pieces of civil rights legislation, yet its power was recently diminished and it continues to be challenged to this day. Encourage students to critically analyze our voting systems for misrepresentation and equal voice.
For more ideas about how to approach the inauguration, see “Countdown to January 20.”
Mascareñaz is the director of Equity Affairs for Wake County Public Schools and a former teaching and learning specialist for Teaching Tolerance.