Farmer George: The Seeds of a Presidency
Students pursue a process of inquiry to profile George Washington, evaluating the personal characteristics that made him a great leader while also exploring historical and modern food systems. Grades 3-5
Activity 1: Farmer George Plants a Nation
- Farmer George: The Seeds of a Presidency graphic organizer
- Farmer George Plants A Nation by Peggy Thomas
- Modern Marvels: World’s Largest Combine video
- How Flour is Made video
Activity 2: George Washington's Breakfast
- George Washington’s Breakfast by Jean Fritz
- Student notebooks
- Rise and Shine: What Kids Around the World Eat for Breakfast article
Activity 3: Memorializing Washington
- That’s Monumental handout
- Construction supplies including blank paper, markers, construction paper, and glue sticks
farmer: person who owns or manages a farm, cultivates land or crops, or raises animals
leadership: the position or function of a leader, a person who guides or directs a group
Did You Know?
- George Washington was not only a military leader and the first president of the United States, he was also a farmer.1
- In 1785, Washington received a male donkey, which he called Royal Gift, from King Charles III of Spain.1
- Washington bred donkeys with horses to create mules, which he thought every farmer should have because they were stronger than horses and more agile than oxen.1
Background Agricultural Connections
When a young George Washington took over his family’s farm at Mount Vernon, he faced many difficulties. Managing a plantation meant understanding and coordinating soil, seeds, climate, labor, market forces, and equipment. Tripling the size of the plantation (which he did at Mount Vernon) required something more: curiosity, observation, ingenuity, and attention to detail. Washington began his mission to improve Mount Vernon by researching what was already written about agriculture. Finding some of the plantation’s needs still unmet, he pioneered solutions for improving soil quality, increasing labor efficiency, and reducing loss during harvest. Washington also quickly recognized that producing tobacco for England and paying high taxes to import necessary goods in return was not a sustainable model. Accordingly, he turned the plantation’s purpose to meeting the needs of the local economy—a small step toward the American independence his leadership would later exemplify. Perhaps most importantly, Washington’s experiences as a farmer helped form his character, furthering his leadership abilities and preparing him to lead a “rag tag” group of colonists into battle, and then, a nation into peace.
George Washington is well known as a brilliant military leader. He spent eight years as Commander in Chief of Virginia’s troops during the French Indian War (1754-1763) and then led the Continental Army to victory in the American Revolution (1776-1783). During that time he was revered for his ability to appoint strong leadership, maintain positive relationships with local leaders, and hold together a struggling army. His careful oversight of battle tactics and coordination of forces against superior numbers was an important factor in the colonists’ success. Washington’s hard-earned reputation for insightful leadership, gained largely from these military campaigns, led to his unanimous election as first president of the United States.
Fashioning what it meant to be a president was an enormous challenge. Unable to rely on precedent, George Washington needed his ingenuity and conscientious powers of observation more than ever. It was up to him to establish policies and procedures his successors would follow, including: how to appoint and oversee an effective administration; how to negotiate between the widely varied issues facing each state and the national well-being; and how a president conducts him or herself to preserve the dignity of the office. As in his roles as farmer and general, President Washington had to understand and coordinate diverse needs. He did this by touring the newly formed nation, listening to local leaders, and sharing his own ideas.
George Washington died two years after his retirement to Mount Vernon, the place that ultimately forged the farmer, the general, and the president.
- Ask students to do a quick-write on the subject of “leadership.” If your students aren’t familiar with quick-writes, explain to them that they are to spend the entire time you allocate free writing. They can discuss what it means to be a leader, give examples of public leaders, describe personal experiences in leadership roles, etc. They don’t need to worry about giving one “right” answer, but should explore the concept.
- At the conclusion of the quick-write, engage in a brief group discussion about leadership. Ask students to share what they wrote or to just relate their ideas.
- When you feel that everyone understands the concept of leadership, explain to the students that they are going to learn about George Washington and how he became America’s first president and an enduring example of leadership.
Explore and Explain
Activity 1: Farmer George Plants a Nation
- Pass out copies of the graphic organizer Farmer George: The Seeds of a Presidency, and read aloud the book Farmer George Plants a Nation. Pause every couple of pages to give students time to fill in what Washington did and what he was like on their graphic organizers. Provide as much guidance in this process as you feel your students need. (Not every accomplishment and characteristic will fit in the organizer; help students focus on the main ones.)
- When you’ve finished reading the book, direct students to do a two-minute “turn and talk” with the person next to them. They should discuss what they think was Washington’s most important accomplishment, and what personal characteristics made him so successful.
- Guide the class in a discussion about Washington’s accomplishments and characteristics. Help students extend their thinking by challenging them to identify why each accomplishment was important and what consequences could have occurred had Washington failed. Aid them in making connections between characteristics and accomplishments.
- Discuss how being a farmer contributed to Washington’s leadership ability. Explain to students that 90% of working people in the United States worked as farmers in 1790. Today, just 2% of working people are farmers. Modern technology for growing, harvesting, and processing crops has become very efficient, allowing a small number of farmers to feed a large number of people.
- Remind students of the strong mules that Washington bred (p. 23 in Farmer George Plants a Nation) and the innovative barn that he designed for treading wheat (p. 26). In Washington’s time, animals did a lot of work for farmers. Today, most of that work is done by machines that are bigger, faster, and more powerful than mules and horses. Show students the videos Modern Marvels: World’s Largest Combine and How It’s Made: Flour, and ask them to compare and contrast these modern technologies with those that Washington developed.
Activity 2: George Washington’s Breakfast
- Ask students to think about and recount what they ate for breakfast. Explain that not everyone around the world eats the same things, and today you are going to talk about what breakfast can say about a culture or a person.
- Project the article Rise and Shine: What Kids Around the World Eat for Breakfast. (If you do not have access to a projector-computer combo, consider visiting the website before class and printing off some of the pictures and information.) Show students the pictures and go over some of the breakfasts together. Point out some of the traditional foods pictured. Discuss the difference between a traditional breakfast and the type of breakfast an individual may consume on any given day. You may ask students to compare and contrast their own breakfast of choice with one or more of those shown.
- Read aloud George Washington’s Breakfast, a book about a boy who had this question: What did George Washington eat for breakfast? Note: this book is 48 pages long; pace the readings according to the specific needs of your class. Tell students that it is their job to record in their notebooks as many new facts as they can about George Washington.
- When you have finished the book, ask students to count how many new facts they learned. See who found the most facts and ask that student to share their list as a jumping-off point for discussion. List the facts on the board and spend a few minutes letting other students contribute until the list feels complete. Help with specific dates where necessary. As your class discusses the book, you might pose some of the following questions to your students:
- How has our understanding of President Washington changed with this new information?
- George Washington ate a much smaller and simpler breakfast than many of the other people who lived in this time—what might that suggest about his personality?
- What different sources did George Allen use in order to find the answer to his question?
- How can we find answers to our own questions about history? (There are more resources than just the internet.)
- Have students practice synthesizing information by writing biographical sketches of George Washington. They can refer to the facts listed on the board. Encourage them to use proper paragraphing, sentence structure, and punctuation.
Activity 3: Memorializing Washington
- Explain to students that the President needs their help! An earthquake occurred overnight and has destroyed the old Washington Monument. The President is looking for creative visionaries to make plans for a new one.
- Pass out or project a copy of the That’s Monumental handout to students. Go over the directions on the handout with students and then divide them into groups of three or four.
- Give students 15 minutes to discuss or sketch a rough draft plan for their monument. Adjust the time for this step as necessary for your students.
- Provide students with blank paper, markers, construction paper, and glue sticks. Keep the books Farmer George Plants a Nation and George Washington’s Breakfast available for reference so that students can go back to the texts for additional details.
- Allow students to work on their monument design for 20-30 minutes. Monitor their activity and redirect as necessary.
- Have each group present their monument to the class.
- Hold a secret ballot to vote on which design should become the new monument. Announce and congratulate the winner. Discuss as a class how the winning design best matched the desired criteria.
- Display all monument designs in the classroom.
Analyze George Washington’s Breakfast, and use it to generate a class pattern for researching important questions. Use this as a lead-in for a research unit, project, or essay.
Provide students with information about seeds, soil, climate, companion planting, and planting zones. Have them design their own gardens to feed their families.
Make a modern version of “Hoe Cakes,” as mentioned in George Washington’s Breakfast, for students to try. Use this Johnny Cake (another term for Hoe Cakes) recipe to make and prepare on a griddle in your classroom.
Have students write a letter to the President and ask what he or she eats for breakfast.
After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
- George Washington was a farmer, general, and America's first President.
- George Washington managed his family's farm at Mount Vernon where he pioneered solutions for improving soil quality, increasing labor efficiency, and reducing loss during harvest.
- Washington bred mules to work on his farm. In Washington's time, animals did a lot of work for farmers. Today, most of that work is done by machines.
- Farmer George Plants a Nation by Peggy Thomas