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November 22, 2013, is the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. The unforgettable events of that day and the devastating aftermath that followed have been investigated, reviewed, and debated over and over again and likely will be for years to come. Television specials, magazines, books, newspaper articles, and online resources currently inundate the marketplace and continue to tweak the public conscience. How should teachers approach this very sensitive American story with their students? Here are some ideas.
Approach 1: Use the anniversary of the assassination to organize an oral history project for students to interview their teachers, grandparents, or other people who were old enough to experience the emotions of that day. Many members of the baby boom generation vividly remember "where they were when Kennedy was shot." This assignment is a simple but effective way for students to connect with their elders and to gain insight about how people their age responded to such national and personal events in a previous generation. Ask class members to brainstorm and identify thought-provoking questions that each can ask interview subjects so that the responses will follow a common theme. Students can share the individual stories in a class project through mini exhibits, a publication with interview excerpts, a Reader's Theater-style presentation, or even a class YouTube documentary.
- For a great oral-history-project curriculum that guides students through research and interview preparation, check out Oral Histories in the Classroom. Detailed lesson plans and activities help students strategize interview questions, prepare for the interview, organize and transcribe their interviews, and plan a meaningful way to share these personal stories.
- For examples of short interview excerpts, visit HistoryLink's suite of audio and video clips located on this website's Home Page By listening to several of these audio clips, students will see that identifying and highlighting short but important segments of an interview is an efficient and meaningful way to feature important recollections and to complement the theme of a project.
Approach 2: Have students dig deep into primary sources that are available online and in other libraries or repositories. There are thousands of photos, documents, and newspaper articles available in special JFK websites or historical photo or manuscript archives. Identify several issues that can be explored and divide students into two or more groups. For example, in one scenario -- exploring conspiracy theories -- one group could locate and evaluate evidence supporting the view that Kennedy was killed by Lee Harvey Oswald acting alone while another could locate and evaluate evidence supporting the view that more than one person was involved in the assassination.
Approach 3: Use this anniversary to learn more about the important political issues that defined Kennedy's presidency. Follow his presidential campaign in 1960. Investigate his role in civil rights and the Cold War. Analyze his stand on the Cuban Missile Crisis and the Bay of Pigs. There are several websites and curriculum projects that provide archival materials, timelines, and lesson plans for teaching about the role that President Kennedy played in the history of the nation. Visit the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and the Wichita Falls, Texas Region 9 Educational Service Center websites.
Approach 4: Celebrate the life and the legacies of President Kennedy rather than focusing on his death. Ask students to use photographs, videos, and magazine articles to identify the traits that made JFK so well-liked and well-respected. Have students listen to his famous inauguration speech and prompt them to interpret what those stirring words meant to the citizens of the United States in 1960. Does his "call to action" for public service still resonate with the youth of today? Have students react to the speech as young people from different cultures, religions, or political viewpoints.
Approach 5: Take a deeper look into why President Kennedy visited the state of Washington by exploring HistoryLink.org essays. What relevant business, political, or environmental causes affecting Washington State did he support? (Essay 968) Who were his political supporters from this state? (Essays 5156, 5516, and 5569). Were any of his scheduled visits memorable for specific reasons? (Essay 967) What was the reaction in the state after the news of his assassination? (Essay 3386)
Approach 6: Mentor a student (or your whole class) in the Profiles in Courage Essay Writing Contest. In this contest, students are asked to write an original essay that describes and analyzes an act of political courage by a United States elected official. Curricular materials based on President Kennedy's Profiles in Courage help introduce students to the concept of political and personal courage and are available online. A "nominating teacher" provides support and advice during the research and writing process and proofreads and makes suggestions for improvement to the essay before submission. The deadline for entries is January 6, 2014.
Image: President John F. Kennedy speaking at the University of Washington, Seattle, 1961. Courtesy Museum of History & Industry