Each year, around the 22nd of November, I put my U.S. history class on hold and I introduce my middle school students to the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
I created a 40-page Google Doc that outlines the key characters, the events and the conspiracies surrounding the assassination. There are lots of photos, links, and questions. And, there are text boxes for students to, after some reflection, include their own ideas and questions. Here is a link to the document.
The document is set up such that students must make a copy in order to access it. Here’s a link to a site that will show you how to do that. This is important, because it avoids all the hassles that ensue if provide an original document and entrust students to make a copy from it. Most students will make a copy as directed. But, there are always those students who, for reasons either careless or malicious, will mess around with the original.
Anyhow, once I get the information distributed, here’s how the activity works:
Access Prior Knowledge
I begin by asking students to share whatever they already know about the assassination. This is always a rewarding activity for me because many student possess some details, while a few know an incredible amount of information. Once a few of the details are revealed, the rest of the class begins to get hooked in to the story.
Once students all have their own copy of the above document, I have them independently explore the document. I ensure that there are enough provocative questions or surprising facts/images/videos to generate questions or reactions from students. To get the ball rolling, I travel around the room peeking over shoulders and making comments and asking questions out loud. I often use an over-the-top, incredulous tone of voice to generate engagement and excitement. Here are a few examples:
- “Look at how the Secret Service agents were ordered off the back of the car. What’s up with that?”
- “Oswald defected to Russia and then was allowed to return to the USA? Just like that? Isn’t he a traitor?”
- “Check out the limousine route. Isn’t that a weird turn? How slow would the car have to move?”
Once the reactions begin, so can engaging and interesting discussions on topics such as the physical appearance of Presidential candidates, the role of religion in the life of political leaders, Communism, the Cold War, defections, treason, the accuracy of Hollywood historical films, etc.
As a culminating piece, I like to give my students a variety of ways to showcase their understanding. Students can choose from the following options:
- Students can come up with their own “Warren Report” – they dig deeper into the story and then write an official report on what they think happened that day in 1963. They are obliged to include evidence, from my document or from other sources, to support their theories.
- Students can create a fictional account of the assassination. Again, real facts must be front and center. One year, a student wrote a journal entry from the point-of-view of Jacqueline Kennedy.
- Students have the option to write their own Wikipedia entry about the assassination. Like any good Wikipedia article, there must be solid citations and references.
As usual, I am also open to new ideas from the students that are not listed above. And, as usual, I am always amazed.
I know what some of you might be thinking: what possible learning objectives are being satisfied by such a gruesome exploration? Isn’t this just a little self-indulgent and speculative, you might ask?
Yes, but if our objectives are to engage students, create media-literate critical thinkers, and to foster curiosity, then iconic and powerful events, such as Presidential assassinations, are a great way to achieve those ends.
And, it is important to note that later in the year, when I begin teaching my 1960s and Cold War units, I do provide students with a more-complete exploration of President John F. Kennedy and his achievements.
I hope you find this project as interesting as my students and I do. And, in my ongoing quest for improvement, I would love to get any suggestions/ideas you come up with.