Teaching the 50th Anniversary of JFK’s Assassination

By Anthony Rebora — November 21, 2013 2 min read
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This Friday, Nov. 22, marks the 50th anniversary of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. Because Kennedy’s life and death remain such a deep source of public fascination—and because he was such a central figure in 20th-century political history—many educators are viewing this as a significant teaching moment.

“Sometimes these opportunities are moments that can suddenly spark a student’s deep interest in learning about the historical past,” Gorman Lee, the social studies director in the Braintree, Mass., school district, told a local news service.

Some schools are going to impressive lengths to commemorate the historical significance of the day. Easton Middle School in Brockton, Mass., for example, is planning to start the school day with a moment of silence—after which students will read from some of Kennedy’s speeches over the school intercom. The Fort Worth school district in Texas, meanwhile, has already produced its own short documentary on the assassination featuring the recollections of former students, teachers, and administrators. (Kennedy had made a stop in Fort Worth on the day he was killed.)

Other, perhaps less elaborate teaching ideas include having students take a virtual tour of the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza in Dallas (the site from which Lee Harvey Oswald is said to have fired the shots that killed Kennedy) or watch portions of PBS’s recent American Experience documentary on Kennedy.

Some high school teachers say showing students the famous raw footage of the shooting can have a powerful impact. “It’s so graphic you can see the kids almost express anger,” Londaryl Perry, a history teacher at Northeast Academy for Health Sciences and Engineering in Oklahoma City, Okla., told NewsOK. “They’re trying to grasp why someone would do that to the president. ... They become more sensitive to what really has taken place and knowing that it’s real.”

Having students examine the evidence and various conspiracy theories surrounding Kennedy’s death can also generate engagement and critical thinking about the historical record. A history teacher at Bismark High School in North Dakota, for example, told the Bismark Tribune that he has his students write research papers defending their own theories on what happened.

Another teacher at the same school recommended the idea of posing “what if” scenarios about Kennedy’s presidency. For example, would the United States have become so deeply embroiled in Vietnam if Kennedy had lived? (That question remains hotly debated among historians.)

Teachers looking to give students a more personal sense of the historical moment might point to the reflections of Americans who were themselves in school on the day of the assassination, which took place right around lunch time on a Friday. One example from a 62-year-old Central New York man who was in 7th grade in a Catholic school at the time: “I remember kids crying. Not just quiet sobs kept to oneself, but weeping. I saw Dominican nuns break into tears. It deeply unnerved me. ... It felt as if the world had turned upside down.”

Photo: President Kennedy and the first lady Jacqueline Kennedy receive an enthusiastic welcome as they arrive at Love Field in Dallas, Texas, on Nov. 22, 1963. Later that day the president was assassinated as his motorcade moved through the city. —AP-File

A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.