While today most young people learn about major news events plugged into real-time television, radio, and social media outlets, 50 years ago this wasn’t the case. Not only did the November 22, 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy send a shock wave through the country, it was the first time the Americans watched on-air television coverage of an historic event as it unfolded. Along with coverage of the president’s funeral days later, the grieving public witnessed the murder of his alleged assassin, Lee Harvey Oswald. Some students have heard about these events in Dallas from adults who were glued to their television sets a half century ago, but all can learn about this tragedy, as well as noteworthy, uplifting moments of Kennedy’s life and administration years, through the following books and websites.
Jack: The Early Years of John F. Kennedy by Ilene Cooper (Dutton, 2003; Gr 7 Up) is illustrated with black-and-white photos, both informal and posed. This well-researched biography covers Kennedy’s life from his birth through his high school graduation. Though often ill, the future president is presented as an appealing, but less-than-perfect second son growing up in a large, competitive, well-to-do family. Students will find an affable, sometimes scholastically challenged guy who rose to the nation’s highest office. A final chapter briefly fills in Kennedy’s adult years.
Covering Kennedy’s entire life, Martin W. Sandler’s Kennedy Through the Lens: How Photography and Television Revealed and Shaped an Extraordinary Leader (Walker, 2011; Gr 6 Up) will be of interest to secondary students. Double-page spreads focus on a full-page photograph as the text discusses how images of Kennedy enhanced the man’s political career. Topics such as press conferences; First Lady Jacqueline Kennedy’s well-received, televised White House tour; and views of how the president communicated during national and international travels, along with a few sections on his childhood and his assassination, make this a good springboard for classes comparing and contrasting news coverage past and present.
Older students, and those who want to read more about the man, will appreciate Robert Dallek’s thorough An Unfinished Life: John F. Kennedy 1917-1963 (Little, Brown, 2003; Gr 10 Up), an in-depth book that offers behind-the-scenes medical and political information including insights on JFK’s views on the expansion of the Vietnam War. Dallek has written several books on Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson, and his latest, Camelot’s Court: Inside the Kennedy White House (HarperCollins, 2013) is due out this month.
Younger (and/or reluctant) readers will be interested in Michael Burgan’s John F. Kennedy (Raintree, 2013; Gr 3-6) and John F. Kennedy: The Making of a Leader by the Editors of Time for Kids with Ritu Upadhyay (HarperCollins, 2005; Gr 2-5), which deliver the basic facts in easy-to-digest formats. Both include brief information about Kennedy’s World War II service, his family life in the White House, and useful time lines.
The iconic image of Lyndon Johnson standing beside Jacqueline Kennedy as he took the presidential oath aboard Air Force One is featured on the cover Don Nardo’s book Assassination and its Aftermath: How a Photograph Reassured a Shocked Nation (Compass Point, 2013; Gr 5-7). This book will open a door to that event for students in the middle grades as they witness the day’s events unfold through the pictures captured by White House photographer, Cecil Stoughton. Also included are scenes of happier times as well as others from that fateful day, many illuminated through Stoughton’s point of view. The book concludes with a look at LBJ as president.
Adapted from his adult book on the subject, Bill O’Reilly’s Kennedy’s Last Days: The Assassination That Defined a Generation (Holt, 2013; Gr 5-9), also targets the middle-grade audience. Described as an “illustrated edition” of the author’s earlier book, it includes O’Reilly’s recollection as a high school student on November 22, 1963. Parallel passages trace the formative years and the last days of Kennedy and Oswald. The book begins by identifying Kennedy’s family, cabinet, and Secret Service as well as world leaders. Oswald’s family and other associated figures from that period are also listed in a brief opening section that serve readers as a guide to the people they will encounter in the text.
At the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, students in grades 6-12 will be able to access the photos, read the archived speeches, and note the Civil Rights milestones since 1963, all valuable in considering Kennedy’s legacy. Also found here are lesson plans that cover a president’s day, the 1963 March on Washington, and lunar exploration–all connected to primary source material. The American Presidency Project provides this same grade range access to audio, video, and written records generated during the campaign and presidency of John F. Kennedy, from the announcement of his candidacy to remarks made the day before his death.
Classroom teachers with access to C-Span online will find video clips coupled with questions that consider conspiracy theories on the assassination appropriate for both middle and high school. Another great resource is the The Dallas Morning News, which has a year-long review of the people, the city, and the impact of being the city where President Kennedy died with photos, interviews, and listings of local symposiums. Students can use this site to learn more through both personal and historical perspectives.
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