Teachers Designing Instructional Materials: A Unit on the Assassination of Kennedy (Part 2))

A group of teachers  at Cardozo high school in the mid-1960s created and taught a unit called “Who Killed Kennedy?” Part 1 described the background and purpose of this teacher-designed unit of eight lessons including a test. We taught the unit to 15 classes spread across U.S. history, Civics, and Government at Cardozo during the first few weeks of the semester in 1966.

Nearly all of the student were in the General track. In District of Columbia schools then students were assigned to Basic, General, and Honors tracks based on their IQ scores. General track students could select college prep courses or vocational ones. They ranged in reading skills from some at grade-level to many at two or more years below grade-level. It is these General students, we felt, that had been ignored by recent curriculum materials (then called the “New Social Studies”) and for whom the usual social studies fare was tedious and boring.

The Lessons

On the first day of the unit, we recalled through newspaper headlines, photos, and personal accounts of how the the events in Dallas on November 22, 1963 affected people. We got students to recount what they experienced a few years earlier and answers the central question of the unit: Was Oswald the assassin? The assignment asked students to write an essay answering the question. From this homework we would get a sense of the level of writing skills students had and positions that they staked out in answering the question.

In the second lesson, we presented students with Time and Newsweek magazines detailing the “facts” of the assassination and evidence against Oswald. We asked students to build a time line of events. In doing so, they began to see that these journalist accounts are imperfect sources because they contained discrepancies and contradictions.

The next two lessons directed students to build a lawyer’s case against Oswald. We gave them further information including eyewitness accounts, rebuttals of those accounts, Warren Commission excerpts, and conflicting statements about Oswald the person.  For example, we wanted students to wrestle with the fact that Oswald was a good enough shot to have killed the President, a moving target, with rapid fire shots, at a distance of over two hundred yards. Students saw how conflicting statements made it very difficult to draw an conflict-free conclusion that satisfies the available evidence.

In the next lesson, we shifted to an investigation of Oswald himself. Previous lessons established his presence at the scene of the murder and his marksmanship. What about motive? Did he have a reason to kill the President? We gave students excerpts from Oswald’s diary and first-hand accounts of people who knew him. We asked students in class to make their hunches public in class and, through  back-and-forth discussion, the class discovered that it was nearly impossible to ascertain Oswald’s motives.

The following lesson was structured as a game–“How Good a Lawyer Are You?”– intended to push students to develop categories for all of the information they had read, digested, discussed, and written. We divided students into groups to see which group can most accurately  categorize statements concerning the assassination and defend their choices satisfactorily. A panel of students and teacher judged the competition.

The next-to-last lesson was a review of the material. We structured the class period to have each of the groups from the previous lesson prosecute or defend Oswald making use of all the sources and information they had gathered.

The last lesson tested students on their knowledge and skills gained from the unit. The test contained multiple-choice questions except for the final question that asked students to write an essay on the same question they wrote for the first lesson of the unit. We wanted to see whether the final essay reflected any growth in knowledge and use of thinking and writing skills upon which the unit was grounded.

Problems with the Unit

One of our purposes in teaching the unit was to raise doubts in our students’ minds about the reliability of information. We asked them to question sources of their knowledge and to be skeptical toward “facts.” We succeeded.

But we overshot the mark. By the end of the unit, there were far fewer believers in the conclusions of the Warren Commission. Some continued to believe that Oswald’s guilt was confirmed, others were confused about whether he was guilty. Some students even supported a conspiracy theory with Vice-President Lyndon Johnson at the center of the cabal. Once students saw, however, how ambiguous supposedly conclusive evidence may be when carefully scrutinized and how difficult it was to establish incontrovertible facts in this case, many swung to the extreme of believing nothing. By the end of the unit, we had a group of students ready to throw out most historical knowledge on the grounds of insufficient evidence. In retrospect, we might have placed more emphasis upon what can be reasonably be accepted from conflicting evidence.

Evaluation

Overall, from a survey of student opinion, answered anonymously, we found that students enjoyed the unit, two-thirds giving it an A with no Ds or Fs. They overwhelmingly agreed that the unit should be taught to other classes.  Many said they were now confused about Oswald’s guilt and said they did not like the difficulty they had in coming to a conclusion.

This thinking skills unit on the Kennedy assassination, designed by three Cardozo high school teachers was taught to 15 social studies classes in the school in 1966. We thought then that generic thinking skills can be taught directly through high-relevance content that would engage and energize students to learn crucial skills not only to be applied in  social studies classes but in life as well. I thought then that having teachers design materials for their classes–with a reduced teaching load–would improve how teachers taught and what students learned.

Since 1966, I have changed my mind on both counts.

11 Comments

Filed under how teachers teach

11 responses to “Teachers Designing Instructional Materials: A Unit on the Assassination of Kennedy (Part 2))

  1. Mary

    Why have you changed your mind? It is not clear to me. By the way I am now an APS teacher who was an APS student when you led that school system. I really enjoy following this blog.

    • larrycuban

      So glad to read, Mary, that you are teaching in APS after being a student in the system. A compliment to both you and the public schools. As for changing my mind on teachers preparing curriculum materials as the key to classroom improvement and the transfer of thinking skills from direct teaching (Kennedy unit) to other history units and life outside of the classroom, I have written about both in How Teachers Taught and in this blog. Thanks for taking the time to comment.

  2. JMK

    I develop a lot of my own curriculum, because the math books I’m given are too hard for my students (I wrote about it here: http://hypersensitivecranky.wordpress.com/2013/11/03/self-concept-and-lowered-expectations/) . However, I don’t see teacher-developed curriculum as The Answer. When I was at STEP, teacher-developed curriculum was heavily emphasized, and many teachers we visited talked about how essential it was for them to develop “meaningful curriculum” rather than the culturally irrelevant lessons mandated by textbooks (that is, they were substituting their own ideological agenda for what they perceived as another). But as a history, English, and math teacher I’ve also found that most teachers who build their own curriculum do so because they have to, because either the one they are given is too hard, or they aren’t given one at all. (Ironically, I’m now at the point that I’d see a furnished curriculum as making my life too easy and a tad boring. Ah, hubris.)

    Anyway, I think history is an area in which we need more care than any other, precisely because of the sort of unintended consequences you run into. But then, I also believe this is why we should focus more energy in teaching history as a narrative, flawed though it often is. We’ve moved too far away from that.

    • larrycuban

      Thanks, Cal, for linking the Darryl Yong piece and commenting on it–particularly your close reading and interpretation of what Yong meant by “self-concept.” I discovered in time that asking teachers to develop their own curriculum is no easy path to improved lessons. Not for the reasons you give but for other reasons such as lack of time, little interest in doing such hard work when commercial materials were available and could be cobbled together, etc. As for teaching history as narrative, well, that remains contentious among social studies academics and teachers–given the current passion for getting kids to do what historians do, that is, acquire the skills historians have in reading, analyzing sources, and interpreting events. There are, of course, some history teachers who are masters of narrative; they tell stories and weave together a picture of the past that reflects their values. Not sure if that is desirable even when I have seen it done by gifted teachers.

  3. JMK

    Yes, of course the risk is that a teacher will simply weave a narrative without giving the students a sense of the complexity involved in understanding any event. Worse, that’s what some teachers *want* to do. Balance is all.

    but for other reasons such as lack of time, little interest in doing such hard work when commercial materials were available and could be cobbled together, etc

    Yes, I agree with this. I am always surprised to see how many teachers don’t make their own tests. I don’t mean that in a negative or judgmental sense, just that it’s a surprise. STEP must have coopted me in small, subtle ways, that I don’t see. Arrggggghh.

    I have a couple pieces about 75% done that you might be interested in. Will send them along when they’re closer to soup.

  4. I have to say that I found your description of the unit fascinating for a number of reasons. First, because I was a student in the “60’s and I never got the opportunity to do something like this in school. Also, even though I am Canadian, JFK’s death was one of the most important public events in my life, far more significant than 9/11, for example. So, I would have loved doing this. But on to the teaching points. I am not surprised that the students ended up with a skewed interpretation of the events-they were teenagers and most of them would not have the background and thinking ability to formulate a balanced view. Balance is not one of their strengths. The other obvious problem is that the story of the assassination is full of questions and no one is hundred per cent sure of the answers. Was the goal on the teachers’ parts to create closure? I don’t think so and if it was, is that what you really wanted?
    I come at this from a literature background, I was not a history teacher and my journey through teaching led me to the unsettling view that I was not teaching students how to think by guiding them ( through a variety of methods) towards my interpretation of a text. At the same time, was I happy with what I would get if I left it open-ended and ambiguous? Ambiguity is supposed to encourage critical thinking but I have to admit that at the end of my career, I was ambiguous about everything that was standard teaching practice and everything that was new thinking. i don’t know if any of this makes sense to you but I think it must be easier to teach content rich subjects rather than something like English in which it is very difficult to measure progress especially in thinking skills.
    As for the curriculum issue, it is a matter of balance. Too much top down, you have rigidity, too little and you have inconsistency. Ah, back to the ambiguity.
    Cathy Haley

    • larrycuban

      Your comments about ambiguity, your teaching of English, and critical thinking skills, Cathy, got me thinking about textual analysis in literature and the skills involved in parsing sonnets, Shakespearean passages, and a chapter of Harry Potter. Surely, ambiguity comes into play but the larger issue, at least for me, was that I had to teach the skills needed for historical analysis within history units and not in highly-relevant, engaging content unrelated to the history we would be studying. Thanks for the comments.

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