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.
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.
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.