Teachers Creating Instructional Materials: The Kennedy Assassination

As a novice U.S. history teacher in Cleveland (OH) in the mid-1950s, I began designing lessons that contained sources absent from students’ textbooks. While I used the textbook for most lessons, I developed materials about race in the U.S. that would add to (and eventually replace) textbook lessons. Then called Negro history, these lessons and units largely used primary sources (e.g., accounts by former slaves about pre-Civil War life on plantations; letters written by black soldiers serving in the Civil War).

For most of my students (but clearly not all), these new materials and lessons seemed to work, that is, there was more student participation in class discussions, they asked questions, and many wanted to learn more about events and people in the sources I used. They connected events together and began using evidence to support their interpretations of what occurred in the past. I was pleased.

Designing lessons and units, however, while exhilarating, also exhausted me since I was teaching five classes of 30-plus students daily. I began to think that teachers, with a reduced class schedule, could also experience the excitement and, yes, joy, of designing lessons and putting them into practice within their own classrooms. I began to think that developing instructional materials would improve both teaching and student learning as it seemingly had in my classes.

I reasoned that if this largely worked for me with predominately minority and poor students, it would work for all teachers. I was becoming a reformer fixed upon improving teaching through teachers developing their own lessons and units. Yes, I was generalizing from my experience, a common tic among reformers; it was a view of how to improve teaching and learning that I eventually gave up. But in the mid-1960s to the early- 1970s, I was a true believer in improving schooling through-teachers creating lessons and units for their classes.

In 1963, I left Glenville high school to become a master teacher of history in the Cardozo Project in Urban Teaching in Washington, D.C. At Cardozo high school, working with Peace Corp Volunteers who had returned from overseas and were preparing to become certified teachers in the District, I had a chance to put my ideas into practice. The paid interns taught only two social studies classes (as did I, their master teacher). The mission of the Project expected them to teach, work in the community, and, here’s the kicker, develop instructional materials for their two classes. And that is what we did.

One of the teacher-developed units we developed in 1965-1966 was aimed at teaching thinking and writing skills. Based on the 1964 Warren Commission report on the Kennedy assassination, I, Jay Mundstuk, and Ike Jamison worked over a summer to develop the eight-lesson unit. The subject matter was still fresh in our students’ minds and whether Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone assassin or part of a conspiracy that planned the President’s murder was being debated constantly whenever the subject arose in classes.

President John F. Kennedy with First Lady, Jacqueline Kennedy, in rear of limousine, November 22, 1963

We wanted to teach those reasoning skills which would be needed in all social studies courses as well as on the street and in the home. We wanted a subject that would grab our students and engage their minds in trying to figure out answers to uneasy questions. The Kennedy Assassination became the subject matter.

Material in the popular media was abundant; testimony before the Warren Commission was available as was the deluge of attacks and defenses heaped upon the conclusions of the Commission (e.g., Oswald was the shooter and acted alone). Moreover, in 1965 the memory of President Kennedy was very dear to many of our teenage students. Students in our classes named Kennedy as the best President ever. Mystery still surrounded Lee Harvey Oswald. His role in the assassination piqued our students’ curiosity. We named the unit: “Who Killed Kennedy?”

The unit was organized into a series of lessons the first of which raised the question of how do we know who the assassin was.  The question got students to state their beliefs initially and, as the unit unfolded, they began to question their beliefs when we presented them with available evidence from the Warren Commission and a few of the conspiracy-driven articles and books that appeared within months of the assassination.

As the students sorted through the evidence, we worked to have them use different thinking skills that were built into the unit’s seven lessons:

*How to make and verify hypotheses (we called them hunches).

*How to evaluate the reliability of sources of evidence.

*How to draw inferences from a set of facts.

*How to weigh evidence and use it in support of a conclusion.

*How to distinguish between relevant and irrelevant information in reaching conclusions.

The overall purpose of the unit was not to “prove” Oswald innocent or guilty.

Jack Ruby shooting Lee Harvey Oswald while in police custody following the assassination of President Kennedy, November 24, 1963

The purpose was to get students to read carefully and judge the credibility of available sources, come up with hunches about who killed Kennedy, use evidence to reach a conclusion, and be able to defend their conclusions. We were more concerned with the process of reaching a conclusion and creating an explanation for what happened–a process embodied in the above skills–than the conclusion itself.

Teaching thinking skills such as the five listed above was central to my work as a history teacher. And because I could close my classroom door, I had the autonomy to teach the state-required content interlaced with these critical skills.

But teaching thinking skills directly to students so that they could use them in subsequent units I taught such as the American Revolution, the Civil War, industrialization and immigration does not take into consideration the importance of “transfer of learning.” A lesson that became apparent to me when I began to teach high school juniors a separate unit of thinking skills.

The next post takes up the lesson I learned about teaching critical thinking skills directly to students at the beginning of each school year.

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