Who was John Kennedy?
Ask a middle schooler two generations removed from our 35th president, and you might get a range of answers about the man who died from an assassin's bullet 50 years ago next month.
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Students at Kennedy Junior High School in Lisle, the only school in DuPage County named after the former president, are embarking on a project to learn more, to bridge JFK's words and their own lives.
"We talked on the first day that even though we go to Kennedy Junior High, we really don't know much about him," said eighth-grader Mahie Gopalka. "We want to know more. His words help us connect."
Mahie is one of six Kennedy eighth-graders piloting an effort to interpret some of JFK's more thought-provoking words.
After quotes from JFK were nominated by Kennedy Principal Brian Valek, signs were made with selections and mounted on hallways throughout the school three weeks ago. Students are now working on interpretations of three of the quotes.
When completed, the plan is to have a 30-second interpretation of each of the 18 quotes, allowing students, visitors and families to go on a "Kennedy Walk" through the school.
Kennedy students also have assembled a display case of photos, news articles and artifacts remembering JFK and the assassination.
"We kind of realized, for better or for worse, that we're much more attached to our mascot name than our school name. We're the Kennedy Eagles," said David Hollander, eighth-grade U.S. history teacher and social studies department coordinator.
"The Kennedy part of our name has always seemed a little underplayed. The quotes are meant to better connect the kids, and this school, to its namesake."
Mahie Gopalka and fellow eighth-grader Vincent Romanelli are researching a speech JFK gave from the Oval Office on June 11, 1963, in response to the National Guard being sent in to protect two black students seeking admission to the University of Alabama.
They viewed the speech on YouTube and researched the context of the quote, whom JFK was speaking to, why he said it and how it relates to their school 50 years later.
Hearing JFK's words-- "Every child should have the equal right to develop their talent and their ability and their motivation, to make something of themselves" -- hit close to home for students who might treat opportunity and integrated schools as second nature, Vincent said.
"We're blessed to have something that we probably take for granted," he said.
"Some of us might not want to go to school some mornings," Mahie said. "Some people back then, they didn't get a chance."
A year later, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed.
"We have to appreciate how far we have come," Hollander said. "He held some views that were really quite remarkable for 1963. He challenged some views that would not make him popular."
The project is in sync with how Hollander prefers to teach history -- by examining the whole person.
Reciting a blow-by-blow account of JFK's achievements, giving his legacy a whitewashing or subsequent two-dimensional revisionist history doesn't do learning justice.
"What truly is the measure of the man?" Hollander said. "Are the events that happened around the man a full measure, or is it things he believed in that we should hold up? We can hold things up about (JFK), that in the midst of imperfection, there was potential for greatness."
Hollander hopes to have the interpretations ready to go by an open house later this school year.
He them to be available through a booklet or a smartphone code or to have students stationed in front of the signs for an explanation.
The journey there seems just as insightful to the students as the finished project.
"To me, it's analyzing his quotes for a deeper feeling, a deeper understanding," Vincent said. "We're not only finding out what he said, and when he said it, but a deeper meaning of what he was trying to say."