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updated: 11/22/2013 8:55 AM

What today's students learn about Kennedy

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  • U.S. history teacher Mindy Perkins, left, and Resource Assistant Sue Montemayor work on a display of JFK's legacy at Elk Grove High School.

       U.S. history teacher Mindy Perkins, left, and Resource Assistant Sue Montemayor work on a display of JFK's legacy at Elk Grove High School.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • The John F. Kennedy display outside the Elk Grove High School library.

       The John F. Kennedy display outside the Elk Grove High School library.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

  • Teacher Mindy Perkins, left, and Resource Assistant Sue Montemayor pull together a display on the legacy of JFK.

       Teacher Mindy Perkins, left, and Resource Assistant Sue Montemayor pull together a display on the legacy of JFK.
    Bob Chwedyk | Staff Photographer

 
 

When U.S. history students at Schaumburg High School are asked to rank the nation's presidents at the end of each school year, familiar names lead the list -- Abraham Lincoln, George Washington, Franklin Roosevelt.

Surprisingly, one president often is missing from the top 10 or 15: John F. Kennedy.

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Fifty years after his death, students today are learning the full scope of Kennedy's life, presidency and death, including his successes and failings in the political and personal arenas.

"My students don't feel that special bond to him that their parents and grandparents do," said Andrew Lazzara, history teacher at Schaumburg High School who has had his students rank presidents for the past four years.

"They are so far removed from the assassination that Kennedy doesn't have the same emotional appeal," he said.

"Also, they've grown up in an era where there is so much negativity surrounding politicians that I think it's difficult for them to grasp the profound hope and optimism that Kennedy brought to America."

Although younger generations may not view Kennedy through the same Camelot-colored glasses of the past, a Gallup poll released earlier this month still rates Kennedy as the top president of the past 60 years.

While the events of the 1960s remain the same, what students are learning has changed, with different textbooks and newly released information about the Kennedy administration.

A recent New York Times article referenced the change in how Kennedy is portrayed in textbooks over the past half century. Books published in the late 1960s tended to hail JFK as a civil rights hero who saved America from the brink of nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, while more recent books give Lyndon Johnson credit for passing the Civil Rights Act and describe the "fiasco" of the Bay of Pigs invasion.

"We look at his whole presidency," said Joe Cranston, AP U.S. History teacher at Batavia High School. "After we're done studying him the kids get a sense that he was a president who certainly drew a lot of attention, for better or for worse."

Some of that includes details about Kennedy's life that were hidden from the public at the time. "We take a realistic look at it," Cranston said. "We study the myth of Camelot, but we touch on the fact that his marriage was far from perfect, the fact that his health was worse than people knew.

Mindy Perkins, history teacher at Elk Grove High School, said teachers try to humanize him as much as possible, "because sometimes the idea of him has made him infallible."

"We have to to touch on the ways he failed, too," she said.

But the Peace Corps, the impetus for the civil rights movement, the inspiration of JFK's inaugural address -- are all positives that Perkins stresses to her students.

"JFK talked about empowering youth and inspired them to do more," Perkins said. "As teachers, that's always something we're interested in for our kids. It is amazing what he was able to accomplish in just 2 years."

High school students in Community Unit District 300 learn about Kennedy as one player in a turbulent era.

"He was a very popular figure while also being controversial within an era full of controversy and social movements," said district spokeswoman Allison Strupeck.

"He's an important president to study from an important time that continues to have enduring relevance."

Students at Kennedy Junior High School in Lisle are learning more through JFK's own words, by interpreting 18 of his most famous quotes.

With the 50th anniversary of Kennedy's death, there is still speculation and interest in the assassination itself.

"The saddest thing about his presidency is the 'what if,'" said Sue Montemayor, resource assistant at Elk Grove High School. "There is such a fascination with what would have happened if he had lived, but we'll never know."

While today's students feel disconnected from the assassination, for many Friday will be a day that holds emotion.

"My dad was a precinct captain when Kennedy came through O'Hare in 1963. I remember sitting on my dad's shoulder and Kennedy shook my hand," Montemayor said, tearing up at the memory of a moment from more than 50 years ago. "Then I remember just watching all the coverage on TV nonstop."

From old newsreels to textbooks to videos to the Zapruder film that shows the fatal shooting, high school students are exposed to the full timeline of Kennedy's life and death as the first president of the modern television era.

That includes that conspiracy theories surrounding his death, which teachers say are part of history as well.

It was a week of great historical milestones around suburban schools with the anniversary of Kennedy's death coming a few days after the 150th anniversary of President Lincoln's Gettysburg address.

"The first marked the hope for a new birth of freedom, the second marked the vulnerability of that hope," said Dan Larsen, history teacher at Stevenson High School. "The best way for teachers today to honor Kennedy and his memory is to pass the torch to a new generation."

Hands-on learning helps bring the events of the 1960s back to life for many students.

"Rather then being told about the Warren Commission, students today can serve on the Warren Commission and investigate all of the information for themselves," Larsen said. "Students can watch the debates and break down the arguments."

As much as Kennedy's legacy has evolved over the past 50 years, teachers said it will continue to do so the more time passes.

"I think with the passage of time we tend to put aside the feelings or biases that may exist and then it's easier to consider things from a historical standpoint," Cranston said. "His legacy is still evolving and it may be another generation before people can really judge him in an unbiased way."


• Daily Herald staff writers Russell Lissau, Lenore Adkins, Josh Welge and Susan Sarkauskas contributed to this report.

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