For the sixth graders of today, born in the 21st century, the assassination of President John F. Kennedy might seem like ancient history.
But history is coming alive for the students at Decatur Middle School’s sixth grade campus, which boasts its own JFK museum exhibit.
Library aide Tammy McGar said the project actually began in the spring with the donation of several old newspapers announcing the president’s death. To find out how to best display the old newspapers, McGar contacted Wise County Messenger general manager Mark Jordan, who relayed the story of how he heard the news over the intercom while in a sixth-grade classroom at Decatur.
McGar thought about having the news come across the intercom at school this Friday, just like it did 50 years ago to the day.
“But then I thought, ‘Well the kids aren’t going to understand that,'” without the proper context, McGar said.
She came up with the idea to make the event more personal for students.
“I had them interview family members and told them they could get a free 100 in any class of their choice to use any time of the year,” she said.
While the extra credit surely gave students an incentive to participate, it was an email to parents that seemed to energize the project. Many parents were able to get their children in contact with family members who remember Nov. 22, 1963, and could share their personal stories.
Several grandparents were close in age to their grandchildren when they received the news at school that day.
The students then wrote a short paper on the interview, and many included photos of their family members.
McGar even pointed to one submission that came from a student who was transferring to Decatur and saw the project. She submitted her essay even before her first official day of class.
“The kids did a phenomenal job,” McGar said.
The project continued to grow. Aide Beckie Brawner assisted McGar in putting together a full museum-style exhibit focused on the assassination. Several other teachers and administrators contributed as well.
In addition to the students’ essays and the old newspapers, the hallway part of the exhibit also includes magazines, quotes from the president, photos from the Kennedys’ visit to Fort Worth and Dallas, a map showing the parade route and the spot where Kennedy was killed and even photos and information on the riderless horse that took part in the funeral procession.
The exhibit then leads you into a classroom set up to look similar to what a classroom might have looked like in November of 1963. Large sheets of black paper cover the white boards to mimic the look of chalkboards. The date on the front of the classroom says “November 22, 1963” and even includes the name “Mrs. Hawkin’s 6th grade history class.”
In three corners, laptop computers are set up, each with a different video on the assassination. One video shows the actual film footage of the Newman family recalling their firsthand account of the shooting. Another video shows Mrs. Newman being interviewed in more recent years. The third is a Smithsonian video providing overall information on the assassination.
One wall provides a timeline and photos from the president’s visit to Fort Worth and Dallas.
Another wall is dedicated to showing the culture of the day and features popular movies, music and art from 1963 as well as a sample of everyday life, such as a grocery list featuring prices and car advertisements.
McGar approached very carefully the subject of whether to use photos of the gun taken as evidence in the murder as well as graphic photos and descriptions of the mortal wounds Kennedy received. Students aren’t allowed to even have photos of guns at school. The exhibit only features one photo of the rifle, and one movie poster features an actor with a gun. Permission was sought from Middle School Principal Dewayne Tamplen before using it in the exhibit.
McGar and Brawner said they also tried to stay away from any of the conspiracy theories.
“If the parents want to go into that with their child, that is certainly their choice,” Brawner said.
“We hope they go home and talk about it more – talk to their parents about what they’ve seen and what they’ve heard,” McGar added.
On Friday, teachers and students are encouraged to wear clothing in the style from 1963. McGar said even the cafeteria workers will be wearing white aprons and hair nets in early ’60s style.
A program will be held for students that day, featuring local guest speakers who can offer unique perspectives on their memories of Nov. 22, 1963.
The school hopes the exhibit and the program make an impression on students so that someday, they can pass along the significance of the event to their children and grandchildren.
“We wanted the kids to realize just how important it was and how it affected America and the world,” Brawner said. “I don’t think kids today can grasp that at all.”