Back to School at The Sixth Floor Museum: Engaging, Connecting and Inspiring through History

By Ani Simmons, Museum Educator

At The Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, we strive to engageconnect, and inspire students with education programs that take place at the Museum, at individual schools and through distance learning that connects classrooms across the globe. President John F. Kennedy was an advocate for many important causes like volunteerism and civil rights that still affect our society and continue to be taught in schools today. Far more than the story of a 1963 presidential assassination, these programs help students engage with history, connect with the past, and become inspired to make a difference in the future.

Engage

Engagement is of paramount importance in effective 21st century education. As a museum educator, my goal is to engage students in learning about our collections, then show them how these objects tell a story.  A record, magazine, or photograph might remind them of something they remember from a grandparent’s house and spark a conversation. Before they know it, they’ve learned something and they are asking questions about museum careers!

When you can engage physically with a historic object, you’re often able to emotionally connect to the person who used it. One example is our program “History Detectives: 1960s Time Capsules,” where students unpack a time capsule based on a real person’s story and containing actual 1960s-era objects and documents from the hands-on Education Collection. Students develop understanding of the individual and their unique experience from that time, while increasing the critical thinking skills required of a historian.

By engaging students with the stories of the people who made the history, we help them segue into the overall concept of history. They learn that history is not about memorizing dates and isolated facts; it’s examining the people and their choices that resulted in historical events. In this hyper-connected world, a successful program entices students to slow down long enough to engage with people and their stories from the past, and then connect the lessons they learn to the present and future.

Connect

In the Museum’s “Living History” programs, Curator and Oral Historian Stephen Fagin interviews a guest with memories of the 1960s in front of a group of students. The students are able to connect emotionally to that history, and then they’re given the chance to ask the guest questions – what they wore or what kind of car they drove back in 1963 – however they best connect with that person’s story, and then they can become an oral historian for a short while.  Students who attended a “Living History” program said they felt like they had time-traveled back to the 1960s!

Making connections spans all ages, from students to teachers. Teachers who foster connections with concepts they’ve learned or objects they’ve examined at the Museum take that sense of discovery and excitement back to their classrooms. Their enthusiasm is contagious!

One of our other programs that’s very prescient today is our Civil Rights program, called “Resistance in Dallas: Civil Rights and Kennedy’s Legacy.”  It focuses on a 28-day protest that occurred in 1964 in downtown Dallas, just months after the assassination of President Kennedy and just blocks from Dealey Plaza. It fascinates teachers and students to learn about Civil Rights events that took place right here at home. While the events in Selma, Alabama and  Jackson, Mississippi are well-known, teachers often don’t connect Civil Rights with Dallas. It’s transformative for them to see the actual images that document what happened.

Inspire

During teacher workshops, when I get the chance to bring out some of the more powerful artifacts in our collection, like the SCLC Handbook for Freedom Army Recruits, I try to inspire teachers to see themselves as a key influencer in their students’ lives. They are not just teaching the students in front of them, but their students’ children. When students are taught in a way that impacts and inspires them, they will then teach their own children. It is my job, as a museum educator with access to a vast array of primary sources, to engage and connect teachers to the available resources, then inspire them to use them in a creative and effective way.

I want to inspire teachers to teach ideals that I believe President Kennedy would have supported, ideals that are part of his legacy. If you are a teacher and would like more information about our education programs at The Sixth Floor Museum, contact Ani Simmons at education@jfk.org.