This Teacher's Guide was originally created in 2008 for our Presidents collection, before the 2013 documentary premiere of JFK. References to "the film" allude to the 1992 documentary The Kennedys. Topics presented in this guide are not necessarily covered in the AMERICAN EXPERIENCE film JFK.


John F. Kennedy -- the first president born in the 20th century, scion of a family who rose from obscurity to wealth, power and political prominence -- was a leader for a new generation. He was also the first and only Catholic chief executive, the youngest president to be elected, and the youngest to die in office. Much like Teddy Roosevelt, JFK projected an image of glamour, intellectualism, and physical vigor. Kennedy inspired an entire generation of young people with his idealism and his concept of public service. His assassination in Dallas on November 22, 1963, was a national tragedy, and made Kennedy into a legend. As the years have passed, historians have come to re-evaluate his presidency; many feel that it was unfulfilled; some have even deemed it mediocre. Despite this reassessment and the countless exposés of his life and family, JFK remains one of our most admired presidents.

Discussion Questions

These questions will help students explore the major ideas and themes in the program.

Before Watching

1. Prepare a class chart outlining the issues facing America in 1960. [Students may need to do some preliminary research in the library or on the Web in order to contribute to the discussion.] Keep the chart posted throughout the unit, and as students watch the film, have them take notes on how JFK's administration addressed or failed to address each of the issues.

2. Ask students what they know about the Kennedys. Create a word web of facts, images, and other data associated with the Kennedy family, with separate strands for Jack, Robert, and Ted. Ask students why they think the Kennedys are so prominent in the media, even today. Do students think, as some say, that the Kennedys are an American version of a "royal family"? If so, why? Why do they think Americans seem to be fascinated by wealthy, powerful families like the Kennedys?

3. Many people helped JFK as he rose to the presidency and while he was in office. For example, his wife, Jacqueline, was instrumental in helping to create the atmosphere of glamour and culture that surrounded her husband's presidency. Ask students to choose someone who influenced JFK -- e.g., his father, his brother Robert, or Jacqueline -- and ask them to note as they watch the video how this person affected or helped JFK before and during his presidency.

After Watching

1. Discuss JFK's legacy -- what was his most important contribution? Was his tenure "one brief shining moment"? If so, why? How effective was he as a president? Why is Kennedy still rated as one of our most popular presidents? How has the passage of time affected or altered the image of the Kennedy years? How do students think American history would have been different if JFK had lived out his term or been re-elected?

2. Revisit the word web created before watching the program. Ask students what they would add, change, or delete from the diagram and have them explain their reasons. Are there specific people or events they didn't know about before viewing the program? Has the media attention on the Kennedys changed over the years? If so, how?

3. The fact that JFK was Roman Catholic was a major issue in the presidential campaign. Ask students to explore why the "religious issue" was of such concern at the time. Do students think it is still a concern? Should a person's religion affect his or her ability to be president?

4. How did JFK's Vietnam policy reflect his world views? How did his actions in Southeast Asia set the stage for future conflict?


Early Career -- Campaign Flyer

Have students imagine that they are members of Kennedy's campaign staff during his 1952 bid for the U.S. Senate. Using the program transcript and other materials, have them write the copy for an election flyer to promote JFK as a candidate by showcasing his personal and political experiences and accomplishments up to that time. Students might also design the flyer, using photos of Kennedy and family members, a copy of the cover of Why England Slept, or other items that highlight his early career. 

Presidential Politics -- Freedom of Religion

JFK was the first, and so far, the only Catholic to serve as president. During his campaign, his religion became a major issue, especially in the predominantly Protestant South. Ask students to volunteer to role-play members of the clergy of various religious groups. Have the entire class read the text of JFK's Ministerial Association Speech, 1960, Article VI of the Constitution, and the First Amendment in preparation for a panel discussion with the "clergy members." Have each member of the panel explain his or her position on JFK's candidacy and whether or not they will vote for him in the 1960 election. Have the remaining students act as reporters and ask questions of the panel. 

Domestic Policy -- Civil Rights Record

Using the program transcript and other resources, briefly review with students the confrontation that occurred in 1962 when James Meredith tried to register at the University of Mississippi. Then have students read Kennedy's Civil Rights Announcement, 1963 about the civil rights legislation he was sending to Congress, which was passed in the year following his death.

Have students research reaction to the speech by reading period newspaper and magazine articles and editorials. Ask the class to report on its findings. Then invite students to discuss their overall assessment of JFK's ideas and policies on civil rights. 

Foreign Policy -- On the Brink?

The Cuban Missile Crisis has been characterized as the event that brought the U.S. and USSR closer than at any other time in history to the brink of nuclear war. Using the Cuban Missile Crisis letters in the primary sources, along with other materials, have students analyze the situation from the point of view of the Soviet Union, the U.S., and Cuba. Have each student choose a country and prepare a news report from that country about the events. Choose students to present their reports to the class, then discuss the different perspectives that emerge. Ask students to evaluate Kennedy's handling of the crisis. 

Legacy -- A Profile in Courage

Have students read one or more chapters of Profiles in Courage. Ask students to discuss the meaning of courage and which people, living or dead, real or fictional, they consider to be courageous. Develop a class definition of a "hero." Do they think JFK's own life would make a profile in courage? After reading or listening to JFK's speeches, such as the American University Speech, Kennedy's Inaugural Address, and JFK's political credo, have students write a brief profile of JFK, reflecting their opinions on Kennedy and his achievements. 

The Era -- I Have a Dream

The address known as "I Have a Dream," given by Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., at the 1963 March on Washington, is one of the greatest speeches in American history, and outlined the goals of the Civil Rights movement at that time. It still stands as a plea for freedom, not just for African Americans, but for all Americans. In preparation for this activity, have your students read the entire I Have a Dream speech and discuss its major points together. Then, assign a key sentence or phrase from the text to individual students. Tell students that they should study both the excerpt they've been assigned and its context in the speech, then design and create a poster or other visual expression that illustrates the main concepts of the excerpt. Each artwork should include the quotation being illustrated. When all pieces are completed, have students read their excerpt and explain the symbolism of their work. Create a class display of the artwork.

Take It Further

During this unit, students may be interested in doing the following activities related to John F. Kennedy and his times:

Imagine you are a young Irish immigrant in Boston in the 1890s. How might your actual experiences differ from the image you had of America before you arrived?

Research and write a report on the destruction of PT109, focusing on Kennedy's role in the event.

Interview a former Peace Corps volunteer (you may want to videotape your interview) about his or her experiences. With the subject's permission, present the interview to the class or combine several interviews together to create a class documentary.

Analyze the actions of U.S. presidents with regard to Vietnam, (see Vietnam Memo and Letter to President Diem), then create a timeline outlining the escalation of forces and actions of each president from Truman to Nixon.

Take a survey asking where people were when they heard that JFK had been shot and their reaction to the news. Collect their stories into a booklet for your school library.

Research the controversy surrounding JFK's assassination and write a report. Support your conclusions with evidence.

Bill Clinton has often commented on how much JFK inspired him. Compare and contrast Bill Clinton as president with JFK.

Analyze JFK's favorite poem, "I Have a Rendezvous with Death" by Alan Seeger.

Read the poetry of Robert Frost, the poet who read at Kennedy's inauguration, and create illustrations for a favorite poem.

Write a "profile in courage" about someone you know and admire.

Research and give an oral report on Addison's Disease. How did JFK's image of youthful vitality contrast with his medical problems?

Read a copy of the book In Our Defense: The Bill of Rights in Action by Ellen Alderman and Caroline Kennedy. How are JFK's children carrying on his legacy?

Who's Who

Have students choose one of the following individuals who influenced American life and society during Kennedy's presidency, and present a short biography to the class highlighting the person's achievements. Students might also enjoy creating a poster or collage featuring their subject, which could include photos and drawings, a chronology of life events, and symbols representing the person's work. They may also choose to perform a song, recite poetry, or do an oral reading of a speech or an essay.

Fidel Castro: Cuban revolutionary leader and prime minister

John Connally: governor of Texas who was shot during JFK's assassination

Robert Frost: American poet who recited a poem at Kennedy's inauguration

Ho Chi Minh: communist leader of North Vietnam

Lyndon Johnson: Kennedy's vice president and 36th president of the United States

Martin Luther King, Jr.: civil rights leader

Robert McNamara: Kennedy's and Johnson's secretary of defense

Marilyn Monroe: movie star who was idolized in the 1960s

Ngo Dinh Diem: president of South Vietnam

Richard Nixon: Eisenhower's vice president; Kennedy's opponent in 1960 -- later 37th president of the United States

Lee Harvey Oswald: communist activist arrested for the assassination of JFK

Dean Rusk: Kennedy's secretary of state

Frank Sinatra: popular singer, actor, and friend of the Kennedys

Terms to Know

Alliance for Progress: a plan of economic aid to Latin American nations, similar to the Marshall Plan.

Bay of Pigs: the failed American-backed attempt in 1961 to invade Cuba and overthrow Fidel Castro.

Civil Rights movement: the general effort by African Americans and their supporters in the 1950s and 1960s to gain equal rights, especially regarding voting, access to public facilities, educational opportunities, and legal treatment.

Cold War: as opposed to a "hot war," the term (first coined by Bernard Baruch in a speech in 1947) used to describe the worldwide struggle waged primarily between the United States and the Soviet Union.

containment: the U.S. policy after World War II aimed at preventing the Soviet Union from expanding its influence and control.

Cuban Missile Crisis: the international crisis in October 1962 between the U.S. and USSR, brought about when the Soviets built missile sites in Cuba. The U.S. blockaded Cuba and forced the Soviets to remove the sites.

Freedom Riders: social activists who rode buses throughout the South in the early 1960s to try to force the desegregation of facilities in public bus stations.

ICBM: intercontinental ballistic missile. A nuclear device able to travel long distances to its target.

McCarthyism: refers to the 1950s hunt for communists in the U.S. government and various industries, and the suspicion of communist activity in general. The term derives from the name of the leader of the Congressional investigations, Senator Joseph McCarthy, who was chairman of the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC).

New Frontier: the name given to JFK's general program to improve the American economy and "get the country moving again."

Nuclear Test Ban Treaty: treaty to ban testing of nuclear weapons in the atmosphere, in space, and underwater signed initially by the U.S., Great Britain, and USSR. It was the first significant international agreement on nuclear weapons.

Peace Corps: program initiated by JFK that sends American volunteers to work in underdeveloped countries as teachers, doctors, engineers, etc.

PT109: the patrol boat that JFK commanded in the Pacific during World War II. It was struck and broken in half by a Japanese destroyer, and JFK won medals for the action he took to save his crew.

sit-in: a form of peaceful demonstration in which protesters seat themselves in a particular area and refuse to move.

Space Race: the technological contest between the U.S. and USSR to become active in space.

Warren Commission: the group appointed to study JFK's assassination, chaired by Chief Justice Earl Warren. The commission concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone in the assassination and was not part of a larger conspiracy. 

In "Quotes"

Below are quotations from the speeches and writings of John Kennedy. Each is followed by a series of questions that you may want to raise with your students.

"The wave of the future is not the conquest of the world by a single dogmatic creed but the liberation of the diverse energies of free nations and free men."

Questions to Consider:

  • How does this quotation seem to belie Kennedy's stance as a cold war leader in the fight against communism?
  • Do you agree or disagree with Kennedy's statement?


"Liberty without learning is always in peril and learning without liberty is always in vain."

Questions to Consider:

  • What, in your own words, does Kennedy mean by this?
  • Why might education be important to maintaining liberty?
  • What dangers does an uneducated populace face from its government?


"When power leads man toward arrogance, poetry reminds him of his limitations. When power narrows the areas of man's concern, poetry reminds him of the richness and diversity of his existence. When power corrupts, poetry cleanses, for art establishes the basic human truths which must serve as the touchstone of our judgment."

Questions to Consider:

  • In what ways does this quotation indicate Kennedy's attitude toward literature and art?
  • How does art establish "the basic human truths"?
  • What role do you think art plays or should play in your life?


"Those who make peaceful revolution impossible will make violent revolution inevitable."

Questions to Consider:

  • Do you agree with this statement?
  • Does a repressive government inevitably bring about its own downfall? Why or why not?


"If we cannot end now our differences, at least we can help make the world safe for diversity."

Questions to Consider:

  • What famous quotation by another U.S. president is Kennedy alluding to?
  • What does this quotation say about Kennedy's attitude toward the Soviet Union and other communist nations of the time?


"If a free society cannot help the many who are poor, it cannot save the few who are rich."

Questions to Consider:

  • How is this statement an expression of democracy? Is it true?
  • How might having a large proportion of poor people affect the stability of a country?
  • How are wealthy people in a democracy linked to the well-being of the less fortunate?


"And so, my fellow Americans, ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country."

Questions to Consider:

  • What is it about this statement that makes it so memorable?
  • Why was it such a powerful call to action when it was spoken as part of Kennedy's inaugural speech?
  • Do you think it is the responsibility of citizens to serve their country? Why or why not?


"Unconditional war can no longer lead to unconditional victory. It can no longer serve to settle disputes. It can no longer be of concern to great powers alone. For a nuclear disaster, spread by winds and waters and fear, could well engulf the great and the small, the rich and the poor, the committed and the uncommitted alike. Mankind must put an end to war or war will put an end to mankind."

Questions to Consider:

  • Is it still true today, given the fall of the USSR, that "war will put an end to mankind"?
  • Can "unconditional" wars still be fought and won?

My American Experience

My American Experience photos

Share Your Story

Who is your favorite 20th-century American president? Was it Reagan? Kennedy? Clinton? Or one of the other 14 men who helped usher the United States through the 1900s? Who do you think was the most influential?