This week I took a trip to The John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA. The museum is “dedicated to preserving and providing access to the legacy of the 35th President of the United States.”
Among all the artifacts, photographs, and videos, JFK’s writings were at the forefront. The museum and library present the depth of John F. Kennedy’s writing from his schooling days, his honors thesis that was turned into a book, his writing Portraits of Courage, and the countless speeches he wrote (along with his aide, Ted Sorenson) and presented during the time he was in office. It is intriguing that the Museum begins with information about JFK as a young person and highlights his lack of focus and academic rigor in high school. In fact, it is clear based on his high school grades that school was not JFK’s priority. His French teacher wrote, “Jack’s work varies from excellent to extremely poor. . . he has to make the decision between mediocrity and worthwhile work, – and Jack should never be content with the former.” As one progresses throughout the museum, it is clear that JFK’s work moving forward was more than worthwhile.
Looking at Kennedy’s writings it is clear that he borrowed from many models and mentors himself to produce one of the greatest speeches in American history. Kennedy’s inaugural address taps into key themes Kennedy wanted to convey to the American people at the beginning of an era: peace, freedom, service to others, and personal accountability. The speech itself contains contributions or borrowings from, the Old Testament, the New Testament, and president Lincoln. It has been said that the line, “Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do from your country” was adapted from Kennedy’s headmaster at Choate.
As a writer, Kennedy was always revising his speeches and looking at the original scripts, one can see the revisions he made in his own handwriting to get the words out just right. His words are meticulous and thoughtful. He used his words to present ideas about war and peace, the possibility of the space program, to advocate for people with intellectual disabilities, when facing a moral crisis and efforts to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation, and to celebrate great writers and artists.
As a teacher, I am always looking for models and mentors for my students to understand the writing process, the craft of writing, and how words are powerful to move masses of people to change thoughts and actions.
Author and teacher, Kelly Gallagher writes in In The Best Interest of Students (Stenhouse, 2015), “students benefit when they pay close attention to models before they begin drafting, they benefit when they pay close attention to models while they are drafting, and they benefit when they pay close attention to models as they begin moving their drafts into revision. Mentor texts achieve maximum effectiveness when students frequently revisit them throughout the writing process.” Kennedy’s writing can be used to study history and the craft of writing. So many of his speeches are mentor texts for our students.
As JFK wrote in the speech for Dallas before his assassination (and was never able to present), “The United States is a peaceful nation. And where our strength and determination are clear, our words need merely to convey conviction, not belligerence.” Throughout his 1,036 days in office, John F. Kennedy’s words were clear and full of conviction, precise and provoking. Aren’t these the same characteristics we want to see in our students’ writing and thinking?