The President Has Been Shot, James L. Swanson

Monday, April 30, 2018

Any regular readers of this blog will know that non-fiction isn't really my thing. Apparently, I need a plot, because the only genre of non-fiction I read on a (semi)regular basis is the memoir. But, because we are gearing up to do some major curriculum revisions in the social studies department at my school, I spent the last month or so reading all the young adult non-fiction I could find pertaining to world history, American history, psychology, government, and even <gasp> economics.

Some of it was definitely not my cup of tea (I'm looking at you, Naked Economics), but I surprised myself by how many of the books I really enjoyed. One, in particular, was The President Had Been Shot by James L. Swanson. It details John F. Kennedy's rise to the presidency, including major events such as the Bay of Pigs and the Cuban Missile Crisis, and then gives a detailed, almost minute by minute account of the days leading up to the assassination, and the immediate aftermath.

There has been a rise in the amount of non-fiction aimed specifically at young adults in the last few years, and Swanson definitely understands his target demographic. The book is chock full of photographs, maps, and diagrams, breaking up the information visually and providing support for the reader, both of which have been shown to have a positive impact on the engagement and comprehension of young adult readers. The prose mostly reads like a good story, rather than a list of dates and facts, written in language that is sufficiently academic not to insult the intelligence of young adult readers, but not so academic that it feels stuffy and dry. The subject matter lends itself to a feeling of drama and suspense, despite the fact that we obviously already know how things turned out on that fateful day, and Swanson's writing fosters that feeling, especially once he gets to the events in Dallas just prior to, during, and after the assassination. What was new to me, even as an adult reader, was the descriptions of what happened the day of the assassination in terms of the gathering of evidence and treatment of the crime scene by police, FBI, and Secret Service officers. How so many people botched what was, even on the 1960s, pretty standard investigative protocols is beyond me, even given the extraordinary event that was the assassination of a sitting president.

There are a ton of content connections in the text that could be used as jumping off points for bringing in other material, if this book were to be used in a classroom. It mentions the Bay of Pigs and Cuban Missile Crisis, as stated above, but also the space race, the Berlin Wall, Joseph McCarthy, the Civil Rights movement, and Soviet defections. It is also an opportunity to examine the uniquely tragic history of the Kennedy family in general; Joseph Jr's death in WWII, JFK's assassination, RFK's assassination, Rosemary Kennedy's botched lobotomy, Ted Kennedy's Chappaquiddick scandal, and JFK Jr's plane crash. The book also makes mention of some of the conspiracy theories about the assassination that grew out of the Warren Report, providing a springboard for talking about how historians evaluate evidence and draw conclusions, as well as teaching students how to evaluate whether a source is credible.

I'm definitely not a fan of exclusively using the textbook to teach, well, anything, so if I were teaching US History I could definitely see using this book as one resource for a unit on the 1960s, the Cold War, or the US presidency. I think that it would stimulate not just intellectual curiosity but also the emotions of teenagers, and getting emotions involved is one way to help students retain information. If they can remember how they felt when they read something, the content will stick with them longer. Unless what they felt was bored, which is why I think that using this type of text is a great way for history teachers to increase the engagement level of their students with their content.

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