JFK’s Inaugural Address

by Julie Baergen

Unit Objective

This lesson on President John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address is part of Gilder Lehrman’s series of Common Core–based units. These units were written to enable students to understand, summarize, and analyze original texts of historical significance. Students will demonstrate this knowledge by writing summaries of selections from the original document and, by the end of the unit, articulating their understanding of the complete document by answering questions in an argumentative writing style to fulfill the Common Core Standards. Through this step-by-step process, students will acquire the skills to analyze any primary or secondary source material.

After completion of this unit, students will be able to:

  • Analyze a document for understanding and cite explicit and/or inferred evidence from complex text to support their reasoning.  
  • Determine main ideas from a text.
  • Determine the meaning of general academic words (Tier 2 vocabulary) and domain-specific words (Tier 3 vocabulary) as they relate to the studied document.
  • Draw on information from multiple print or digital sources.
  • Explain the effectiveness of the structure of President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address.

Unit Overview

A brief biography of President John F. Kennedy and an analysis of his Inaugural Address give students exposure to the thirty-fifth President of the United States, his perspective on the role of the United States as a contributor to global affairs, and US citizens’ responsibility to serve their country.

This study of JFK’s Inaugural Address goes beyond analysis of familiar quotations and explores the entire content of the address, including the structure, and ends with an examination of the speech in the context of events of the day. This series of lessons might be used during a study of American presidents, influential Americans, the Civil Rights Movement, etc., and can be used in English language arts as a model for student writing.

While the unit is intended to flow over a five-day period, it is possible to present and complete the material within a shorter time frame. For example, in a high school class or advanced middle school group, the first and second lessons can be used to ensure an understanding of the process with all of the activity (Sections A and B) completed in class on day one. The teacher can then assign lesson three (Section C) as homework. The concluding lessons four and five are completed in class on day two.

Possible Essential Questions

  • “Let the word go forth from this time and place, to friend and foe alike, that the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans . . . unwilling to witness or permit the slow undoing of those human rights to which this nation has always been committed.”

What impact did President John F. Kennedy have on preserving human rights in America and the world?

  • “Let both sides seek to invoke the wonders of science instead of its terrors. Together let us explore the stars, conquer the deserts, eradicate disease, tap the ocean depths and encourage the arts and commerce.”

Do these ideas from the 1960s still have relevance today?

  • JFK and speechwriter Ted Sorenson studied Abraham Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address, as well as other past inaugural speeches, and consulted with friends and others for suggestions when drafting Kennedy’s address.

How are effective speeches constructed?

Introduction

In November 1960, at the age of 43, John Fitzgerald Kennedy (JFK) was the youngest man to be elected President of the United States. His Inaugural Address, given on January 20, 1961, is among the most recognizable presidential speeches and was the first ever to be broadcast on color television.

JFK was born into an influential Boston family of Irish descent in 1917. Following family tradition, he entered public service, first through serving in the US Navy and then in government, beginning with a seat in the US Senate in 1952.

Kennedy was both politically influential and a cultural icon. His family—wife Jacqueline Lee Bouvier and the couple’s two young children—captivated the American public.

Kennedy took office during a time of turbulence and change in the United States. Tensions were rising domestically, with civil rights issues coming to a head, as well as globally in relationships between the US and international powers (especially the Soviet Union, Cuba, and Southeast Asia). The Soviet satellite Sputnik launched the space age in 1957, and the United States was under pressure to compete. This is just a sampling of the challenges facing the Kennedy administration in 1961.

It is in this context that President Kennedy addressed the crowds on the Capitol steps in January 1961. A heavy snowfall the previous night did not stop the ceremony as Washington, DC, street maintenance crews scrambled to clear the path for the more than 20,000 people in attendance. JFK’s address to the American people lasted thirteen minutes and fifty-nine seconds and was well received. (For a complete biography of President John F. Kennedy see the Additional Resources section following this lesson plan.)

President Kennedy’s Inaugural Address provides many learning opportunities for students, but first they must understand the content of the document. Students will first read the document (abridged), then engage in a document analysis of the text. The full transcript of the speech is available at the National Archives. Students will benefit from hearing and seeing President Kennedy deliver his address through links provided in the materials section.

Additionally, Kennedy’s use of literary devices such as metaphor and imagery make this inaugural address an excellent model for students as they engage in their own writing.

Lesson 1

In Lesson 1, students will complete an initial reading of JFK’s Inaugural Address. They will participate in a teacher-led shared reading of the text and analysis of the opening paragraphs (Section A) of the document.

Materials

Procedure (Instruction and Assessment)

  1. Tell students they will be engaged in a series of lessons to analyze an important document in American history. The class will start out working together, and students will eventually be asked to do their own analysis of part of the document.
  2. Hand out a copy of JFK’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961 (Abridged) to each student and project the document for the class to see. Allow students an opportunity to read the document silently. Some students may not have the stamina to read the entire document. That’s ok; allow them to struggle a bit. Like exercising, the more students practice reading long documents, the longer they will be able to attend to the text. Students may make notes on their paper of questions they might have and/or words they don’t know. At this point try not to answer a lot of questions, but encourage students to ask them. In a later lesson students will be comparing this document to a historical timeline of events that may clear up some of their questions. Write students’ questions on chart paper and revisit them at the end of the lesson to see if any can be answered. After a reasonable period of time ask students to stop reading. Now would be a good time to record any questions students might have and start a list of words they are not familiar with. Try not to define words for students, but encourage them to use context clues to understand the meaning of words. Allow students to discuss the document and words with each other.
  3. The teacher will now begin a shared reading of the document. To share read the document the teacher begins reading Section A aloud, modeling fluency as the students follow along. After a few sentences the students read out loud with the teacher as the teacher continues to model fluent reading. The teacher may stop and think aloud as he/she reads to model good reader skills.
  4. After the shared reading, give each student a copy of the JFK’s Inaugural Address Graphic Organizer for Section A and also project it where students can see it as the teacher records responses during the whole class analysis of Section A.
  5. Explain to students that they will be re-reading this first section to select key words that will be used to create a summary sentence demonstrating understanding of what President Kennedy was saying in the opening paragraphs of the address.
  6. Key words are those words from the passage that must be there for comprehension of the text. Without them the selection would not make sense. Key words are usually nouns or verbs. They are not “connector” words (are, is, and, so, etc.). The number of key words depends on the length of the original selection. This selection has ninety-one words, so students can pick six or seven key words. The other rule is that students can’t pick words they don’t know. So as the class begins selecting key words, there will be opportunities to teach students how to use context clues, word analysis, and dictionary skills to discover word meanings, which is a more authentic and relevant way to learn.
  7. Students select the six or seven words from the text they believe are the key words and then write them in the box to the right of the text on their organizers.
  8. The teacher then asks the class for contributions to the class key word list. Through discussion and negotiation the class chooses their list of six to seven words. This discussion is an important part of the lesson as students are practicing communication skills while the teacher encourages and models cooperative learning behaviors. The discussion is also an opportunity for the teacher to listen carefully to student responses and make an informal check for understanding. Key words for Section A might be Americans, human rights, committed, survival, success, and liberty. (Short word combinations such as human rights are allowed when it makes sense to do so. Whole phrases, however, are not permitted.) Once negotiations are complete and the key words are chosen, or time runs out and the teacher makes the final decision, the students and the teacher write the class list of key words in the provided space on the graphic organizer.
  9. Next the teacher explains that the class will use the Key Words to write a sentence that restates or summarizes what President Kennedy was saying. For example: Americans are committed to the survival and success of human rights including liberty. This again is a whole-class negotiation process with the discussion being the most important part. The class may decide that some key words should be omitted to streamline the summary. The teacher and the students copy the final negotiated sentence into the designated space on the organizer.
  10. The final step in this analysis process is for students to put the summary statement using the author’s words into a summary statement using the students’ words. Again, this is a class discussion and negotiation process. For example: Americans will do anything necessary to ensure that all the human rights of all people of the world are protected.
  11. Using complete sentences and evidence from the text, ask students to answer the Questions to Consider. Solicit possible answers from the students. Use the students’ sentences for lessons in sentence structure, etc. This is also another opportunity to check for understanding.
  12. Wrap-up: Discuss the process with the students and review any vocabulary words that students found confusing or difficult. Review the questions students have and see if any can be answered at this time. Students may have questions that require some research. Challenge students to do this on their own and bring their findings to the next lesson.

Lesson 2

In Lesson 2 students work in pairs or triads to continue their analysis of JFK’s Inaugural Address. Section B of the address identifies six pledges JFK made to the world on behalf of the United States. Students will decode each pledge to identify the essence of the pledge and to whom it was made. For each pledge students will provide a short answer to a comprehension check question.

Materials

Procedure (Instruction and Assessment)

  1. Tell students that today they will be working in small groups to complete analysis of Section B of JFK’s Inaugural Address. Set the stage for learning by reviewing the summary statement created in the first lesson. Allow students an opportunity to share any reflections on the lesson and results of any independent research. Record any student questions generated from the review.
  2. Using best practices for grouping students, seat students in work groups of two or three and provide each student with a copy of JFK’s Inaugural Address, January 20, 1961 (Abridged). (The ideal would be for students to continue using their self-annotated copy from the previous lesson so they can add to their notes.)
  3. Allow students time to read Section B silently and then share read Section B of the address with students as done in Lesson 1. Ask students to work with their partner(s) to identify any patterns of writing they see and provide specific examples from the text. Students may observe that specific groups of people are being addressed, the word pledge is used multiple times usually followed by an action, and there is an explanation following the stated action. Share these patterns with the whole group. As students are working the teacher should be walking around the room listening to students’ conversations, guiding discussions, and keeping everyone on track.
  4. Provide a copy of Section B of JFK’s Inaugural Address Graphic Organizer to each student and project the organizer for students to see. The organizer for Section B is formatted differently from the organizer for Section A. This section of the address identifies six pledges JFK made to the world on behalf of the United States. Students will decode each pledge, identify the essence of the pledge and to whom it was made, and provide a short answer to a comprehension check question.
  5. The teacher explains to students that he/she will be modeling what students will be doing by completing the first pledge. After that students will work through each pledge one at a time with their partner(s), stopping after each pledge to check in with the whole class. Depending on the students’ abilities after the first two or three pledges students may continue to work on their own without the whole class check.
  6. The teacher thinks aloud as he/she first reads what is in the box to the right of the first pledge and identifies what the pledge is and to whom it is pledged, and provides a short answer to the question. Ask students what questions they have about the process. After these have been answered allow students to work with their partner(s) to complete the next pledge. Come together as a class to check responses and answer questions. Continue in this manner with the remaining pledges.
  7. Wrap-up: Review the list of recorded student questions and make note of any answers or record additional questions discovered during Lesson 2.

Share the limerick The Lady and the Tiger with students and ask students to explain the relationship between this limerick and the address. Explain to students that President Kennedy has used the literary device of allusion to make a point. (An allusion is a figure of speech whereby the author refers to a subject matter such as a place, event, or literary work by way of a passing reference. It is up to the reader to make a connection to the subject being mentioned. See http://literary-devices.com/.) Challenge students to include an allusion in their next writing.

Lesson 3

In Lesson 3 students continue to work in pairs or triads to analyze Section C of JFK’s Inaugural Address. The teacher will move throughout the room assisting students with guided conversations.

In Section C President Kennedy outlines his vision for America moving forward in the world.

Materials

Procedure (Instruction and Assessment)

  1. Tell students that today they will continue working with JFK’s Inaugural Address in their work groups. At the end of the lesson groups will share their key words and summary statements with the class. Quickly review the summary statement from Lesson 1 and the pledges from Lesson 2. Record any findings from students’ independent research; record students’ answers or partial answers to the recorded questions from previous lessons.
  2. Be sure each student has their copy of the abridged inaugural address. Complete a shared reading of Section C with students as done in Lesson 1. Answer any questions students might have about the process for analyzing this section.
  3. Set a time limit for students to work in their groups to identify the key words. When time is up ask each group to share their list of key words and be ready to tell why they were chosen. This conversation sets the groups up for writing their summary statements.
  4. Each group will now use their key words to write a summary statement, and then re-state the summary in their own words. The teacher is continually moving from group to group guiding students as needed. Allow students to struggle with the process and coach them with guiding questions to find their own information. Check with the class near the end of the time period. Add more time if needed, or stop the activity and move to the next step if students don’t need the extra time.
  5. Give each group an opportunity to share their summary statements with the class. This could be done several ways: students share their graphic organizers with a document reader; students record their responses on chart paper and hang on the wall; etc.
  6. As work groups are sharing their findings, encourage discussion. This discussion will allow the teacher to check for understanding and broaden the understanding of the other groups. There will be a variety of responses. Responses should be accepted if students can reasonably defend them.
  7. Wrap Up: Kennedy’s descriptive writing paints vivid word pictures. Ask students to choose one or more example in this section and write about how Kennedy’s choice of words is used to persuade his audience. For example: Kennedy uses the phrase “a beachhead of cooperation may push back the jungle of suspicion.” A beachhead is defined in Merriam-Webster’s dictionary as “an area on a hostile shore occupied to secure further landing of troops and supplies.” This paints the picture of people standing together against a common foe. The common foe in this case is described as a jungle of suspicion. Jungles are often dangerous, uncomfortable places. The jungle Kennedy describes is full of suspicion. Kennedy seems to be asking America and the world to stand together against these dangers. His reference to jungles and beachheads implies military action (as might be seen in the conflict to stop the spread of communism in Vietnam).
  8. This might be a good place to allow students to hear and see President Kennedy give his address:

Ask students to listen to and observe President Kennedy as he speaks. Ask them to think about how the audio and visual presentation adds to the meaning of the address and to be prepared to share their ideas with the rest of the class.

Lesson 4

Lesson 4 concludes the analysis of JFK’s Inaugural Address by asking students to complete the process individually. The teacher continues to move throughout the room assisting students with guided conversations.

In Sections D and E, President Kennedy challenges American citizens to participate in making his vision a reality. Section E includes the famous quotation “ask not what your country can do for you—ask what you can do for your country.”

Materials

Procedure (Instruction and Assessment)

  1. Tell students that today they will finish their analysis of JFK’s Inaugural Address by completing the last two, short sections on their own. Quickly review the summary statements from the previous lessons and the pledges from Lesson 2. Record any findings from students’ independent research; record students’ answers or partial answers to the recorded questions from previous lessons.
  2. Be sure each student has their copy of the abridged inaugural address. Complete a shared reading of Sections D and E with students as done in Lesson 1. Answer any questions students might have about the process for analyzing this section and encouraging them to take notes on their papers. 
  3. Set a time limit for students to identify the key words, use the key words to write a summary statement, and re-state the summary in their own words for Section D. The teacher is continually moving from group to group guiding students as needed. Allow students to struggle with this exercise and coach them with guiding questions to find their own information. Check with the class near the end of the time period. Add more time if needed, or stop the activity and move to the next step if students don’t need the extra time.
  4. At this point ask students to meet with their work group partner(s) to share what they have accomplished. Give students about ten to fifteen minutes to discuss their responses with each other and make any changes.
  5. For Section E students return to their individual work and complete the activity as before. Student work is collected and checked for understanding.

Lesson 5

In Lesson 5 students will compare a timeline of historical events from the 1950s to JFKs inaugural address. A sample timeline is included with this lesson, but teachers should feel free to add to it or create their own. After reading the events listed on the timeline students will look for references to the events in the inaugural speech, and, using evidence from the text, support their reasoning for the match.

Materials

Procedure (Instruction and Assessment)

  1. Tell students that on this last day of working with the text they will be looking at the historical context of the inaugural speech. Kennedy’s address speaks to events of the day and what actions his administration planned to take. It is the students’ task to discover what parts of the inaugural address match up with the entries on the timeline. This will be a class project.
  2. Be sure each student has their copy of the abridged inaugural address and/or their completed graphic organizer. Their notes will help them as they begin the activity.
  3. Complete a shared reading of the events on the timeline. Answer any questions students might have about the process for analysis.
  4. Allow students to sit in their work groups to match the timeline entries to portions of the inaugural address and encourage them to make notes about why these texts match as they will be defending their work to the class.
  5. Follow up with a whole class discussion. Revisit the list of unanswered student generated questions. Now is the time to answer any questions that did not come up in the text analysis and/or assign further research to interested students.

Extension (optional)

Further Study: Students research answers to their questions generated through the document analysis. Possible topics might include anything related to civil rights, the space race, US foreign relations, etc.

Further Study: What impact did President Kennedy have on America and the world? AmeriCorps; Civil Rights; Foreign Policy; assassination; etc.

Writing: Use JFK’s Inaugural Address as a model for good writing. Challenge students to practice the literary devices Kennedy uses in their own writing. For example: replace everyday language with imagery; to make a point, allude to a place, event, or literary work that the writer’s audience would know; use parallelism to make sentences more interesting; use metaphors to clarify a concept; follow Kennedy’s pattern to organize an essay.

Additional Resources

John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum: All sorts of resources are available for a study of the thirty-fifth President of the United States, including links to audio/visuals, primary documents, and on-line exhibits.

Literary Devices: An online dictionary of literary devices with detailed descriptions and examples.

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