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Chasing Lincoln’s Killer with a Meemic Foundation Grant

Most people know the story of Lincoln’s assassination, but don’t know all the facts behind his killing. Since last year was the 150th anniversary of Lincoln’s death, Hilary Grant, an eighth-grade teacher at White Lake Middle School in White Lake, MI, decided to take her history lessons to the next level.

She assigned “Chasing Lincoln’s Killer” by James Swanson, which gave her students insight on the perpetrators and accomplices of Lincoln’s assassination. She made sure that the students had a thorough understanding of what went on, and even discussed a timeline of the events that took place leading up to his death.

But as much as she wanted her students to feel the story come to life, it wasn’t going to happen by only reading about it. Hilary wanted her students to really dive into the story to piece things together.

While working for a student travel company in Washington, D.C., over summer vacation, Hilary was drawn to visit sites around the city that could help her learn about better teaching methods. At Ford’s Theatre, where Lincoln was shot, she learned about the walking tour with Detective McDevitt, a re-enactor playing a detective on Lincoln’s assassination investigation.

Seeing the tour for herself, Hilary immediately thought of the potential learning experience for her eighth-graders: “He brings the students on as ‘junior’ detectives, so to speak, to present them with information about the Lincoln assassination, the manhunt for his killer and the others involved in the conspiracy.”

While Detective McDevitt may be on a green screen in a studio, Hilary still felt captivated by the idea of a distance learning experience for her class. So, she applied for a Meemic Foundation grant, hoping to expose her class to the interactive history lesson from Ford’s Theatre.

Once she received the grant, Hilary brought her vision to life. After discussing the process of the program with her students, she introduced them to Detective McDevitt, and that’s when the real fun began.

“The program is like Facetime with Detective McDevitt …” she said. “He can see and hear them, and we can see and hear him. He asks questions, and the students answer, and at the end, the students can ask him questions either about the conspiracy or about Ford’s Theatre itself. They hear all the information presented by Detective McDevitt, and he gives them a few minutes to discuss which people they think may or may not be guilty. Then the students get to vote on whether certain historical figures are guilty or innocent. Detective McDevitt then lets them know what really happened with these people.”

Hilary made it a point to circle the lesson around being a bystander of bullying, by showing the class that witnessing something wrong, but doing nothing, can be just as bad.

“The Ford’s Theatre presentation allows them to ask questions and really think about why someone is guilty or innocent. My students have a tough time understanding why those conspirators who knew something was going on (kidnapping or assassination plans) but never told any authorities or tried to stop it are just as guilty as those who actually wielded a gun or knife. They start to get the idea of what it means to be an accomplice. We spend a lot of time in class discussing bullying and anti-bullying techniques.”

The kids loved learning more about the investigation with the detective, and were especially absorbed in the fact that they were interacting with him over video chat. While it was their first time experiencing a distance learning lesson focused in D.C., it wouldn’t be their last walk through of the city.

As an eighth-grade class, the students got to visit Washington, D.C., toward the end of the school year, and luckily, Hilary had a few things up her sleeve that tied together perfectly with her lesson:

“On the morning of the second day in D.C., we have an appointment to tour Ford’s Theatre. We get time in the basement museum, where students get to see some of the actual artifacts from the Lincoln assassination. They get to see everything from John Wilkes Booth’s boot that was cut off so Dr. Mudd could set his broken leg to the pistol that Booth used to kill Lincoln to the diary Booth kept while he was on the run. We get to see the inside of the theater where Lincoln was shot. And, finally, one of our tour guides takes our entire school around the alley to the back of the theater where Booth made his escape from the theater for another talk on the Lincoln assassination."