An HBO Documentary Film
GRADES 7 – 12
Film Synopsis: “Ethel” celebrates the life of Ethel Kennedy – matriarch of one of the most influential families
in American politics. Directed by her daughter, Rory, the documentary is a personal portrait, featuring
interviews with Ethel and her children Kathleen, Joe, Bobby, Courtney, Kerry, Chris and Max. The film spans
Ethel’s political awakening, the life she shared with Robert Kennedy and the years following his death, when
she raised their 11 children. Given the Kennedys’ place at the forefront of many of the pivotal events of the
modern era, the sweep is vast, ranging from the McCarthy hearings and the Civil Rights movement, to Vietnam
and the anti-war movement, to the assassinations of John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert
Kennedy. As the film shows, just as John F. Kennedy’s death moved Robert to recommit to a life of public
service, Robert’s death pushed Ethel to do the same. She founded the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Human
Rights and Justice to help carry on his work, and has participated in human rights delegations all over the world.
Today, many of her children work for social justice, which is often attributed to their father’s influence, but as
Rory reminds Ethel, Robert Kennedy died when they were very young. She’ll have none of it. “I just don’t feel
I can take the credit,” Ethel says, with a wisdom forged from hardship and triumph, “Nobody gets a free have your wits about you, and do what you can and dig in because it might not last.”
Program Running Time: 1:37:12
Themes/topics explored
• Politics as a tool for doing good for others
• Understanding the importance of living during important historical events
• The evolving role of women in politics and society
• Living an engaged life as an example for one’s children
Content Areas: Social Studies, U.S. History, Civics and Government
Grade Level: 7-12
Learning Objectives
The Student will…
• Describe the significance of key historical events in which Ethel Kennedy lived and their relevance
• Evaluate the role of politics in addressing social concerns in the 1960s and today.
• Analyze Ethel Kennedy’s role in her husband’s political life and compare with partners of political
figures today.
• Analyze the issues Bobby and Ethel Kennedy fought for in the 1960s and their importance today.
• Evaluate the importance of parents sharing with their children the work they do and the values they hold.
Standards Alignment from McREL (
U.S. History
• Standard 27: Understands how the Cold War and conflicts in Korea and Vietnam influenced domestic
and international politics
• Standard 28: Understands domestic policies in the post-World War II period
• Standard 29: Understands the struggle for racial and gender equality and for the extension of civil
• Standard 1: Understands ideas about civic life, politics, and government
• Standard 10: Understands the roles of voluntarism and organized groups in American social and
political life
Standard 28: Understands how participation in civic and political life can help citizens attain individual
and public goals
Standard 29: Understands the importance of political leadership, public service, and a knowledgeable
citizenry in American constitutional democracy
Time Frame:
• Film viewing time: 1 hour 37 minutes.
• Lesson Option 1 – Class Discussion: 1 class period
• Lesson Option 2 – Multiple Activities
o Create a Timeline: 1 class period
o Video Viewing Activity: 1 to 1 ½ class periods
o Challenge Envelope Activity: 1 class period
o Culminating Activity: 1 class period or as homework
Ethel Kennedy was born into a large Catholic family in Chicago in 1928. A bright and active young woman,
Ethel grew up in Connecticut and married Robert F. Kennedy in 1950. Ethel and Bobby would share a passion
for politics, service to their country, and social justice that they would pass on to their eleven children. As the
wife of a rising political star, Ethel was often at the forefront of many pivotal events in the mid-20th century
such as the McCarthy hearings, the Civil Rights movement, the Cuban Missile Crisis, the groundbreaking
political elections of the 1960’s, and the battle for labor rights. During this time, she encouraged her children to
understand the historical importance of the times and be actively involved in improving the lives of others.
In 1968, while running for president of the United States, Robert F. Kennedy was assassinated. Ethel would
make it her life’s work to pursue their shared vision, and raise their eleven children to value the gift of a
contributory life. In honor of her husband, Ethel, along with friends and family, created the RFK Center for
Justice and Human Rights to ensure his spirit would live on through supporting individuals, alliances, and
organizations dedicated to improving human rights around the world. The Center bolsters the efficacy of
human rights defenders, and empowers students worldwide through their human rights education program
Speak Truth To Power. The RFK Center also recognizes the work of activists, authors, journalists, and students
who have stood up against oppression.
As Ethel became a political force in her own right, she personally tackled human rights issues both at home and
abroad. She has marched with Cesar Chavez, sat with Native Americans at Alcatraz, boycotted fast food
businesses with the Immokolee Workers, demonstrated outside the South African and Chinese embassies,
joined the Global March for Children, pulled tires out of the Anacostia River, trekked up mountainous terrain in
Mexico to visit unjustly convicted prisoners, traveled to Haiti to see the effects of the US blocking loans, visited
Apartheid era South Africa, ( and 40 years later) , crossed the Edmund Pettis Bridge with John Lewis,
confronted dictator Arap Moi in Nairobi, filled a 757 with relief supplies for African countries, visited
orphanages in Angola and raised millions of dollars for human rights work around the globe.
Ethel continues to be politically and social active and loves spending time with her family which includes 37
grandchildren and one great-grand child. Directed by her daughter Rory, the HBO documentary “Ethel” shares
her story, and is an educational tool to help students appreciate the life and times in which she lived.
How to use this Guide
This lesson guide offers teachers two options for presentation to their class. In Lesson Option 1, teachers can
present the film in its entirety OR present individual clips from the film available at This can be done either as homework or in class,
Teachers can then review the suggested discussion questions provided and end with the culminating activity.
Lesson Option 2 offers several activities that can be conducted in a continuous fashion or as standalone
activities. This will give teachers optimum flexibility in using the film and lesson guide in their classes.
LESSON OPTION 1 – Post-Viewing Activity
Opening Activity
1. Write this quote up on the front board or overhead.
“It is from numberless diverse acts of courage and belief that human history is shaped.”
Robert Kennedy, 1966
2. After giving students a chance to think about the quote, form them into small groups of 2-3. Ask them,
“What does it mean to have courage?” and allow them a few seconds to discuss. Write down several
ideas on the board. After discussion develops, ask the following questions to different members of each
group in a full class discussion:
• Does courage mean something different for men and women?
• Does the meaning of courage differ among people of different ages, ethnic groups, or social
• Does courage mean standing up for something you believe in even when others don’t?
3. Show the film, “Ethel” or ask students to watch individual clips, either as homework or in class. After
viewing the video, discuss the following questions with students.
Describe the significance of inviting Dr. Ralph Bunche to speak at the University of Virginia
Law School in 1951. How does such an action bring the issue of racial equality to a public
institution like the university? Do you think this was a good idea or not? Explain you answer.
(Clip 1)
For what reasons did Ethel Kennedy take her children to see their father at work while he was in
Congress and as Attorney General? Do you think this was a good idea? Why, or why not? Is this
something you would do with your children? Explain you answer. (Clip 2)
Ethel Kennedy worked on John Kennedy’s campaign for U.S. Senate in 1953 and his presidential
bid in 1959. Discuss the role she played in these political elections and how it compares to the
role women play in campaigns today. (Clips 3a & 3b)
Discuss the values Ethel and Robert Kennedy instilled in their children:
• Politics is an admirable profession, a tool for doing good for others.
• Understanding the historical importance of the times they lived in.
• Living an exemplarily life.
• Dealing with loss.
• Carrying on a family legacy.
Which of these do you feel are the most important and why? (All clips)
How does Ethel play a pivotal role in her husband’s life after the death of his brother, John
Kennedy? Explain how she was able to help her husband refocus his life and carry on the work
he and his brother had started. (Clip 5)
Ethel Kennedy was deeply involved with Robert Kennedy’s human rights work. Adopted by the
United Nations and ratified by the United States government in 1948, the Universal Declaration
of Human Rights describes rights in clear and simple terms the rights which belong equally to
every person- Identify some of the
issues Robert Kennedy and Ethel Kennedy were concerned about, how they relate to the articles
of the UDHR, how they chose to address these issues and the importance of these issues today.
(Clip 7)
Lesson Option 1 Culminating Activity
Have students create an explanation of what it means to be courageous. This can be a one page paper, visual
representation or performance piece (song or short skit). Students should use examples from the film “Ethel” to
illustrate and support their points, but they can also draw from other people’s experiences or their own.
LESSON OPTION 2 – Multiple Activities
Opening Activity – Create a Timeline*
This activity will help students understand the times in which Ethel spent much of her adult life and provide a
context for the film. Students (working in small groups or individually) will research and summarize each main
event and construct a brief presentation that can be done orally or as a digital presentation (slide show, webpage
entry or other).
1. Divide the class into 9 small groups and distribute the timeline handout to each group. Then assign each
group one of the events in the timeline. Intro and exit points from the film are provided on the student
2. Provide time for students to research their timeline entry’s historical details and compose a brief
description of the event.
3. Have each group construct a timeline entry card either on poster board or as a digital presentation
(digital slide or webpage).
4. Provide an opportunity for all students to present their timeline entry to the class or publish them online.
Debriefing Questions
Review the following questions with students:
• Review the issues the United States was confronting during the scope of this timeline.
• What events were familiar and what events were new to you? What events surprised you and why?
• Which issue/event do you feel had the greatest impact on the country and the American people? Explain
• What issues from the timeline is the United States still dealing with today? How well do you think
Americans are dealing with these issues? Explain your answer.
* Though not essential, it is suggested that students view the film “Ethel” either as home work or in class before
starting this activity. You can also have students view the film clips related to each entry on the timeline.
Activity 2 – Video Viewing Activity
Ethel Kennedy’s life with Bobby provided her a wealth of experience and opportunities to make a difference. In
this activity, students will work in groups to examine key events in the life of Bobby and Ethel Kennedy and
main themes of the film “Ethel.” This activity provides students with the content for Activity 3 and the
Culminating Activity.
1. Divide the class into small groups of 3 to 4 students.
2. Distribute the handout “Video Viewing Activity – Graphic Organizer.”
3. Have students take notes on each of the seven video segments and discuss the questions on the graphic
4. After students have viewed the clips and completed the graphic organizer, hold a general discussion over
the following topics highlighted in the clips:
• The role of politics in addressing social concerns
• What it’s like to live during important historical events
• The role of women in the 1960s and their role today
• Living an exemplary life promoting ethical values
• Exposing young children to the realities of political life
Activity 3 – Challenge Envelope Activity
This activity will help students review key concepts from the film “Ethel” in a unique writing/discussion
activity. This activity can be adopted for email, Twitter or blog discussions.
1. Write each challenge question from the list below on an envelope.
• Provide examples of how Ethel and Robert Kennedy believed in the idea that politics is an
admirable profession and a tool for doing service for others.
• Why do you think Ethel Kennedy exposed her young children to their father’s work and
encouraged them to understand the issues of the time they lived in?
• Explain whether you feel Ethel Kennedy was a traditional wife and mother in the 1960s.
• Provide examples of how Ethel Kennedy promotes human rights values she and her husband
Bobby shared.
• Why do you feel it is important for parents to help their children understand their family’s
2. Divide the class into small groups.
3. Provide each group with as many 3x5 index cards as there are envelopes.
4. Distribute one envelope to each group. Have the groups answer the question on the front of their
envelope and write an answer on the index card. Then put the card in the envelope.
5. Have the groups rotate the envelopes to each group, but ask that they don’t read the other groups’
answers while composing their own answer. They should compose their own answer on a new index
card and place it in the envelope and send it back into circulation.
6. After each group has answered each question, ask that they pick the best response from their last
envelope to share with the class. Ask students for any thoughts or comments they may have on the
question responses.
Culminating Activity
Have students write an essay on one of the following essential questions. In their essay, students shouldn’t just
report the facts, but also express their opinions on the issues surrounding the question.
Are politics and public service as admirable a profession today as they were in the 1960s? Are they
effective tools for addressing the nation’s problems and issues? Provide examples to support your views.
Compare and contrast Ethel Kennedy’s role in the 1960s with people who are married to political figures
today or are in politics and public service. What similarities and differences do you see? Describe any
connections you see from the work that Ethel Kennedy did to what women do today in politics and
public service.
Are the human rights issues Ethel and Bobby Kennedy fought for in the 1960s important today and if so,
what are these issues and how do you think they should be addressed?
How does the act of engaging young children in the work and values of their parents help them
understand their family’s legacy? Explain whether you feel it is a good idea for parents to expose their
children to the realities of life at an early age and the work their parents do to address those realities.
Extension Activities
• Ethel Kennedy lived during an era where the social expectations of women could have limited her
involvement in politics, yet she was able to work creatively within her role and make an impact.
Realistically consider what expectations society (your school, your parents, your friends) has of you as a
young person well as your own limitations. In a small group brainstorm how you can make a big impact
as a student on an issue you find important and plan an event to carry out your idea. Think of all the
resources you do have- the internet (YouTube/Facebook/Twitter/STTP online,) your school, after school clubs and organizations, or your family for example.
Remember, no matter who you are you can change the world now. Try something fun and simple and
remember to include your friends.
Think of a human rights issue that may not be widely understood or accepted by your peers, your family,
or your community but is important to you. Perhaps it is a religion that most people don’t understand or
a topic people are typically uneducated about or fearful of like immigration or HIV/AIDS. Contact a
local organization involved with these issues, and ask a subject matter expert to speak to your class,
school, or club. You may need to work with your school to get permission to have a guest speaker. If it
is not possible to find a person to speak, make or find an appropriate video that informs the audience
about the topic and see if it’s possible to share it.
A public speech can be a very powerful way to share an idea or message, but is often a difficult skill to
deliver that takes hard work and practice. In the film “Ethel” we learn that Robert Kennedy, a man
known for his brilliant and moving public speeches, also had difficulty mastering this skill. For some
people there are ways to communicate that cause less anxiety but still send a powerful message like art,
or music. In groups of two choose a human rights issue you feel is important to speak about, and decide
who your audience will be (think of your comfort level and your ability to make an impact). Visit one of
the sites below to help you prepare your speech. Both partners should practice the speech, but decide
who will make the actual speech in front of an audience. Now brainstorm a second way to communicate
your message together that is different from a speech (music, poetry, skit, or photography or artwork).
Try to use skills or talents the other student (who is not giving the speech) has to create your second
message. Present both messages to your audience.
Public Speaking Resources:
Timeline-Chronology Activity
Student Handout
Directions: Research details of the event you’ve been assigned and write a description in the space under
“Historical Details.”
Event Topic and
1950s Racial
segregation in
Senator Joseph
McCarthy’s SubCommittee on
The U.S. Senate
Labor Rackets
Cuban Missile
Racial integration
at the University of
The assassination
of President John
Robert Kennedy
runs for U.S.
The assassination
of Martin Luther
King, Jr.
The assassination
of Robert Kennedy
Clip location
(Intro/ Exit)
Intro: 16:49
Historical Details
(students research events)
Exit: 18:02
Intro: 20:28
Exit: 22:25
Intro: 27:26
Exit: 30:09
Intro: 39:20
Exit: 41:55
Intro: 42:01
Exit: 45:02
Intro: 52:45
Exit: 57:05
Intro: 1:00:52
Exit: 1:05:50
Intro: 1:13:59
Exit: 1:16:56
Intro: 1:18:30
Exit: 1:25:07
Video Clip Note-Taking Graphic Organizer
Directions: View each of the following video segments and take notes on the graphic organizer
describing the event, the role Ethel Kennedy played in the event, and the contribution she made to the
event. Then after each clip, discuss the questions that follow in your small group.
Dr. Ralph Bunche speaks at the UVA Student Legal Forum (Clip 1)
Describe the overall event
Ethel Kennedy’s role
Ethel Kennedy’s contribution
Discussion Question: How did Ethel and Bobby Kennedy’s experience with Dr. Ralph Bunche reflect
the issues of the time?
Bobby Kennedy serves on the U.S. Senate’s Labor Rackets Committee (Clip 2)
Describe the overall event
Ethel Kennedy’s role
Ethel Kennedy’s contribution
Discussion Question: How did Ethel Kennedy taking her children to the senate committee hearings give
her children an understanding of what their father did? What message did this sent to her children about
the role of government?
John Kennedy’s Presidential Campaign (Clips 3a & 3b)
Describe the overall event
Ethel Kennedy’s role
Ethel Kennedy’s contribution
Discussion Question: What role did Ethel Kennedy see herself playing in the John Kennedy’s
presidential campaign? How is this role typical or atypical of other women/wives in the 1960s?
Cuban Missile Crisis (approx. 39 minutes in)
Describe the overall event
Ethel Kennedy’s role
Ethel Kennedy’s contribution
Discussion Question: Describe the dilemma Ethel Kennedy faced during the Cuban Missile Crisis. What
choice would you have made if you were in the same situation as Ethel?
Robert Kennedy runs for the U.S. Senate (Clip 5)
Describe the overall event
Ethel Kennedy’s role
Ethel Kennedy’s contribution
Discussion Question: Describe how Ethel Kennedy’s participation in the U.S. Senate campaign helped
her husband, Robert Kennedy.
Addressing Social Problems in America (Clip 6)
Describe the overall event
Ethel Kennedy’s role
Ethel Kennedy’s contribution
Discussion Question: What message were Ethel and Bobby Kennedy trying to impart to their children
when they discussed the conditions in Mississippi around the dinner table?
Carrying on Robert Kennedy’s Legacy (Clip 7)
Describe the overall event
Ethel Kennedy’s role
Ethel Kennedy’s contribution
Discussion Question: Why do you think Ethel Kennedy felt it was important to carry on Robert
Kennedy’s beliefs and values through their children?