When History Happens: Teachable Moments Rise from Election Day | Edutopia
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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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The first thing I heard as I walked into school on this miraculous morning after Barack Obama's landslide victory was a group of African American parents talking about the results. One father said, "They didn't want to give us 40 acres and a mule, so we took fifty states and the White House."

In the halls during passing period, hundreds of students chanted, "Obama, Obama!" Usually, the halls are tense places where adults try to corral students into moving on to class, while kids act like kids who have to sit all day. (They push each other, run and jump, use foul language, and ignore the adults who tell them to get moving.) On this day, they danced through the halls, singing. It felt like the climax of a musical.

In an English class, the teacher asked her students to write down the words that came to mind when they thought about Obama's election. One student, DJ, shouted out, "History! That's all I can say. That's the only word that comes to mind: history." He shook his head, smiled, and looked down at his lap.

An engaging class discussion followed; eighth graders responded respectfully to each other's comments. Benjamin, one of the only white students in the class, shared that he and his family campaigned for Obama in Nevada. Students looked at him with respect. "Thanks, Benjamin," said another student, Crystal.

My throat constricted in that moment. As corny as it sounds, in that exchange I could imagine the possibility of so much pain beginning to heal. Our schools' population is 80 percent African American and 10 percent Caucasian; the two groups belong to the opposite ends of the economic-class spectrum. Our middle school students have no idea how to sort this out or address the tension and underlying pain of this inequality. It usually comes out in ugly forms.

Obama was elected, and a new light shone in Benjamin's eyes. "Is this really happening?" I asked myself for the eightieth time in the last twenty-four hours.

Students' Thoughts

The English teacher asked her students to write a response to the election results. Some wrote letters to Obama. Others wrote journal entries. Here are a few selections of what they wrote:

Dear President Barack Obama,

I am so happy you will be our next president. I really think you could make the world a better place. You rock, Obama. Rock on!

Love, your friend,


I'm feeling very happy right now. This means the world to me and my family because this is the first time in the whole world that there is a black president of the United States. I hope that he can stop sending our family to Iraq. If he was here, I would tell him that he changed my life and the black community.

I am feeling good that a person of color was finally elected to be president. That means a lot to me. Maybe I could become an important person one day.

I feel that now that he is president, my nephew has someone to look up to. I hope that he will bring the troops home, because there are too many funerals in our family. I hope he will, because there are little kids crying for their fathers, uncles, and cousins. Kids like me wonder, "Is it OK to cry? Is it OK to hurt the way I'm hurting?" I would ask President Obama to bring our people home.

I am so excited that Barack Obama is the president of the United States of America. It is amazing. As I watched his acceptance speech last night, people around me were screaming and clapping while tears of joy flowed down their cheeks. At first, when I found out he won, it didn't register in my brain. I was so shocked. In the beginning, I was convinced he couldn't win. I thought America was too prejudiced. But I guess I was proved wrong, and I am so glad to have been proved wrong! I think it is amazing and utterly fabulous to be alive in the time of such a historic event.

Dear President-Elect Obama,

I wish to congratulate you and our fellow Americans on your victory. I've watched your speeches and heard you debate, and I'm convinced you will lead America to the highest it can be. I spent last night running and jumping for blocks in celebration. I chanted your name while I got cramps of victory. You deserve my cramps, and you deserve our country. Do us well.

Thank you,


I feel very happy that Barack Obama was elected to be our forty-fourth president. I was outside all night celebrating and talking with neighbors and friends. My grandma and great-grandma fought hard to be able to vote. I wish they could have seen this moment.

Dear President-Elect Obama,

We are very proud of you. Your family must be so proud of you, especially your little daughters. We are counting on you to make peace in this world and to make sure children can get a better education. When we saw how many votes you got, we were shocked. Our families were celebrating. We hope you keep your promises. Thank you, Mr. Obama.

A. and V.

Hope for the Future

In our school district, we see 70 percent of our African American and Latino students drop out of high school. I think that every day, even in middle school, we sense this specter that will befall our children. The inequities of our economic system, the centuries of disenfranchisement, and the resulting anger and oppression move without form or function through the bodies of our students, through our classrooms, and through our city.

Today felt different.

We have so much more to do, but we're closer than we've ever been. And I think that the kids know it.

What have the effects been of this historical election on your campus? And how might we use the election when lesson planning?

Comments (27)Sign in or register to postSubscribe to comments via RSS

Susan Scoven's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

As I watched Obama's acceptance speech all I could think was how happy I am that I am alive to see this and that my son will be growing up in a world where this can happen. He is only 3 now and I hope that when he reaches voting age electing an African American president will be common place. We look to the future with hope and see that our next president represents what we should and can be. It is the first time I have felt that the pain of the past can truly be overcome by the hope and progress of the future. My son doesn't understand the gravity of what has happened. He is white and he only sees Barack Obama, not Barack Obama the first black president. Change has come and we did it!

A Carmichael's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

What a great lesson we can all learn from the comments of these kids. I, too, experienced the excitement and pride in the eyes of many students that were able to see the dreams of their grandparents come true. This election brought colorful dialog to classrooms across the U.S. At my local school, a predominantly white, middle-to-upper class suburb of Atlanta, I heard the jeers and sinicism as well as the cheers and celebration for this historic and momentous event. For once, the "teachable moments" surrounding an election did not deal with similarities and differences between the parties, the candidates, or the hot topics surrounding the election. Instead, the teachable moment dealt with unity of our country's people.

Tanika Thompson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I am a 3rd grade teacher in Georgia teaching in a small rural town. The feedback I recieved from students were very mixed. The students did not fully understand what the election was about, but they did get that it was something historical going on. They knew that for the first time an African American personally had a real shot at winning the presidential election. I had students actually say their parents were voting for Barak because he was black and some say they were voting for McCain just because he was white. Listening to the students talk you can really tell what influence their parents have over their thoughts. It was very interesting to hear what the people in my area thought about the election. Listening to my students also gave me an insight on how the media was playing a role in their thoughts about the election. More of my students knew who Barak was because of the televsion. They thought that he must be a good guy since he won the presidential election on nick.com. The students don't realize that they are living through ground breaking history right now, but they do know that America is going through a big change right now, and I guess that's all I can ask for from third graders.

Tanika Thompson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

A way that I would use this lesson when lesson planning is to hold class discussion dealing with the civil rights movements, as well as the movements of other peoples rights. For instance right now we are talking about Susan B. Anthony and her fight for womens rights as well as her help in trying to free the slaves. We have also been talking about the obstacles she has overcome in order to fight for what she believed in as well as the positive character traits she exhibited. I could easily pull in Obama in our discussions and talk about his issues and what he is fighting for and what character traits he exhibits. We can also compare him to other leaders of the past and talk about their similarities and differences.

Elizabeth Whetstone's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree the election this year was an outstanding opportunity to get kids involved in current events. Although I have taught through several presidential elections over the years I have never brought it into my class as a daily current event. But, this year the entire election process was "History" in the making. Students were in- terested in the many "firsts" that were possible this year. Our Hall bulletin board started growing each day as students flooded in with pictures, newspaper, internet and magazine articles even Seven-Eleven cup representing the candidates. Many mornings even before announcements the students would already be broken up into small discussion groups around the room showing off new articles or commenting on TV news anouncements they had listened to with their families the night before. Each day I was amazed at how my insight into their understanding of the intricacies of this years election grew.
The most profound student proclamation came from a young lady in my class of only nine years old. The day after the election many students were talking about how finaly our country would have a black president and how this was a new entry into black history. We all took turns and listened to each others comments agreeing and adding on our oppinions. Then, I heard her say that she felt because Obama was half white and half black like she was,he becoming president was even more important. He was an example of two cultures coming together to create a great man who will show the world the greatness of unity. I sat in wonder at what this third grader taught all of us in class that day.

Cindy Perucco's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree that this election has affected the lives and attitudes of our students. I teach 4th grade in a rural, predominantly white, upper-middle class school district. We did a lot of lessons on the election - learned about the candidates' views on different issues, read their biographies, had mock debates, etc. The day of the election, we held our own election in class and Obama won by a landslide.

The most interesting thing to me, after having taught in the south for awhile, was that race was never an issue in any of our debates. The day after the election, when we discussed how it turned out, someone finally spoke up and said, "Oh yeah, and he is the first African American president." It was said very off-the-cuff, nonchalantly - which was shocking to me. To them, it didn't matter - the issues were way more important than skin color. I was so proud of my class, that the students no longer consider skin color to be important. We discussed the importance of this moment for the African American people, and my kids understood it, but they still thought it was silly that his skin color was getting so much publicity. I think it really shows how far we have come as a country!

Ashley 's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved the first blog. My class had almost the same reaction. I thought it was intresting to read about how students reacted everywhere:)

Kammy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I enjoyed reading your blog, as well as the comments made by others. I am so interested to hear the reaction over the election from students around the country, and of all different ages. I am a first grade teacher, in the predominantly Caucasian city of Missoula, MT. I had several conversations with my students about the election, why we vote, and the importance of it. Many of my students realized that Barack Obama would be the first president with "brown skin," but it was never an issue to them. They are mostly unaware (or sheltered) from racism. We had a mini-election in our room, and Barack Obama also won in our classroom. My kids felt empowered to be able to vote for anyone they wanted to. One of my Native-American students raised her hand and said, "Well, my skin in not as brown as his, but maybe one day I could be president, too." I feel that President-Elect Obama opened up our kids' eyes to possibilities they may have never thought before. I was pleased to read that older students had similar reactions as my first graders. This election certainly inspired a lot of hope throughout our country's schools.

Jonda Ward's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach second grade in Fairburn, Georgia at a predominately African American school. I was also overwhelmed with the comments that I heard my students made about the election. So much so, that I asked them to write an essay which I called the election reflection which (with prompting questions) allowed them to share their thoughts. I was surprised to hear that many of my students thought that Barack Obama won because he was African American. They even made comments that they were glad McCain didn't win because he was white. I took this opportunity to have a class discussion about not judging a book by its cover. A few of the students knew about slavery and prejudice, but were confused when we discussed the fact the slaves and slave masters are long deceased. We also looked at the electoral votes and demographics of the states which made it possible for Barack to win. We discussed that people vote based on the candidate's platforms and that color shouldn't have been a deciding factor. In addition, we discussed why this was a historic event.I think my students gained insignt from our discussion that encouraged them to become better researchers of people, out of the box thinkers, and proud to be in a country where their dreams are truly achievable. I wish that their parents had exercised more discretion whhen discussing the election with them. I think that narrow minded conversations are what shape our children's thoughts and perpetuate the very mentality that we as a country are trying to overcome.

Marisa Morrison-Johnson's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I loved reading about these teachers' experiences when discussing this election. My heart sings at the reality that childrens innocenece allows them to be open minded and see people for who they are. In this election, most children were able to see both candidates objectively. It's unfortunate however, that adults are judgemental and make many of their decisions based on prior experiences. In the case of this election, for many people, the deciding factor was race. It is no news flash that children absorb and repeat what they hear from adults, especially their parents. To read on this blog that so many children were given the opportunity to become knowledgeable on both candidates and forming opinions on their own, reassures me that there is hope for a future of inquisitive and openminded adults.

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