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When History Happens: Teachable Moments Rise from Election Day

| Elena Aguilar

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,

T.


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,

Z.


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?

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Comments (27)

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Sara (not verified)

What a great post! I see

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What a great post! I see students as young as first grade discussing Barack Obamas victory. I think it is wonderful!

Rolanda Anderson (not verified)

I've Seen A Change

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The outcome of the election was a teachable moment for me and for my 10th grade chemistry students. They all were so excited that we had a new president-elect. Many of them said that because of this win, it has opened the door for them, and that they could see themselves doing great things. Some of them jokingly said that this should be a holiday and that we shouldn't have to do any work. I then explained to them, that Obama is a scholar and to get where he is, in one of the top positions in the world, that he had to do a great deal of work. I said that their goals were attainable--just look at what has just happened. And that if they wanted to make something of themselves, that they too would have to put forth a great deal of effort and heart to accomplish their goals.

Katie Thompson (not verified)

He's OUR President!

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I am a high school history teacher who made the decision a few weeks before election day that no matter what the outcome of the election, I was going to discuss it head on the following morning. Many of my fellow teachers had made the decision not to, fearing racial tensions that might come to the surface. The school day started as usual with only a couple of small incidences in the hallway that were negative. For the most part, all of our students were positive and mature. I set the tone of the class immediately saying that Barack Obama is OUR president. He's not a president only for African-Americans. He's not a president only for Democrats. He is EVERYONE'S president. We must all support him and pray for him in the hopes that he provides us with a better tomorrow in this country. I had many of my African-American students tell me stories of the previous night, watching the results come in with their older family members. It was truly a wonderful day. I'm glad I didn't avoid the subject as advised. I saw a wonderful display of the character of my students and I think Barack Obama will be a successful commander in chief.

Danielle (not verified)

Any ideas?

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I completely agree with the students who feel that history was made when Obama was elected president. I teach a group of first graders - any ideas on how to get the significance of this year's election across to them?

Iva W. Dixon (not verified)

History In Process

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Hello History in Process,

Yes We Can!! I thank God for that teacher who has allowed her students to voice their opinion. It amazed me how the students can come together and be on one accord. I have the same opinion with the students, YES! We made “HISTORY”!!!

Iva W. Dixon
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Jacqueline Skinner (not verified)

It's been a long time coming

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I think it is great that Obama is our new president. I think he is a very smart man who will make a difference in our lives. I wish him all the best and with God on his side he will make progress in the world. I agree wtih the students and hope that he will end this war. I pray everyday that those people can come home to their family.
The letters that those students wrote were very heart touching.

Sheena Collord (not verified)

Obama has made History

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I agree that Obama has made history right now. As an African American woman, I am very proud of Obama. He is our first ever black president. Although I do not necessarily agree with all of his policies, I do know that he has made history!

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Elena Aguilar Transformational Leadership Coach from Oakland, California