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WHAT WORKS IN EDUCATION The George Lucas Educational Foundation
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A Teacher's Take on Obama Speaking to Schoolchildren

So, President Obama addressed the children of our schools on Tuesday, speaking about the value of education and encouraging students to work hard. The controversy leading up to the live speech really made me see red, not about those who instigated it but about those who gave in to its blackmail of bias.

But as much as I didn't see eye to eye with those who opposed the president's right to speak to our country's students, my anger paled in comparison to certain members of my own profession who handed the educational reins over to their fearful community.

I was disappointed and angered about the weak leaders in our public schools out there who so easily caved to the fears of bias. It is our job to not allow fear to dictate education, teaching only what is safe. It is our job not to judge but to guide in how best to form an evaluation. It is our job not to decide but to give opportunities for students to make their own decisions.

The hoopla leading up to the president's speech was perplexing, for I felt that no matter who the president was, or what party that president represented, it was un-American not to participate in a moment when the president addressed our students directly.

There will always be people in this country who dislike our president, whoever the person is or will be. But public schools should be a fortress against these ebbs and tides of opinion. Parents and communities are not meant to insist on our curriculum, and our job is to stand up to trends of fear in lieu of the possibility of knowledge.

Our presidents, from either side of the political fence, have the absolute right to address the children of this country. Our presidents should be directly involved in encouraging students to appreciate education. The real question is, why hasn't this been the norm?

And let's face it: Our whole country is going through back-to-school stress together, so why couldn't our president acknowledge that, participate in it, and be part of a positive tradition of encouragement for our students?

After all, we say the Pledge of Allegiance every week in our schools, we even pledge "under God," but we can't hear our president say, "Work hard?"

So, in view of my own opinion, I did my part this past weekend to fan the fires of indignation, and the controversy consumed my online activities for the days leading up to the live speech. I Tweeted, I blogged, I commented. I vowed that my students would watch his speech, as Americans. I would give students opportunities to voice agreement and disagreement, or declare "Eureka!" or even voice their indifference. I wanted to hear what my students had to say about what they saw, not what the outside public had been guessing would be said.

So the day finally came. My LCD projector was set up, my computer ready to stream the live feed in defiance of a what I saw as an unethical controversy and my own disappointment in my fellow educators.

But as it turned out, nobody needed to have worried about my students seeing the speech, because when the moment arrived, due to the school's limited bandwidth, my computer just wouldn't stream it.

Ah, irony, you fickle mistress. So many people were worried about the content the students would see, it never occurred to any of us that we didn't even have the resources in the school to watch it live.

In the end, my sixth-period class watched it later courtesy of a prerecorded video on MSNBC.com. I didn't look at the official lesson plans; instead, I had the students keep their own commentary, that ticker tape constantly running in their own brains that is their own live speech simultaneously going on while the president's speech was happening.

The students related to a number of points in the speech. Many of them agreed that sometimes it is difficult to prioritize school higher than some of their difficulties outside of school: the homelessness, the lack of parental support, the fighting, or the gangs. They pulled quotes that resonated with them and put them in their own words.

In the end, a day I originally thought would be about Obama's words actually became about the flexibility of education and those of us who ride its roller coaster every day. What I thought might end up a special day of reflection turned out to be a day like any other: one spent scrambling for Plan B, or even C, like those many days when our technology doesn't work. It was one spent allowing the comprehension of the students to guide the spontaneous discussion, of finding the smile through the frustrations.

It's ironic that so many media outlets and people were concerned by what they saw as an interruption in curriculum and wasted time. But as the funding for school technology in California takes a direct hit -- with Enhancing Education Through Technology (EETT) recently cut by 63 percent -- perhaps someone should tell the president we don't really need words to help us in the schools. After all, watching the president speak is not a waste of instructional time, but struggling to watch the live stream sure was.

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Jason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Amen and kudos to you. I would love for my children to be in your classroom where it sounds like learning happens, not censorship. Keep up your fight...

Nancy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

How wonderful - and encouraging - to see and hear verification that there are still true educators out there who understand the real meaning of "learning" for our students. How gratifying to see your courage in the face of frustration; know that you're not alone out there and that your perseverance WILL indeed pay off in the lives of your students in years to come.

Terry Smith's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

In my room, we had grades 4 and 5 watching the speech. Kids were way more attentive than I would have imagined. They seemed to be quite interested in the direct message the president was giving to them. His references to teachers, lessons, manners, perseverance, contributions, and the future of the country made sense to the kids. When he mentioned Facebook, Twitter, and Google, the entire room lit up as if to say - Yes! The President gets it!

Terry Smith - Hannibal, MO

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Hey, remember, Banned Books week is coming up so celebrate those books that were censored as well!
Thanks for reading and commenting!
-Heather W-G

Rob's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Well this doesn't happen very often. I fully agree that the President's speech should not have been censored, and that the President should be afforded an opportunity to address students in school, but I fully oppose your reasoning and belief that the community is not the appropriate body to decide these things. Who do you think you are, and more importantly, who do you think you work for, to judge such things for anyone other than your own children? You said "Parents and communities are not meant to insist on our curriculum, and our job is to stand up to trends of fear in lieu of the possibility of knowledge." Are you the judge of what is best for the community? Based on what, your "election" to teacher? Maybe you need a little "schooling" of your own so you better understand your place in the world. The U.S. Constitution mentions little of public education, the system you work in, because the founders deemed education to be something best left to local communities and the states, something reaffirmed by the 10th Amendment that says "The powers not delegated to the United States by this constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states, respectively, or to the people." Public school is a FUNCTION of your LOCAL COMMUNITY, paid and supported through the state and community in which your school exists. It is YOUR JOB to listen to the needs and respect the desires of your community, for better or worse. Federal involvement in education is unconstitutional, pure and simple, but if you continue to ask for federal government money we may soon be calling you "comrade" teacher. As for that stuff about "give opportunities for students to make their own decisions," you can do that in college where the students are not only much older, but also PAY YOU directly and if they don't like your judgments about what has "possibility of knowledge," they leave. In a public school system, you are a public servant, SERVING the community and their wishes whether you agree or not, and you are free to move to a different community that better shares your values or has more money. It is a sacrifice, and one we all appreciate, especially when done well.

Andrea Manninen's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you for putting this so eloquently.

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thanks for your thoughts. It is always a plus to get a comment that gives me a fresh perspective and one that makes me think of my own post in a different way. The glory of blogging, right? I have to say, however, that I really deeply believe that public schools serve a purpose, that of remaining independent of community opinion. I refer you, for example, to the issue of segregation of schools in 1957. Clearly, the students and parents in Little Rock did not want the black children to share their hallways, their books, or their education. In this case, and others, the community did not have the right to dictate to the schools. I speak from the desire for the ideal, for schools to be the place where unbiased education occurs, where teachers give equitable lists of pros and cons so that students can make up their own minds. I remember earlier in my own teaching career, I was a 7th grade history teacher. If you know about that curriculum, you know that it covers everything from, like, 400 BC to 1700 AD, religions, politics, culture,etc...Anyway, in accordance to the standards (and our textbook), I was teaching about the tenants of Islam, Christianity, and Judaism. I got a call from a parent who thought it was abominable that we were even discussing Islam! She petitioned, she wrote the superintendent, she tried to put her kid in another class only to find that we were all using the same textbooks. In the end, she decided to homeschool her student. I wish I could say that these opinions were unique, but many feel as she did. Public schools can't submit to the opinions of one community and not another. There are fundamental teachings that we must stand by despite what the outside world demands by phone, email, or picket sign. We need to be a place were all students can safely learn. Otherwise, as my 7th grade student did all those years ago, they should find the private school or the homeschool to support their own philosophies. When public schools fray in their beliefs, not standing firm in the face of parental and community opinion, we loose a valuable asset in our country's preparation for a global community. I am blessed to live here, blessed to teach here, and blessed to work in a place that allows for such disagreements as ours. Thank you again for your comment.
-Heather WG

Heather Wolpert - Gawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I love that he spoke their language too. I also hope his mentioning them may have put some of the legitimacy of using social networking sites in education on other people's radar. But I'm not holding my breath! Thanks for commenting.
-Heather W-G

Cathy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

While I appreciate your opinions and value your right to speak, I must make you acutely aware of some points of which I take exception. First, you state, "Who do you think you are, and more importantly, who do you think you work for, to judge such things for anyone other than your own children? You said "Parents and communities are not meant to insist on our curriculum, and our job is to stand up to trends of fear in lieu of the possibility of knowledge." Are you the judge of what is best for the community? Based on what, your "election" to teacher? Maybe you need a little "schooling" of your own so you better understand your place in the world." I am certain that Heather is not casting judgment on any one person in particular and I am also quite certain that Heather is perfectly aware of who she works for. Teachers do not "elect" to be teachers, they choose and they do so not based on the potential of a lucrative salary; may I remind you that teachers hold college degrees and often times hold graduate degrees. What is certain as well is so clearly evident in the tone of your remark, "Maybe you need a little "schooling" of your own so you better understand your place in the world." Rob, who are YOU to judge Heather? Your very condescending and venomous remark suggests an attitude that transcends into many attitudes of our students and most likely your own children often times as a result disrupting the learning and teaching process. If you want to demonstrate maturity in responding to a "public servant" then you must articulate in such a manner as not to deem yourself ignorant! This leads me to the second point of yours that I take exception in which you state, "Public school is a FUNCTION of your LOCAL COMMUNITY, paid and supported through the state and community in which your school exists. It is YOUR JOB to listen to the needs and respect the desires of your community, for better or worse." While I agree that public schools receive funding from state and local governments as well as community "bonds," if communities were more involved with the public schools regularly and not when there is a crisis, perhaps public schools would be a more efficiently run entity and more importantly the corruption found on school boards and administrations would be eliminated. Additionally, "for better or worse" works both ways and should not always apply to teachers, but rather should apply to all those involved with community schools - if a district decides to air a nationally televised motivational speech by the President, parents should accept this decision, "for better or worse." Just a side note, a better choice of words would not be from a standard line found in a "marriage" vow but rather words like right or wrong, good or bad, etc. Third, how is it that federal government involvement in public education is unconstitutional? I believe that the Bush administration began the NCLB, No Child Left Behind program that clearly does not work and in many cases has diminished the quality of education for students in many school districts. Firefighters and police are considered public servants. Those who serve the country whether in the Army, Navy, Air Force or Marines, are public servants. So why then Rob, do teachers who are also "public servants" (in your words) receive so little respect? No need to answer that question Rob, because the tone, disrespect and lack of intelligence of your post did.

Penny Parker's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I teach 5th grade in southern California and I agree with much of Heather's comments. Our superintendent decided that students could not view the speech without prior, written parental permission. We received this directive on the Friday before the Labor Day holiday weekend. There was inadequate time in which to obtain parent permission. Therefore, we did not view the speech. I do not know if this directive was a result of parents in OUR community expressing objection to the speech or if it was a reaction to the objection that was perpetuated by the media. Either way, I feel it was unfortunate that our students missed the opportunity to hear the president address them directly.

While I missed that live, teachable moment, I plan to send home permission slips and have my students watch the speech next week. We will discuss setting academic goals and how to achieve them. I also believe that another teachable moment exists in the discussion about the need to have parent permission to listen to the President of the United States.

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