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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

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night

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.

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

Middle School teacher by day, Tweenteacher by night
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