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A Teacher's Take on Obama Speaking to Schoolchildren

Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA
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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 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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Heather Wolpert-Gawron

ELA Teacher, Middle School, Curriculum Coordinator TOSA

Comments (20) Sign in or register to comment Follow Subscribe to comments via RSS

Steven Mason's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"Tenants of Islam"? Sorry, no one's paying rent to anyone else: the correct word is "tenets." How sad to see common malapropisms repeated by teachers. No wonder they're so common among adults. And no wonder homeschooling is popular.

It doesn't stop there. Public school don't "fray" in their beliefs. They "stray from" their beliefs. While their beliefs may become frayed, or they may even "fray their beliefs," one cannot "fray IN their beliefs" as "fray" is transitive not intransitive.

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

I thought I had caught all of my mistakes before posting, but clearly I had not (believe me there so many more!) Sometimes I'm sloppier with quickly zipped off comments then with my posts. Thanks for the critique. I'm sure, however, that a misspell does not a homeschooler make. But thanks again for the correction.
-Heather WG

Amy's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

"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."

I am greatly troubled by this comment. The image this conjures is frightening. Am I sending my children to a place where once they enter, the walls come up and gates lock and they are subjected to the "teachings" of whomever they were assigned? Or did you mean this on a much broader level: ALL COMMUNITIES MUST FOLLOW ONE BELIEF. OUR BELIEF IS THE ONE TRUE BELIEF. WE WILL STAND BY THESE BELIEFS AND TEACHINGS TO... what? Either the assimilation of every last free-thinker? Or to the death?

What are these "fundamental teachings" to which you refer? Are they deemed "fundamental" by or MANDATED from the FEDERAL government? Who decided they were fundamental?

If "public schools can't submit" and "must stand by despite what the outside world demands" then why did an "outsider" receive permission for his personal agenda/viewpoints/opinions?

"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."

Safely learn what? Is what I teach my own children considered UNSAFE if it differs from your PERSONAL opinion and what you consider appropriate? And if I, the PARENT, disagree with the "safely learned" lesson (the content of which I am still uncertain) then I should homeschool my children in order to support my own philosophies? Since when is it YOUR JOB to teach ANYONE'S children YOUR philosophy as opposed to "THEIR OWN"?? I am appalled at this concept!

"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."

How, exactly, does your "standing firm" in a position of OPPOSITION (that is what the comment above implies) to the PARENT'S or COMMUNITY'S opinion cause a loss in preparing students for a global community. And, please, tell me what ARE the public school beliefs?

If, by your statement regarding the loss of "a valuable asset in our country's preparation for a global community", you mean that because parents and/or the community do not see eye-to-eye with the school district/school/teacher and therefore are not modeling the ability to function cooperatively, collaboratively, or respectfully as a community then my fear/anger/disgust is heightened tenfold. This mentality is too reminiscent of a socialist, indoctrinated "COMMUNE"-ity where if one CHOOSES to DISAGREE one may very well be ELIMINATED.

As a PUBLIC school teacher, the most fundamental and ONLY "beliefs" you are PERMITTED and REQUIRED to teach the children of a community are the STANDARDS AS DETERMINED BY THE STATE. You are NEVER permitted to inject your political, religious or other personal points of view. To do such is, in YOUR "other words", WRONG and/or BAD, and I'd like to add one more: ILLEGAL.

It takes GREAT RESTRAINT to keep personal opinions and beliefs out of the conversations and "teachable moments" throughout the day, especially when personal experience had led to formidable convictions, but you are being TRUSTED to do exactly that; TRUSTED to teach and to focus your time on the content area standards.

As for the subsequent comments in this thread regarding the President's references to social networking, I am shaking my head in frustration at the level of idiocy displayed. For those of you celebrating his "terminology" and "connection" to the "kids' level", I ask: Did he actually describe lessons for which those tools could be used? Did he refer to a completed project utilizing these applications which benefitted a particular community? Did he talk at any reasonable length about a service learning project made possible by distance collaboration between students using these tools? Or, did he just say the names? Did he mention the ability to glean ever bit of personal information from people who use these programs without reasonable personal security precautions and that he is in the process of obtaining, for himself, the "absolute power" to terminate the internet at-will?

And finally, while he was saying the words "stay in school" to all the students of this nation, did he mention to the teachers who were supporting his message that in an education special to be aired later that evening, of which he was a part, that the words "YOUR TEACHERS CAN'T TEACH YOU" would be flashed subliminally throughout the entire production?

No, I guess he forgot about that one. Just like he forgot to lead the Pledge of Allegiance or have the "National Anthem" played versus "Hail to the Chief".

Respectfully submitted with great disgust.

Proud American
Proud Supporter of the Constitution of the United States of AMERICA
Proud Public School Teacher, 7th Grade

Heather WolpertGawron's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Wow. You bring up a lot of points that do sound frightening when looked at through such a suspicious spin. But when you said,

"As a PUBLIC school teacher, the most fundamental and ONLY "beliefs" you are PERMITTED and REQUIRED to teach the children of a community are the STANDARDS AS DETERMINED BY THE STATE," these are the fundamentals which I was referring to.

My truly frightening scenario is one where some communities are allowed to dictate what their schools teach in accordance to what their religious or political beliefs prefer while others teach another entirely different sets of beliefs. I don't believe in standardized testing as it exists now, but I do believe the standards are there to avoid bias and prejudice in education. Whatever has become of the use of standards may not be as helpful as their original intent, but I do believe that they are meant to address equity.

I'm sure as a public school teacher you have met parents who disagree with those standards. We cannot allow people to censor education. Watching the president is education. Students may then agree or disagree (not a very communist-like belief, as I'm sure you'll agree) based on the lessons of critical-thinking and reflection and metacognition that we are hopefully cultivating in our schools. But without exposure to diverse voices, and voices that fit within those standards, education in school and in life is limited.

I absolutely agree with you when you say,

"You are NEVER permitted to inject your political, religious or other personal points of view...It takes GREAT RESTRAINT to keep personal opinions and beliefs out of the conversations and "teachable moments" throughout the day, especially when personal experience had led to formidable convictions, but you are being TRUSTED to do exactly that; TRUSTED to teach and to focus your time on the content area standards."

I don't believe teachers should wear political buttons or use their podium as a bully pulpit. You're dead on.

But the overall issue here was about censorship, about allowing communities to shut down and shut up the president of the United States. Regardless of my political or religious beliefs or the beliefs of my home or school community, allowing him to address the schools was within the standards and within the realms of education.

Thank you so much for your comment. Despite our disagreements, it is our pride in our schools and our craft that makes us so passionate in our voices. Thank you again.
-Heather WG

Lizzy Liz's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I read the speech posted on the White House website. My reaction: boring, and it went over the heads of the targeted audience. It was long winded and wasn't really relevant to our students. It was an adult view point that ended up too preachy in its stylized message. Sorry, but I think it could have been better. I see it as a missed opportunity. Boring.

Re: comment from Steven Mason, he needs to lighten up a bit. Who are we trying to impress? We need to step back take a deep breath and start enjoying the time and energy we have right at this moment in time.

We can learn from our students, by taking time out to play once in a while.

diesel jeans's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I must say this is a great article i enjoyed reading it keep the good work.

Kristy C's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I thought your post was great. Thank you for giving others food for thought. I remember being in elementary school and having the television turned on for us to watch the president speak. Never was he speaking to us, but rather the adults. Finally, a president was speaking directly to the youth.

People are always so quick to assume. The president's speech was about setting goals and staying in school. It was about the skill level students will need to be the workers of the future. It made me sad that people were so quick to assume it was some sort of "political agenda". Why would the president set up a speech to talk to children about anything politically based? Do me the favor of not answering that question. If you do, you are missing my point.

Heather, thank you for your post and I look forward to following your blogs.

Kristie's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

Thank you everyone for sharing your thoughts on this subject. I did not have much of an opinion on the presidential address before now, so I enjoyed hearing both sides of the story.

A. Berry's picture
Anonymous (not verified)

I agree the article was great and much needed.

Parentscienceteacher's picture

I can completly understand & remember what it was like to not get it when people outside of education made comments about having to work for a living and that schools were liberally biased. And then I looked around at the small business community who pays the bills, literally. And I listened from the inside as teachers complain about making no money, and being broke. And about lack of funding. And poor parental support, and all the gangs, and on and on.. I hear it in faculty meetings, about the single parents struggling with two jobs who don't have time to help their kids with HW, etc. Have you ever heard of the "Forgotten Man"? Not the poor hypothetical guy towards whom all this outpour of public funding is directed but the REAL man, who is working 10-12 hours a day, 7 days a week to make a small business work for his family and his employess, who cannot bring home the fruits of his labors to his own children without paying the majority of it to a wasteful & criminally unconstitutional gov't. But again, unless you have worked for a small business or are related to someone who does, you are blissfully unaware of this crushing economic reality, and I don't mean that with condesension, it is just a fact. Isn't California absolutely broke?
Now just consider for a moment that your country had just elected a man who promised everything to everyone, without raising taxes on the majority of us. We all who are anayltical and skeptical and, yes, conservative, knew this was a complete and utter impossibility and a bold faced lie. We have been bracing for this administration to enact policies that could put us out of business and decrease the amount of money we can bring home to our families, which by the way is substantially less than any teacher I know.

Your blog in early September is really a typical response, I could have written it for you without even reading past your first line...

Now, months later, the reason we parents were hitting the roof, was entirely justified. We were not upset because the President wanted to talk to our kids. It was the fact that we had no way to know what he would say to our children before he said it, and we were suspicious of all of those lesson plans, and of course had to brace for the bias of the schools & teachers through which this speech & lessons would be filtered.
Now about the speech, there wasn't a speech released until we raised hell, and once it was, I read it, and would not have had a problem with it in and of itself. But I didn't know what lessons my son's teachers may or may not have incorporated into the curriculum, and i read them ALL, as a teacher I had access to them, as I too was solicited by my Federal gov't to produce propaganda through my students. If you still think that we were all just crazy paranoid wackjobs, let me remind you of all the videos and songs that were released after the speech, remember the "MMmm, mmm, mmm Barrack Hussein Obama" by the choirs of elementary school kids singing allegence to this president. The OFFICE of the president deserves loyalty, but the cult-like devotion to this president should give everyone pause. No man can create the utopia that some think is possible on earth, but he can ruin the reality of many. So the propaganda that resulted from the Presidents speech adn lesson contests was exactly what we knew would happen and we didn't want our kids being exposed to it. Further more, if your kid is singled out of class because his parents object, that sets the kid up for issues of discrimination and possible contempt from the faculty & classmates. My chil was sick with a fever that day so it was a mute point but I did have several absent desks in my classroom that day, I did not play the speech, they can watch it at home if they want.
Now, as to the point of bias, after the speech, the mainstream media predictably gushed at his wit, his charm, his articulate ways... and the NEA & NTA (teachers unions & associations) praised Obama and condemmed those of us who wanted the speech released before we would allow our kids to see it. Now Bush 1 ( I get their middle initials screwed up, still) did address school kids in his administration, he stressed the need for kids to stay away from drugs, stay in school, etc. I saw Bush senior's speech on cable news, the day after Obama's speech. It was a shorter speech, filmed in a classroom of typical American middle schoolers, but a very benign pep talk. I don't know if the speech was played directly into classrooms around the county live or if it was recorded for the evening news. But the response to the speech by congress & the media the next day? I saw footage of a congressman holding up the NY Times or Washington Post or some other liberal publication, with a headline about Bush wasting education dollars! and the same teachers associations that praised Obama critised Bush for the same exact thing, wasting money and indoctrinating kids. The next week or so, there was actually a congressional hearing to look into Bush's alleged wasting of federal education dollars. He spent a few 10K, Obama spent a few million.
My intent in this comment, and I have never, ever responded to a blog, is to further the conversation and chink open the door between the public schools and the people who fund it, the American taxpayers, without choice, by the way. We are parents, who have the ULTIMATE and SUPREME responsibility and authority for the most precious creatures we will personally ever know in our lives, our own children. ANY intrusion into that sacred relationship must be & always will be met with healthy skepticism.
I just ask every teacher to stop for a minute and think about how many times you have lamented to yourself, your students, your colleagues about not making any money or being underfunded. Then take an honest look around your classroom and school. Did you personally buy any of that? Is there really any chance the $ will stop coming in? Now the next time you see a small business owner, look him or her in the eye. And look around his place of business, at his employees, he had to buy all of that, through sweat, tears, risk, debt, heartburn, long hours away from those children of his that sit in your classroom. And if you begrudge him or his wife or his children the friuts of his labors, you kill the American dream and American Exceptionalism. And if you criticise him for protecting his children from what he views as a threat, you need to step back and just try for a minute to see it a different way. Would you really want parents to NOT be tuned in? It was an assertion like mine many years ago that made by a conservative teacher that stopped me in my tracks and allowed me to see past the walls of the institution at the real-live human beings in this country who are doing their best, they are paying their bills, and ours, and they miss their children, so don't be surprised when they get very, very protective of them, and their country. I hope the responses to this, if there are any, will show a new level of understanding, but, b/c I am a natural skeptic (I teach Chemistry), I am prepared for the predictable rhetoric. Please, pleasantly surprise me, if you are so inclined.

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