By Emery Petchauer
We now know that President Obama’s recent speech to America’s youngest citizens was not, as some feared, a 4-page/18-minute ideological conversion into “socialism.” In the words of comedian Steve Harvey, “Now that we done got that out the way,” we can turn to a bit more productive and realistic dialogue including what educators at all levels can learn from the speech. Here, I think, are three important lessons:
New media and technologies. President Obama (and his speechwriters) demonstrated awareness that new technologies, media, and related gadgets such as iPhones, Twitter, and Google are now everyday facets of students’ lives. These—and their widespread implications on learning—are no longer just optional ways to improve instruction. Rather, teachers must understand the habits of body and mind that new media produce in students and the educational imperative to design learning experiences based up them. In other words, it is important not just to understand what exactly Twitter is but also understand that it reconfigures a) how people think about their social relations and b) those very real social relations.
Vicarious models of success. Instead of giving only vague and general advice to students, the President supplemented his advice with a few vicarious models of success in the forms of students Jasmine Perez, Andoni Schultz, and Shantell Steve. Within these examples were clear appeals to different ethnicities, geographical locations, challenges that students might face, and avenues of professional success. While the inherent limitation of the speech format did not allow for much beyond these quick examples, they illustrate the larger point that students benefit when they see people who they believe are “like them” overcome obstacles on their ways to success. Structuring learning activities and environments so that students have direct contact with vicarious models of success does more to increase students’ classroom engagement and persistence than telling them repeatedly they “can do it.”
Honesty. The President’s statement that “Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute” is not news to students. However, someone in a position of power engaging in this kind of truth telling is. This sentiment is true for different reasons: sometimes shortsightedness on the part of students hinders them from seeing the relevance of assignments; sometimes teachers simply make assignments boring. Regardless, telling the truth and naming this unfortunate feature of learning environments puts both teachers and students in a position to move past it. Beyond the narrow realm of homework, honesty is seldom an unstable educational starting point.
In closing, let me be clear and state that compared to variables such as teacher quality, educational resources, and curricular (ir)relevance, the President’s speech can do little to significantly change the 2009-2010 school year for students. This does not mean that he should not have given the speech; indeed, it was a kind and appropriate gesture to the country’s youngest citizens, and I hope that students will be deeply inspired by it. Another cohort who should be inspired and educated by the speech is those who stand at the front of the classroom, self included.
Dr. Emery Petchauer is an assistant professor of education at Lincoln University in Pennsylvania; his current research includes teacher preparation for ethnic minority students particularly at HBCUs and how involvement in hip-hop implicates students’ educational approaches, experiences, and lives.