Tag Archives: school speech

What Educators Can Learn from President Obama’s Back to School Speech

petchauer

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.

 

 

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Come on People! What’s the Big Deal about a President Welcoming Students Back to School?

By Dr. Marybeth Gasman

gasman2009Ronald Reagan did it, George H.W. Bush did it, why can’t Barack Obama?  Why can’t public school children listen to our president welcome them back to school? 

I’ll admit that I was not the biggest fan of our last president, but I would not have a problem with him speaking to school children — reading a book to them, talking to them in front of their classroom, giving them a welcome back to school speech.   As an historian, I think it’s important and meaningful for children to see their president and hear what he (or she) has to say.  They don’t have to agree with him — they can put their heads down, for that matter — but they should have some exposure to the leader of our country.  After the speech, teachers could tease out the ideas and ask the students to debate them — we do want our children to think critically, right?  Or, if the speech is what the White House says it is, teachers can just continue with the first day of school — motivated by the words of the president.  Barack Obama is a man, who despite many obstacles, made it to the presidency.  His journey to the White House, educational achievements, and role as a father are certainly ideals that we can all admire as citizens of the United States.  He is the embodiment of the American dream.

So, why would someone object to President Barack Obama delivering words of welcome to our nation’s young people?  I can think of only two reasons and they both begin with “P”:  extreme partisanship or prejudice.  Although Obama ran on a platform of bringing people together, he is a figure that can be easily used to polarize people.  In addition, since Obama became president, we have seen prejudice and racism rear their very ugly heads way too many times.  People who have benefited from the status quo are scared that their way of life may change.  The president has been accused of being a Communist, a Socialist and the like for proposing that we “be our brother’s keeper,” that we take care of one another in this nation of ours.  Interestingly, this is a similar message thatwe give our children in school.  We tell them to be kind to one another, to treat each other with respect, and we discourage bullying.  I know my 10-year old daughter is graded on her treatment of others and respect for diversity in the Philadelphia public school system.

Presidents have influence that can be used in good and bad ways — we have seen this throughout history.  Motivating our young people to stay in school and pursue college is a good and is vitally important given our high dropout rates and need to increase college enrollment.

The positive aspect of all of this Obama speech hub-bub is that most liberals and conservatives agree that it’s fine for the president to welcome students back to school with a speech.  It’s typically those at the fringes (regardless of party) that have issues with these kinds of actions.  Those in my friend circle — Democrats and Republicans alike — think it’s not only appropriate, but, in fact, patriotic to listen to our president on the first day of school.

 

An associate professor of higher education at the University of Pennsylvania, Dr. Gasman is the author of Envisioning Black Colleges: A History of the United Negro College Fund (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2007) and lead editor of Understanding Minority Serving Institutions (SUNY Press, 2008).