Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Obama's Controversial Speech to Schoolchildren that Wasn't

I am all hot and bothered over President Obama's speech to schoolchildren yesterday, September 8, 2009, and it's not because the (actually rather bland) speech turned me on. It's because of all of the dramatics surrounding the speech. I procrastinated writing this post, or producing any other type of writing I should have on my first full day of childcare, by picking debates on the topic with people on facebook.

I think we can all agree that the idea of Obama's addressing the nation's schoolchildren to stress the importance of education is a fine one. That he was going to "indoctrinate" the children or "brainwash" them with his "socialist" (I wish!) agenda is laughable. And there is absolutely nothing in the content of the speech that is political or harmful. But by giving these right-wing extremist ravings coverage, the media was able to stoke the fires of polarization. Unfortunately many liberals took the bait, obscuring what were valid reasons for school districts to show the speech, but also valid reasons to opt not to.

The speech was a decent one with an admirable focus, but to ask the nation's educators to make time during the first day of school for this speech was asking too much. I know the first day in my classroom was always a very important one, one where I was worked damn hard to establish myself as a challenging teacher my students could trust and to establish my classroom as a safe and stimulating place. The last thing I would need on that day would be for some politician, even if I did vote for him and even if he were a Democrat, to be beamed in on the television pontificating in the same predictable educational-inspirational sloganese students hear all of the time and see plastered on the hallways of public schools: work hard and stay in school and achieve your dreams and don't talk back to your teachers. Then you can get accomplished, rich, and important like me and send your kids to private school so they can avoid being with riffraff such as yourselves (okay, that was cheap, that's his personal life, but wait, one-third of the speech was premised on his personal life, so perhaps the topic is fair game and I have to wonder if he nixed giving the speech in a D.C. public school because he imagined the irony of telling students to stay in a school he wouldn't send hs own daughters to). But back to the topic at hand. I have my own way of telling my students why my class is important and I don't need the President to do it for me. Furthermore, does he have any idea what it means for a principal to stop the school day and air a speech? How disruptive that could be? Obama says the most important thing in any student's education is the quality of the teacher they have, so I am perplexed by his beginning the school year by usurping those teachers' time and supposing that twenty minutes of his words would suffice to snap the nation's schoolchildren into shape.

I am glad that my own first graders weren't plopped down in front of a television the first day of school. They were busy enough keeping their teachers' names straight, avoiding getting lost on the way to the cafeteria, and remembering their bus numbers. Furthermore, I think the speech was fine for secondary students but I'm not sure it was appropriate for younger elementary school students, and I don't know what they would have gotten out of it. Hanover County, Virignia, Public Schools published this statement, which brought on accusations of being politically motivated and "anti-Obama." Maybe the school board is full of Republicans and maybe their statement was coded language for "we are not exposing this arugula-eating socialist to our students because he's going to brainwash them and we have a gubernatorial election coming up and don't want to give the Democratic candidate any kind of advantage," but I don't think so and even if that were the case, I still agreed with the spirit of the statement. (Hey, I wouldn't be above showing the Obama speech if I thought it would help defeat the rabid right-winger McDonnell.) I thought Hanover County's, and other school districts with a similar approach, handling of the situation was perfectly reasonable and appropriate: it may be disruptive on the first day and we don't want to pressure our teachers and principals; we are recording the speech, making instructional materials available, and letting the teachers decide when and how to show it. If teachers can prepare for showing and discussing the speech without having to also prepare for the beginning of school madness, then they can tie it to their curriculum and lesson plans, then actually the students would get more out of the speech than they would otherwise. I wish the Obama administration would have done the same thing and also consulted with educators to see what would be the most meaningful and least intrusive way to give the speech.

I appreciate him asking our nation's schoolchildren to work hard and to contribute to our society, and honestly, I would not have protested had it been aired in my kids' school and I might have shown it to my own students were I teaching right now, but it would have been better to do so in the context of a major historical event or the unveiling of education policy initiatives. How about promising to fix the problems of No Child Left Behind? I had plenty of E.S.O.L. (English for Speakers of other Languages) students who were told to work hard and stay in school and they did so until they figured out they had little chance of passing the standardized tests they needed to to get a high school degree and dropped out (speaking of which, was the speech made available in translation for E.S.O.L. students? In sign language for deaf students?) How about talking about pressuring our colleges and universities to make the college admissions process more equitable and not based on someone's ability to pay for SAT-prep classes? How about promising to de-emphasize high stakes testing and the low quality education that ensues because of it? How about talking about how our students perform and are employed relative to other industrialized countries? Obama doesn't have much new to offer about education policy: as I explained in my March 23, 2009 post, his administration's policies are rather more of the same of what we saw from Bush.

The speech had some inspiring moments and some nice rhetorical flourishes and I'm sure at least some students learned something from it. I liked what he had to say and reading over the speech before writing this blog piece, I liked it even more, but it's hard for me to get past the lofty empty cliches and the speech was nowhere as powerful as his masterful Philadelphia speech on race , his gracious presidential acceptance speech, or his rousing Inaugural speech. I hope his health care speech today is better. To me, the speech and the hoopla surrounding it amounted to much ado about, well, nothing significant, or as a friend of a facebook friend commented, "
to quote my daughter, 'Yeah...some guy talked to us on the tv about a bunch of boring stuff.' " With all of the test prep Secretary of Education Arne Duncan wants, aren't our nation's schoolchildren exposed to enough boring stuff already?