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Obama's Speech to School Children

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This post was originally published on the HS Bits Blog, which was active from 2008-2013.

By Karla Olson

"Work hard.  Take responsibility.  Accept the occasional failures, as we all make, and keep going.  Life's bigger than just you.  Think big.  Work together as a community."

Ah, yes, one can hear it now; it's the first day of school across classrooms the world over, and teachers are handing out syllabi, instructing students about cutting off the fringes, and giving the new year pep talk with those words.  Catch the smell of chicken patties drifting from the lunchroom?  See the row of brand-new white board markers across the ledge?

But wait!  Here's a twist: this time it's not just Mr. Johnson (wearing the same first-day tie he's worn since 1983) talking, nor is it the school principal welcoming the students back in the gym assembly.  It's the President of the United States, a world leader, indoctrinating millions of American children with Socialist ideas.

Well, according to some, that is.

Others state that it's a welcome and wholly appropriate task for a nation's leader.  Still others, more to the middle, have a problem with possible lesson plans and use of the speech more than the speech itself.  Others are simply mystified at all the hullabaloo, while there are those, too, who simply add last week's consternation in the United States over President Obama's National Address to America's Schoolchildren to the column of what sadly has become politics-as-usual.

Who's right, or (to be more precise) who's correct?  Well, to decide that, one would have to sort through the 24-hour news cycle rhetoric, weigh all sides, put words in context, assign motives and back that up with data, and make assertions.  Sounds an awful lot like good education, especially for an Advanced Placement Language & Composition or other rhetoric course!

That's exactly what I plan to do later on this year, after we've had time to settle in and learn a bit about constructing Toulmin arguments and recognizing logical fallacies.  There will be a wealth of public statements -- from elected officials to pundits to neighbors-from which to construct great lessons.  From all perspectives. Students will have to get to a truth for themselves after doing the work of analysis, after struggling with the many issues (parents' rights, school disruption, civic responsibility, setting precedent, honoring a leader...).  Students will have to discuss, try beliefs, and synthesize information.

All of the things that educators would agree make for good learning, good citizens (in the best Dewey sense), and good classrooms.

The hasty comments and at times horrifically biased opinions (from more than one side) that have been reported over the last week here in the States prove, as nothing else can, that we need such analytical study in our schoolrooms.  In an age where we have instant-everything (not that I'm knocking it all, mind you, as a microwave oven may be one of my favorite inventions ever), and modern communication methods will transmit our gut-level reactions around the globe more quickly than we even realize -- without an "unsend" feature -- it's even more important that in our classrooms we take the time to think through hype and sound-byte headlines.

We need to bring back the power to mull.

In our high school classrooms, students need to realize the difference between healthy, lively debate and an episode of Jerry Springer.  We need our kids to understand that disagreement is inevitable; more, it's how the process is supposed to work. While entertaining the other side's arguments can be uncomfortable, at times -- we all have our hot-button issues -- it's absolutely required that we look at the matter from many sight lines in the room. It's the only way to make progress and solve problems, and there are methods available to us to use in sifting through rhetorical postures.

And we need to model the very concepts that thousands of teachers, and President Obama, highlighted on the first days of school.  We need to work hard.  Take responsibility.  Accept the occasional failures, as we all make, and keep going.  Understand that life's bigger than just us.  Think big. And to work together as a community.

Karla Olson is entering her eighth year teaching junior high and high school English at Minneota Public School, a small, rural K-12 school on the Minnesota Prairie, U.S.  Karla is teaching AP® Language & Composition for the fourth year, and she also enjoys Mock Trial, politics, technology, and theatre.

®AP is a trademark registered and/or owned by the College Board, which was not involved in the production of, and does not endorse, this product.