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Obama’s Inauguration Seen as Teachable Moment

By Kathleen Kennedy Manzo — January 16, 2009 5 min read
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As school marching bands and student groups from Florida to Washington state head to the nation’s capital for what is expected to be one of the largest gatherings ever for a presidential inauguration, teachers across the country are preparing learning activities that connect the historic events with class content and civic goals.

Thousands of students and educators are slated to take part in events in Washington, including the traditional parade, a youth conference, and inaugural balls. Many more are likely to watch from their classrooms and auditoriums Tuesday as Barack Obama is sworn in as the first African-American president of the United States.

The halls and classrooms of Democracy Prep Charter School in New York City’s Harlem have been bustling for weeks in preparation for the day. Some three dozen of Democracy Prep’s 300 students will kick off the school’s inaugural program today when they travel to Washington to recite the “I Have a Dream” speech on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, as the late Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. did more than 45 years ago. Back home, the school will host an assembly for 6,000 local students and community members to observe the Jan. 20 swearing-in, a culmination of a semester of civic lessons around the presidential election.

Given the school’s focus on civic education and the significance the election holds for its mostly African-American 6th, 7th, and 8th grade students, Mr. Obama’s march to the White House has inspired some compelling lessons at Democracy Prep, according to Principal Seth Andrew, who founded the school in 2006.

Past Inaugurals Have Cited Education

John Adams, 1797: ...[I]f a love of science and letters and a wish to patronize every rational effort to encourage schools, colleges, universities, academies, and every institution for propagating knowledge, virtue, and religion among all classes of the people, not only for their benign influence on the happiness of life in all its stages and classes, and of society in all its forms, but as the only means of preserving our Constitution from its natural enemies, the spirit of sophistry, the spirit of party, the spirit of intrigue, the profligacy of corruption, and the pestilence of foreign influence, which is the angel of destruction to elective governments; ... Read more.

“The election is something that really resonated with our students,” Mr. Andrew said. “To me, it’s all about the curriculum, so this isn’t just a day or just a stunt. It has to be a thoughtfully woven-together civic education curriculum.”

Prior to the election, the students organized voter-registration drives and community discussions about the importance of voting, for example. On Inauguration Day, they plan on participating in a related art project and a rally before they watch the broadcast on giant screens at the Harlem Armory. When they return to their classrooms that afternoon, the Democracy Prep students and teachers expect to hold an extended discussion of the events, Mr. Obama’s speech, and their historical significance.

Educators See an Opportunity

Whether they plan to watch from the National Mall in Washington or on television, many viewers will also be listening carefully to Mr. Obama’s speech, particularly for hints of how he will tackle the challenges ahead. The current economic crisis, the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the nation’s health-care problems are likely to be subjects. But many educators will be hoping that his vision for the public schools will earn at least a mention.

The inaugural address has traditionally been a venue for describing the grand hopes a new president holds for his administration, not for laying out detailed policies and plans. But education experts say it could be a prime opportunity for the new president to position the issue as a critical priority for the country.

“When you consider the types of messages [Mr. Obama] was advancing throughout the campaign ... he could say that at a time of national crisis, he would call on everyone to take shared responsibility to strengthen our economic future by strengthening our schools,” said Claus von Zastrow, the executive director of the Learning First Alliance, a Washington coalition of education groups that includes the national teachers’ unions and groups representing school board members, school administrators, and parents.

“I’m no speechwriter,” added Mr. von Zastrow, “but it’s not hard to figure out that this concern for the future is linked to our aspirations for our children and our neighbors’ children.”

Past Speeches Short on Schools

Few past presidents have taken time in their inaugural addresses to discuss education in any meaningful way. The subject was all but ignored or referred to only in passing in most of the 55 inaugural speeches given since George Washington became the first to take the oath of office in 1789.

President Rutherford B. Hayes called for universal education in his address in 1877, calling on states, with “legitimate aid from national authority” to support free schools. In 1929, just months before the nation plummeted into the economic turmoil that marked the Great Depression, President Herbert Hoover defined the objective as more than overcoming illiteracy.

“The more complex the problems of the nation become,” Mr. Hoover said in his March 4 address, “the greater is the need for more and more advanced instruction.” The nation needed to draw talented leadership among people from every walk of life, he added. “The full opportunity for every boy and girl to rise through the selective processes of education can alone secure to us this leadership.”

In recent history, former Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush touted the need for “the highest standards” for schools and equity in education.

Leveraging Student Interest

While some school districts have prohibited teachers from showing the swearing-in ceremony in the classroom, according to news reports, they appear to be part of a small minority to take such a stance. History and civic education experts say Inauguration Day offers teachers a prime opportunity for directing age-appropriate discussions with students.

“There are so many ways that looking at this can help kids understand why the things they learn about [history and civics] are important and relevant,” said Joseph E. Kahne, a professor of education and director of the Civic Education Research Group at Mills College in Oakland, Calif. “Perhaps what’s most important is that teachers use the interest in the inauguration to help students reflect on and analyze both this event and the challenges facing this president and the country.”

With the Jan. 19 Martin Luther King holiday falling just a day before the inauguration, thousands of students and school groups around the nation will be taking part in community-service programs over the three-day weekend. The holiday commemorating Dr. King was designated by Congress as a national day of community service in 1994.

The incoming president called for a national organizing effort to encourage more Americans to volunteer for community-service projects. He and Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden are scheduled to participate as well.

In Harlem, Democracy Prep will get back into its normal routine on Wednesday, just in time for students to take the state’s English/language arts exam. The lessons of the election season may have eaten into some of the usual test preparations, but Principal Andrew said students there are better off for it.

“The civic mission is something that is core to who we are, but when we founded the school three years ago, we had no idea an African-American would be a major-party nominee, let alone president,” Mr. Andrew said. “This has really gotten our students excited about what we do and actively involved in their community.”

A version of this article appeared in the January 21, 2009 edition of Education Week as Obama’s Inauguration Seen as Teachable Moment

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