Sometimes our memories of events become skewed. They get all tangled up in the emotions we were feeling at the time, and the actual facts, the actual words, get lost in the chaos as our brain set’s the memory and files it away for future reference. Someday in the future you may ask me what all this hullabaloo was about. I want to take a moment and set down the details surrounding what really should not be an earth-shattering ground breaking moment. President Barack Obama’s address to school children today.
This is not a new thing. Presidents have been addressing school children for years, as have nearly all the other branches of government. Senators, Local and State Representatives, Governors, Judges, and Mayors representing both the Democrats and the Republicans all spoke to me and my peers at school. President Reagan gave a presentation that was aired to me while I was at school. No advance notice was given. There was definitely no advance text provided of the actual words that were going to be said. No permission slips sent home for my parents to sign. No public outcry.
So what makes this time different?
At first the outcry was because President Obama was speaking to school children directly, while they were at school. But then people were reminded that many Presidents have done so, as have politicians in other offices.
Then the outcry was because one of the lesson plan suggestions was to have the students write a letter to President Obama, which was later changed to have the students write a letter to themselves. But President George H. W. Bush also asked students to write a letter to him.
Then the outcry was because of the very existence of the optional teaching aids that were provided for teachers to use, if they so choose, to help the students interact with what the President has to say. But lesson plan ideas are packaged with everything these days. Toys I buy for you have papers included with ideas of how I can use the toy to teach a lesson, the Baby Einstein DVDs include ideas for ways parents to interact with baby and the show, even many of the novels I read have 20 page inserts in the back with discussion points for book groups. And the suggestions are the types of things students learn in class anyways. There is nothing wrong with students learning about past and present Presidents. In fact, it’s standard teaching material. The optional lesson plan ideas may be a new element of the traditional Presidential address to students, but they are everywhere right now. This is the wave of the future, and you will see more movies and toys packaged with optional teaching aids over time. The teaching aids are optional, not a requirement. And, most importantly, the teacher, not the President, determines whether the classroom discussion turns political. Don’t forget that half the teachers in this country are Republicans.
The outrage continues on all of the above topics even though they have been addressed. As you can see, and you will experience throughout your life, outrage rarely responds to logic. It is an unfortunate fact, and I honestly don’t have any good advice for you on how to get around that. Just reply with logic, and understand that it may have no affect whatsoever. Just try not to let people bring you down to their level. That does not help anything, and often it makes things worse. Trust me, I’m speaking from experience. Take the high road, even if the people around you are lying.
I have a great deal of faith in you, and a great deal of respect for your intelligence. I would not insult you by assuming that you could be brainwashed by a speech from the President, whether I agreed with the President’s administration or not. I adamantly opposed the actions of President George W. Bush, but were he to speak at your school, I would expect you to respectfully listen and consider what he has to say. That does not mean that you have to agree with him. I am sure that this tradition of Presidential addresses to students will continue, despite the uproar this time, and I expect you to be respectful of the position of the President. You will not get a hall pass from me just because I don’t like the President.
This is a lesson for you. Not the lesson President Obama was trying to get across, this lesson is from me. You will repeatedly find yourself in positions throughout your life where you are surrounded by accusations, hateful words, lies, and the energy flying back and forth between both sides of the issue is heated. It is very difficult to figure out what is going on, why people are angry, why people think lying will make their point more valid. And it is especially difficult to figure out where you stand on the issue, and make sure you are standing on facts.
I want you to read the text of the speech included below, as well as the optional ideas for classroom activities that were provided to teachers I have included below.
When you get older, I will expect you to apply critical thinking skills. Are there rival ideas that are valid? What are the issues and the conclusions? What are the reasons that are being provided? Are there any parts that are ambiguous? Are there any errors in reasoning? Is there any important, relevant information that has been left out? Look at the words that are used, look at the examples cited. What is the message that President Obama is trying to get across? Do you agree with that message? Do you disagree? It’s OK to disagree. There is absolutely nothing wrong with that. What are the political elements of the speech? What are the political elements of he teachers’ tool? Are there any sentences or phrase with which you take issue? Are there any that stand out that you agree with? What about the ideas that were provided to the teachers? What is the purpose of those ideas? What do they teach? If a teacher uses one of these lesson ideas, is President Obama controlling the conversation in the classroom, or is the teacher?
Could you have critically analyzed the President’s address, and the accompanying ideas for teachers, without first reading them? Is it fair to judge an idea or proposal based on who proposed it without actually reading it? Is it fair to say President Obama is trying to brainwash student’s with this speech and the optional materials for teachers? If so, what is he trying to brainwash student’s to believe or do?
Prepared Remarks of President Barack Obama
Back to School Event
September 8, 2009
The President: Hello everyone – how’s everybody doing today? I’m here with students at Wakefield High School in Arlington, Virginia. And we’ve got students tuning in from all across America, kindergarten through twelfth grade. I’m glad you all could join us today.
I know that for many of you, today is the first day of school. And for those of you in kindergarten, or starting middle or high school, it’s your first day in a new school, so it’s understandable if you’re a little nervous. I imagine there are some seniors out there who are feeling pretty good right now, with just one more year to go. And no matter what grade you’re in, some of you are probably wishing it were still summer, and you could’ve stayed in bed just a little longer this morning.
I know that feeling. When I was young, my family lived in Indonesia for a few years, and my mother didn’t have the money to send me where all the American kids went to school. So she decided to teach me extra lessons herself, Monday through Friday – at 4:30 in the morning.
Now I wasn’t too happy about getting up that early. A lot of times, I’d fall asleep right there at the kitchen table. But whenever I’d complain, my mother would just give me one of those looks and say, “This is no picnic for me either, buster.”
So I know some of you are still adjusting to being back at school. But I’m here today because I have something important to discuss with you. I’m here because I want to talk with you about your education and what’s expected of all of you in this new school year.
Now I’ve given a lot of speeches about education. And I’ve talked a lot about responsibility.
I’ve talked about your teachers’ responsibility for inspiring you, and pushing you to learn.
I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox.
I’ve talked a lot about your government’s responsibility for setting high standards, supporting teachers and principals, and turning around schools that aren’t working where students aren’t getting the opportunities they deserve.
But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities. Unless you show up to those schools; pay attention to those teachers; listen to your parents, grandparents and other adults; and put in the hard work it takes to succeed.
And that’s what I want to focus on today: the responsibility each of you has for your education. I want to start with the responsibility you have to yourself.
Every single one of you has something you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer. And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is. That’s the opportunity an education can provide.
Maybe you could be a good writer – maybe even good enough to write a book or articles in a newspaper – but you might not know it until you write a paper for your English class. Maybe you could be an innovator or an inventor – maybe even good enough to come up with the next iPhone or a new medicine or vaccine – but you might not know it until you do a project for your science class. Maybe you could be a mayor or a Senator or a Supreme Court Justice, but you might not know that until you join student government or the debate team.
And no matter what you want to do with your life – I guarantee that you’ll need an education to do it. You want to be a doctor, or a teacher, or a police officer? You want to be a nurse or an architect, a lawyer or a member of our military? You’re going to need a good education for every single one of those careers. You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.
And this isn’t just important for your own life and your own future. What you make of your education will decide nothing less than the future of this country. What you’re learning in school today will determine whether we as a nation can meet our greatest challenges in the future.
You’ll need the knowledge and problem-solving skills you learn in science and math to cure diseases like cancer and AIDS, and to develop new energy technologies and protect our environment. You’ll need the insights and critical thinking skills you gain in history and social studies to fight poverty and homelessness, crime and discrimination, and make our nation more fair and more free. You’ll need the creativity and ingenuity you develop in all your classes to build new companies that will create new jobs and boost our economy.
We need every single one of you to develop your talents, skills and intellect so you can help solve our most difficult problems. If you don’t do that – if you quit on school – you’re not just quitting on yourself, you’re quitting on your country.
Now I know it’s not always easy to do well in school. I know a lot of you have challenges in your lives right now that can make it hard to focus on your schoolwork.
I get it. I know what that’s like. My father left my family when I was two years old, and I was raised by a single mother who struggled at times to pay the bills and wasn’t always able to give us things the other kids had. There were times when I missed having a father in my life. There were times when I was lonely and felt like I didn’t fit in.
So I wasn’t always as focused as I should have been. I did some things I’m not proud of, and got in more trouble than I should have. And my life could have easily taken a turn for the worse.
But I was fortunate. I got a lot of second chances and had the opportunity to go to college, and law school, and follow my dreams. My wife, our First Lady Michelle Obama, has a similar story. Neither of her parents had gone to college, and they didn’t have much. But they worked hard, and she worked hard, so that she could go to the best schools in this country.
Some of you might not have those advantages. Maybe you don’t have adults in your life who give you the support that you need. Maybe someone in your family has lost their job, and there’s not enough money to go around. Maybe you live in a neighborhood where you don’t feel safe, or have friends who are pressuring you to do things you know aren’t right.
But at the end of the day, the circumstances of your life – what you look like, where you come from, how much money you have, what you’ve got going on at home – that’s no excuse for neglecting your homework or having a bad attitude. That’s no excuse for talking back to your teacher, or cutting class, or dropping out of school. That’s no excuse for not trying.
Where you are right now doesn’t have to determine where you’ll end up. No one’s written your destiny for you. Here in America, you write your own destiny. You make your own future.
That’s what young people like you are doing every day, all across America.
Young people like Jazmin Perez, from Roma, Texas. Jazmin didn’t speak English when she first started school. Hardly anyone in her hometown went to college, and neither of her parents had gone either. But she worked hard, earned good grades, got a scholarship to Brown University, and is now in graduate school, studying public health, on her way to being Dr. Jazmin Perez.
I’m thinking about Andoni Schultz, from Los Altos, California, who’s fought brain cancer since he was three. He’s endured all sorts of treatments and surgeries, one of which affected his memory, so it took him much longer – hundreds of extra hours – to do his schoolwork. But he never fell behind, and he’s headed to college this fall.
And then there’s Shantell Steve, from my hometown of Chicago, Illinois. Even when bouncing from foster home to foster home in the toughest neighborhoods, she managed to get a job at a local health center; start a program to keep young people out of gangs; and she’s on track to graduate high school with honors and go on to college.
Jazmin, Andoni and Shantell aren’t any different from any of you. They faced challenges in their lives just like you do. But they refused to give up. They chose to take responsibility for their education and set goals for themselves. And I expect all of you to do the same.
That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book.
Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.
Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.
I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.
That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”
These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.
No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.
Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength. It shows you have the courage to admit when you don’t know something, and to learn something new. So find an adult you trust – a parent, grandparent or teacher; a coach or counselor – and ask them to help you stay on track to meet your goals.
And even when you’re struggling, even when you’re discouraged, and you feel like other people have given up on you – don’t ever give up on yourself. Because when you give up on yourself, you give up on your country.
The story of America isn’t about people who quit when things got tough. It’s about people who kept going, who tried harder, who loved their country too much to do anything less than their best.
It’s the story of students who sat where you sit 250 years ago, and went on to wage a revolution and found this nation. Students who sat where you sit 75 years ago who overcame a Depression and won a world war; who fought for civil rights and put a man on the moon. Students who sat where you sit 20 years ago who founded Google, Twitter and Facebook and changed the way we communicate with each other.
So today, I want to ask you, what’s your contribution going to be? What problems are you going to solve? What discoveries will you make? What will a president who comes here in twenty or fifty or one hundred years say about what all of you did for this country?
Your families, your teachers, and I are doing everything we can to make sure you have the education you need to answer these questions. I’m working hard to fix up your classrooms and get you the books, equipment and computers you need to learn. But you’ve got to do your part too. So I expect you to get serious this year. I expect you to put your best effort into everything you do. I expect great things from each of you. So don’t let us down – don’t let your family or your country or yourself down. Make us all proud. I know you can do it.
Thank you, God bless you, and God bless America.
Ideas for Teachers to use in the Classroom PreK-Grade 6
Before the Speech
Teachers can build background knowledge about the President of the United States and his speech by reading books about presidents and Barack Obama. Teachers could motivate students by asking the following questions:
Who is the President of the United States?
What do you think it takes to be president?
To whom do you think the president is going to be speaking?
Why do you think he wants to speak to you?
What do you think he will say to you?
Teachers can ask students to imagine that they are delivering a speech to all of the students in the United States.
If you were the president, what would you tell students?
What can students do to help in our schools?
Teachers can chart ideas about what students would say.
Why is it important that we listen to the president and other elected officials, like the mayor, senators, members of congress, or the governor? Why is what they say important?
During the Speech
As the president speaks, teachers can ask students to write down key ideas or phrases that are important or personally meaningful. Students could use a note‐taking graphic organizer such as a “cluster web;” or, students could record their thoughts on sticky notes. Younger children could draw pictures and write as appropriate. As students listen to the speech, they could think about the following:
What is the president trying to tell me?
What is the president asking me to do?
What new ideas and actions is the president challenging me to think about?
Students could record important parts of the speech where the president is asking them to do something. Students might think about the following:
What specific job is he asking me to do?
Is he asking anything of anyone else?
Teachers? Principals? Parents? The American people?
Students could record questions they have while he is speaking and then discuss them after the speech. Younger children may need to dictate their questions.
Menu of Classroom Activities (PreK‐6)
President Obama’s Address to Students Across America
After the Speech
Teachers could ask students to share the ideas they recorded, exchange sticky notes, or place notes on a butcher‐paper poster in the classroom to discuss main ideas from the speech, such as citizenship, personal responsibility, and civic duty.
Students could discuss their responses to the following questions:
What do you think the president wants us to do?
Does the speech make you want to do anything?
Are we able to do what President Obama is asking of us?
What would you like to tell the president?
Extension of the Speech
Teachers could extend learning by having students:
Create posters of their goals. Posters could be formatted in quadrants, puzzle pieces, or trails marked with the following labels: personal, academic, community, and country. Each area could be labeled with three steps for achieving goals in that area. It might make sense to focus first on personal and academic goals so that community and country goals can be more readily created.
Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short‐term and long‐term education goals. Teachers would collect and redistribute these letters at an appropriate later date to enable students to monitor their progress.
Write goals on colored index cards or precut designs to post around the classroom.
Interview one another and share goals with the class to create a supportive community.
Participate in school‐wide incentive programs or contests for those students who achieve their goals.
Write about their goals in a variety of genres, such as poems, songs, and personal essays.
Create artistic projects based on the themes of their goals.
Graph individual progress toward goals.
Ideas for Teachers to use in the Classroom Grades 7 – 12
Conduct a “quick write” or “think/pair/share” activity with students. (In the latter activity, students spend a few minutes thinking and writing about the question. Next, each student is paired with another student to discuss. Finally, the students share their ideas with the class as a whole). Teachers may choose to ask the following questions:
What ideas do we associate with the words “responsibility,” “persistence,” and “goals?”
How would we define each term?
Teachers then may choose to create a web diagram of student ideas for each of the words.
Have students participate in a “quick write” or brainstorming activity. Teachers may ask students:
What are your strengths?
What do you think makes you successful as a student and as a person?
Teachers may engage students in short readings. Teachers may post in large print around the classroom notable quotes excerpted from President Obama’s speeches on education. Teachers might ask students to think alone, compare ideas with a partner, or share their thoughts with the class. Teachers could ask students to think about the following:
What are our interpretations of these excerpts?
Based on these excerpts, what can we infer that the president believes is important in order to be educationally successful?
Create a “concept web.” Teachers may ask students to think of the following:
Why does President Obama want to speak with us today? How will he inspire us?
How will he challenge us?
What might he say?
Do you remember any other historic moments when the president spoke to the nation?
What was the impact?
After brainstorming answers to these questions, students could create a “cause‐and‐effect” graphic organizer.
Teachers might conduct a “listening with purpose” exercise based on the following ideas: personal responsibility, goals, and persistence. Teachers might ask pairs of students to create a word bank at the top of a notes page that has been divided into two columns. On the right‐hand side, students could take notes (trying to capture direct quotations or main ideas) while President Obama talks about personal responsibility, goals, or persistence. At the end of the speech, students could write the corresponding terms from the word bank in the left‐hand column, to increase retention and deepen their understanding of an important aspect of the speech.
Teachers might conduct a “listening with purpose” exercise based on the themes of inspiration and challenges. Using a similar double‐column notes page as the one described above, teachers could focus students on quotations that either propose a specific challenge to them or that inspire them in some meaningful way. Students could do this activity individually, in pairs, or in groups.
Teachers could ask students to look over their notes and collaborate in pairs or small groups. Teachers might circulate and ask students questions, such as:
What more could we add to our notes?
What are the most important words in the speech?
What title would you give the speech?
What is the thesis of the speech?
What resonated with you from President Obama’s speech? What lines or phrases do you remember?
Whom is President Obama addressing? How do you know? Describe his audience.
We heard President Obama mention the importance of personal responsibility. In your life, who exemplifies this kind of responsibility? How? Give examples.
How are the individuals in this classroom similar? How is each student different?
Suppose President Obama were to give another speech about being educationally successful. To whom would he speak? Why? What would the president say?
What are the three most important words in the speech? Rank them.
Is President Obama inspiring you to do anything? Is he challenging you to do anything?
What do you believe are the challenges of your generation?
How can you be a part of addressing these challenges?
Video Project: Teachers could encourage students to participate in the U.S. Department of Education’s “I Am What I Learn” video contest. On September 8, the Department of Education will invite students age 13 and older to submit a video no longer than two minutes in length, explaining why education is important and how education will help them achieve their dreams. Teachers are welcome to incorporate the same or a similar video project into a classroom assignment. More details will be released via www.ed.gov.
Teachers could introduce goal‐setting activities in the following way to make the most of extension activities:
“When you set a goal, you envision a target that you are going to reach over time. Goals are best when they are “Challenging,” “Attainable,” and “Needed” (CAN). For example, a good goal might be: ‘I want to boost my average grade by one letter grade this year so I can show colleges that I am prepared.’ But, every good goal also needs steps that guide the way. These steps keep you on track toward achieving your goal. For example, my first step might be improving in all of my subjects by one letter grade. My second step might be completing 100‐percent of my homework in all of my classes during the first week of school. My third step might be taking an extra hour to study for all of my tests during each marking period. My fourth step might be attending a tutoring session or getting an adult to help me whenever I do not understand something. My last step might be the most important: asking an adult in my life to check on me often to make sure that I am completing each of my steps. Your steps should add up to your goal. If they don’t, that’s okay; we fix them until they do!
Let’s hear another example of an academic goal for the year and decide what steps would help to achieve that goal…
Now I want you to write your personal academic goal for this year and the steps that you will take to achieve it. We can revise our steps each marking period to make sure we are on track.”
Extension of the Speech
Teachers could extend learning by having students:
Create decorated goals and steps on material that is the size of an index card. The index cards could be formatted as an inviting graphic organizer with a space for the goal at the top and several steps in the remaining space. Cards could be hung in the classroom to create a culture of goal setting, persistence, and success, and for the purpose of periodic review. (See the “Example Handout” section.)
Create posters of their goals. Posters could be formatted in quadrants, puzzle pieces, or trails marked as steps. These also could be hung around the room, to be reviewed periodically and to create a classroom culture of goal setting and for the purpose of periodic review.
Interview and share their goals with one another and the class, establishing community support for their goals.
Create incentives or contests for achieving their personal goals.
Write about goals and the steps to achieve them in a variety of genres such as poems, songs, or personal essays.
Create artistic representations of goals and the steps to achieve them.