"I'm going to Haaaavahd"
It’s Black History Month, and this year marks an exciting time during that history: the remarkable ascent of a Black man to America’s highest office. Already one New York elementary school bears Barack Obama’s name, with students leading the charge for the name change via essays and debate. For other students, Obama’s election is Black history come to life. Indeed, as the last red, white and blue confetti falls and President Obama settles into the White House, I can’t help but wonder: in urban schools, what is learning gonna look like now?
In a meeting with a teacher this week, I asked what he thought his greatest concern was at this point in the school year. “Investment,” he said without hesitating. “They do the work, but…don’t really seem that excited by it.” His brainstorm? Student-selected research on Africa and weekly discussions on CNN’s coverage of Obama’s first 100 days.
Could lessons about Barack Obama’s presidency be the key to keeping students energized about school?
This year, the Massachusetts Teachers Association developed an online archive of Black History links which include resources for teaching about President Obama’s life and campaign. Another teacher, this one in Maryland, determined that his students just weren’t getting Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and created a vocabulary word book based around Obama- themed exercises. Here in Philly, where African-American history is a requirement for graduation, Obama’s historic speech at the Constitution Center last March provides a living context for understanding political change.
Obama-themed activities are not without schoolhouse drama, however. A Missouri middle school teacher was recently suspended for teaching a group of young men pro-Obama chants that he filmed and posted on YouTube. Supporters say that the teacher, who modeled the group after African- American fraternities, took heat because of misunderstandings about the activity’s purpose. In the video, students credit Obama with inspiring them to be engineers, technicians, or lawyers; later, each young man states a fact about Obama’s platform. At several points in the video, the group chants various positive goals in unison (“We will take responsibility” or “We provide our own destiny”) and end with “Yes, we can!”
A representative from the school district claimed that it was the publicity, not the concept, that landed the teacher in hot water. Either way, classroom activities done in the name of Obama are happening with greater regularity since the opening of his campaign nearly two years ago. To some, Obama’s election is a symbol of a newly-born United States. In fact, during a recent trip to Egypt, we were greeted by strangers with a thumbs-up and the four words that have become a symbol for that fresh pattern of change: “Obama? Yes, we can!”
I recently sat in on a teacher’s math class in a small West Philly high school.When a student answered a problem correctly, a classmate burst out, “You think you Barack Obama!”The class erupted in good-natured laughter. The kid, unruffled, responded, “That’s right…and I’m going to Haaaaavahd.”
How is this new era emerging in your classrooms? I encourage you to comment with your stories on Obama’s impact in your schools. You can also write to me at email@example.com.