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"I'm going to Haaaavahd"

Photo: by Jeff Gates (Smithsonian American Art Museum - @AmericanArt)

In celebration of President's Day, the installation of a cupcake portrait of President Obama and Lincoln. Read more about it here.

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 aleshaj@thenotebook.org.

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Comments (6)

Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on February 11, 2009 8:49 pm

Great post! I especially enjoyed the exchange between the kids at the West Philly high school. I don't have any personal experience with classrooms but there was a fascinating article recently in the New York Times Education section about the Obama effect on black test-takers. The article is also mentioned on the For Parents section of The Notebook site here: http://www.thenotebook.org/content/parents

Submitted by Alesha Jackson on February 11, 2009 10:27 pm

Wow, what an amazing article! A 20- point difference is a substantial gain. I wonder, like the authors, if it will continue over time. I also wonder how it's being measured.

Thanks for that link.

Submitted by Helen Gym on February 13, 2009 8:03 am

I discussed the presidential inauguration with some of the students in my martial arts class at FACT Charter School, where we have a significant Indonesian student population. The students were surprised to hear about television coverage of the Indonesian school Obama attended as a child and encouraged that their own president might understand what life was like for a child in Indonesia. It was a discussion that touched on race (being African American in Indonesia led to what it felt like for some students being Chinese in Indonesia), migration, immigration, and family.

Submitted by Alesha Jackson on February 16, 2009 9:54 am

Sounds like a meaningful conversation for you and your students, and a tangible way for them to "enter" the sometimes challenging conversations that surround politics and keep us at arm's length. I think so many parts of Obama's story resonate with people in different ways. Thanks for responding!

Submitted by jill (not verified) on February 20, 2009 5:28 am

amazing article! Thanks alot for sharing this.
Obama will be the greatest president united states ever had!
thank you for great material
jill

Submitted by ian (not verified) on November 20, 2010 12:45 am

Hi there, I was just passing by and i got this story nice, I enjoyed reading it.

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