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Obama’s Back-to-School Message

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President Obama’s planned message to all school children in grades Pre-K-12 is to be delivered next week as students all over the country return to school, but there has been a good deal of controversy regarding it. At the center of the debate is a writing assignment included in the preparatory materials distributed to teachers by the Department of Education asking students to “Write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.”

This was obviously taken the wrong way be some parents and Republicans who felt that this is part of a bigger attempt to fill students with liberal messages and to promote the president’s agenda, including the health-care initiative. After the public outcry hit the media, the assignment was changed by the Department of Education, no doubt with a good deal of input from the President, to read: “Write letters to themselves about how they can achieve their short-term and long-term educational goals.”

White House Spokesman Tommy Vietor said, “We changed it to clarify the language so the intent is clear.” Okay, we might say, that sounds right, but if we examine the two different directions they do seem to have nothing in common. If the original direction was written in that spirit, whoever wrote it certainly did a poor job. For a student to “help” a President is far different than for him or her to think about a way to “achieve” in school now or in the future.

Is there something inherently wrong about a President addressing students on their way back to school? I think not. In fact, I like the idea that Mr. Obama values education and is willing to take the time to let kids know it. We certainly need more positive messages about school, staying in school, and accomplishing something more significant than reaching the next level of a video game.

What has some Republicans and some parents spooked about this message? Well, politically speaking, the President would be woefully wrong to turn the back-to-school message to kids into a political speech. I am anxious to see the text of the address, which will be released on Monday, but until then I think everyone would do well to not get overly excited. Again, I must emphasize that it is necessary and compelling in these times for students to get a positive message about school. A message coming from the President carries weight and kids, who obviously admire and respect Mr. Obama, are going to be more open to his call for taking their studies more seriously.

Also, I am not at all offended by the original text asking “what they can do to help the president.” As an educator over the years, I have often used “write a letter to the president” as an assignment, especially in middle school and high school. Imagine a child’s excitement as he or she sits down to write a personal message to the most important person in the United States and the leader of the Free World. I recall that grammar and punctuation mistakes occurred much less frequently in such assignments, at least in my classes.

I do think too that a call to “help” the President is not an effort to promote an agenda, but rather have students show good citizenship. Whether the President is Republican or Democrat, is it not the goal of good citizens to want to assist this man, share their ideas, and engage in true discourse rather than biased attacks?

This reminds me of something President Kennedy said long ago: “Ask not what your country can do for you; ask what you can do for your country.” I believe this is in essence in that same spirit, pushing children to become good students, caring people, and outstanding citizens. In this way I believe there is nothing wrong with the original text, but the new text does ask students to focus more on themselves and their goals. In this way we must hope this gets them to contemplate where they are and where they are going, and that can be a good thing too.

So I anxiously await the address to school children by the President next week. Until then, I think we should all be comforted to know that Mr. Obama cares about our schools, cares about our kids, and wants to encourage good educational practices. As an American and as a parent, I couldn’t ask for anything more.

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About Victor Lana

Victor Lana has published numerous stories, articles, and poems in literary magazines and online. His books In a Dark Time (1994), A Death in Prague (2002), Move (2003), The Savage Quiet September Sun: A Collection of 9/11 Stories (2005) and Like a Passing Shadow (2009) are available online and as e-books. He has won the National Arts Club Award for Poetry, but has concentrated mostly on fiction and non-fiction prose in recent years. He has worked as faculty advisor to school literary magazines and enjoys the creative process as a writer, editor, and collaborator. He has been with Blogcritics since July 2005, has edited many articles, was co-head sports editor with Charley Doherty, and now is a Culture and Society editor. He views Blogcritics as one of most exciting, fresh, and meaningful opportunities in his writing life.
  • http://www.maskedmoviesnobs.com El Bicho

    Great article, Victor. I hope the people that need to read it the most will make the effort.

  • http://www.imdb.com Erdo Boy

    The country and the President are not the same thing. Likening the speech by JFK to this press release is a mistake. I have heard the audio from the message and it is the complete opposite of what JFK was trying to say.

  • zingzing

    “I have heard the audio from the message and it is the complete opposite of what JFK was trying to say.”

    where did you hear it, and how is it the opposite?

  • Jordan Richardson

    I have heard the audio from the message and it is the complete opposite of what JFK was trying to say.

    Bullllllllllllllshit.

  • http://blog.jonolan.net jonolan

    I think that there’s a huge difference between using a letter to the President writing assignment and the more targeted “how they can help” Obama assignment. The first is open ended and fairly objective whereas the second carries the preconception and bias that the students must want to further Obama’s goals.

    That is what was inappropriate, especially for the younger students.

  • john

    “The country and the President are not the same thing.” That’s it. Stupid of them not to be keenly aware of that distinction. Even after they correct it a sense of distrust remains.

  • icouldbedancing

    Would people be against a letter about helping Ronald Reagan or JFK? Writing a letter to the President is a great idea, reminding citizens – yes children are citizens too – that their opinion counts in this great country! The students would “help” the President in ways that they feel are important to them. I am sure students, especially younger ones, are not well-versed in the President’s agenda! Additionally, fostering education is ALWAYS a good idea!

  • Clavos

    Additionally, fostering education is ALWAYS a good idea!

    Not always, no. Depends on what’s being “fostered.”

  • Just Sayin’

    Wanna know why the White House is asking students to write letters about how to help the president?

    It’s because we elected a know-nothing “community organizer” who is now so disorganized, that he’s begging OUR KIDS for advice!

  • Doug Hunter

    Anyone who has ever read my comments on this site knows I’m a far right, government hating nutjob. That being said, I see nothing wrong with a president occasionally addressing schoolkids, or anyone for that matter. If he inserts politics into the broadcast then that will be an issue to deal with after the fact.

    If you don’t like Obama being the president to get to address your kids, I suggest you work harder to elect someone else next time. To the victor go the spoils.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    Well said, Doug.

  • http://delibernation.com/blog/3 Silas Kain

    I, for one, am gratified by the resurgence of parental interest in education. For far too long, parents have allowed the school systems to dictate education without regard to the quality thereof. Now that parents are out there protesting the President’s address to students perhaps PTA involvement will go up. Perhaps parents will become more proactive in extracurricular affairs, personal accountability projects and more. Such a great door of opportunity has been opened by President Obama’s intrusion into our schools!

    Oh, I forgot, this is about President Obama and has nothing to do with parents getting proactive. Never mind. Back to basics — substandard education, no accountability and, of course, no interest in civic responsibility. Well, this one will be another “failure” in the Obama column because parents these days never were educated in personal accountability (except, of course, Dave Nalle).

  • Baronius

    You got it right, Victor.

  • http://pewreviews.wordpress.com Warren Kelly

    Doug,
    From one right wing nutjob to another, I couldn’t agree more. Of course, I had a family member call me a liberal last night, so maybe I’m not as big a nutjob as I thought …

  • http://www.joannehuspek.wordpress.com Joanne Huspek

    There’s a parental resurgence in education? Where? When? How?

    I’m not being facetious. I deal with kids and parents all the time, and for the most part the concerned ones are few and far between.

    A poll of Michigan parents last year found that most of them didn’t think a college education was necessary.

    Oy vay. This is our future.

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    I had a family member call me a liberal last night

    Do you require medical attention? :-)

  • http://www.futonreport.net/ Matthew T. Sussman

    No, I can’t support this. In this day and age, the so-called “forward thinkers” are trying to indoctrinate children into thinking it’s okay to write letters. As most people know, children’s handwriting can be largely unreadable, which is a waste of paper, a natural resource.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Just want to thank you all for the comments. They go to show how differently people feel about this topic.

    I think the common thread is that we ALL care about education , and maybe this will get some people more interested if they were not before.

  • Clavos

    I had a family member call me a liberal last night

    Do you require medical attention? :-)

    Careful. He’s not really a doctor, he just plays on one BC.

  • Clavos

    @ #17,

    You’re right. The WH should have asked for emails.

  • Baronius

    Now I’ve got to break up the lovey-dovey stuff.

    You have to marvel at an administration that can’t speak to schoolkids without stumbling into controversy. They’ve been on the dance floor for 7 months and they still haven’t got the rythym. I’m not fan of Bill Clinton, but he was born to dance.

    I wonder if maybe the easy 2008 campaign never really tested the staff.

  • zingzing

    joanne: “There’s a parental resurgence in education? Where? When? How? I’m not being facetious.”

    but he was. he’s saying that the only time parents (in the case, rightwing parents,) pay any attention to education is to actually remove their children from school, forcing their own political agenda on their kids, in order to keep them from supposedly having another political agenda forced on them instead. of course… that’s a pretty ridiculous strategy, and also kinda hypocritical…

  • zingzing

    “You have to marvel at an administration that can’t speak to schoolkids without stumbling into controversy. ”

    false, trumped-up, bullshit controversy, created by uninformed, hyperbolic, paranoid idiots, but controversy nonetheless…

  • http://drdreadful.blogspot.com Dr Dreadful

    You have to marvel at an administration that can’t speak to schoolkids without stumbling into controversy.

    Sure, Baronius. And the rape victim brought it on herself.

  • http://delibernation.com/blog/3 Silas Kain

    I’m being facetious, Joanne. Where were all these “outraged” parents when school athletics were cut? How many of these “concerned” parents coach, sit on school boards or really give a rat’s ass about their child’s future? Heaven forbid, we should try and inspire children. It’s better to let them sit at home and watch trash television, play video games and eat junk food. Wall-E, here we come.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    You have to marvel at an administration that’s actually willing to admit its mistakes and faults-throwing verbal distractions hoping you won’t notice instead and/or blaming it on the opposite side of the aisle all the time.

  • doug m

    Appears President keeps overestimating intelligence of the American public. He’ll no doubt pay for it in 2012 if the Repubs can capitalize

  • http://www.sandboxreport.com Sandbox Report
  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    #27,

    I think you’re right on. He’s being conciliatory but that’s a wrong strategy. You can’t compromise with ignorance. Go with your best shot and take your chances.

    So yes, it may bite him in the ass, because they’ll only grow stronger as a result, stronger in their ignorance.

  • common sense

    Parents should be involved in their childs education. Working at the school, riding the bus, being a member of the PTA are many opportunities to be involved. I am involved and I hope others are to.
    Handing out a brochure or prerecording a message would be more appropriate in this setting. Having age appropriate conversation from the President would be a better angle. If the WH was more interested in talking with students about their education, these are steps they would have taken. Showing a graduating senior and a first grader the same thing just does not make sense. As parents, we will watch the presentation and then decide if our children should view it.

  • http://delibernation.com/blog/3 Silas Kain

    Jet, I like the Administration’s message but am rapidly losing patience with the President. We need a President that will make bold, new inspiring initiatives which will drive us as a nation to be more productive and hopeful of our future. He had an amazing opportunity at Ted Kennedy’s funeral to deliver a stirring eulogy. What we got was depoliticized, sanitized and bleachified. It was a nice eulogy, but it could have been better.

    This squabble over his appearance to kids is way over the top. It’s distracting us from the things which are most important. If a parent does a good job of raising a child, that parent should have raised a child who can listen to opposite points of view with some modicum of respect.

    The following night he will address a joint session of Congress. There are even Blue Dog Democrats who are so afraid of what the President will say that they’re staying back in their districts before returning after the summer recess. In my mind, that’s a dereliction of duty. And I urge Republicans who live in Blue Dog districts to call their respective reps on the carpet should they fail to be in House chambers Wednesday night. If it were private industry, security would escort them from the building after a complete strip search.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    Those “Blue Dogs” Silas are traitors to the people who elected them on what the basis of what they thought the candidate MISREPRESENTED by claiming to be affiliated by the democratic party and what it stands for.

    There’s also the feeling of power that comes from the democratic party begging them to support them, support that was already promised when they called themselves democrats but were really closet republicans.

  • http://jetspolitics.blogspot.com/ Jet Gardner

    …and just for the record our newest senator from Pennsylvania is deserving of the same speech. If you’re elected as a republican by your constituants then you damned well better represent the voters that elected you.

    If you want to switch parties or be an asshole “Blue Dog” you resign and run and get elected as a republican candidate.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Forget the “Blue Dogs” for now, it’s another story.

    Bob Dole was interviewed lately about healthcare and strict partisanship. And his excuse was, it had to do with “survival,” which is to say, the Republicans getting re-elected next time around. Meaning of course, that if they were to go along with the program, it would mean political suicide.

    As far as I’m concerned, that’s the lamest excuse I’ve ever heard. Not that Dole was condoning it – he didn’t go that far – but that these a ….s would put their own careers ahead of what they might, just might, think what’s good for the country.

    We’ve had it.

  • http://delibernation.com/blog/3 Silas Kain

    Why even bother, Jet? While many came out and voted this year they won’t go out and vote in next year’s election which, in my mind, is going to be a very important Congress is mapping out our future. This Congress is almost out. Once the holiday recess comes, they all go back to their districts. They return at the New Year with one mission — to get reelected. As a result, we have an impotent Congress every even year.

    And, in the midterm elections the majority of voters which participate in the process are white senior citizens and die hard partisans. So, in paraphrasing the famous words of the Good Book, Prepare Ye, the way of the Conservatives.

  • http://delibernation.com/blog/3 Silas Kain

    Poor Bob Dole. I think he wants a Teddy-like funeral when it’s his time so he’s sucking up to the GOP.

    That being said, Roger, the GOP ain’t dead. If Obama blows this opportunity next year’s elections are going to be the Obama nightmare. 60% of the folks who came out of the woodwork and voted in this Presidential election think they don’t have to vote again until 2012. So, as a result, the dingbats, racists, and blue haired pissed off senior citizens will decide the political fate of the country a year from now. Enjoy it while you can, Roger. Armageddon begins next November and if this Administration doesn’t get its act together post haste this is a lame duck one term President.

  • Steve

    As an American living in Paris, I’m embarrassed when I see and read such childish reactions to such things as this back-to-school message. I was a middle school history teacher for 26 years and wanted my students to know they had a voice in their country. So I had them write letters to the President, Senators, Mayors and so on. From a distance I can see how this message will positively affect many children. Some will be too young to get it, but others will look at it as a way for each of them to say internally, “Yes, I Can”. How great is that! I recently received an email from a former student telling me that when she was in my class as an 8th grader she had no direction from home and no one to tell her that she could do anything, become anything she wanted if she had a goal, a vision, a desire for more. She thanked me for giving her the message and determination to succeed. I see this message as just that.

  • http://viclana.blogspot.com/ Victor Lana

    Julie, the media exaggerated the issue along with some parents and Republican leaders. Other presidents have routinely addressed the students of the nation and we heard nothing about it.

  • http://takeitorleaveit.typepad.com/ roger nowosielski

    Very level-headed and balanced article, Victor. To tell the truth, it’s the first article I’ve read (there are two more on BC, and no doubt more may be forthcoming – mainly because I consider this a non-issue. And I think it was a mistake on the part of the Obama camp to backpedal and alter the original formulation which, after all, encouraged critical thinking, not just eliciting agreement.

    What is not, however, to be taken lightly is the kind of negative publicity this tends to generate – verging on a kind of hysteria. It does look indeed as though great parts of the American public has been caught up in some kind of anti-Obama frenzy – starting with tea-parties, the healthcare debates, and now this. And this doesn’t bode well for the future of the nation. One would think that we were progressing for a while in the area of human rights and inching, however slowly, towards the ideals of a just and more equitable society. But the present rise of reactionary thought – even on the silliest of matters – doesn’t speak well of our common future. It’s a very disturbing sign indeed.