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.