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Obama Inauguration Teacher Forum

January 9, 2009 at 5:35 PM EDT

LEAH CLAPMAN: Hello and welcome to a special NewsHour forum on “Teaching the Inauguration.” I’m Leah Clapman, managing editor of NewsHour Extra, the Web site dedicated to news for students and resources for teachers and we’re using questions submitted from teachers all over the country to discuss activities such as throwing your own inaugurational ball, writing President Obama’s inaugural address and how to keep students interested in civics and government.

Joining me by phone to help us answer these questions and others are Syd Golston, longtime teacher and incoming president of the National Council for the Social Studies and Donna Schell, social studies curriculum specialist for the Scottsdale School District in Arizona. Welcome, Syd and Donna.

DONNA SCHELL: Thank you.

LEAH CLAPMAN: Let’s start with you, Syd. How can teachers prepare their students for January 20th?

SYD GOLSTON: I think the important thing is that they do prepare their students and take the time from very crowded curricular requirements to see that these hundred days and this inauguration will be remembered by students when they are 50 and 70 years old and the relevance – the teachable moment that’s being presented to students is so great that taking a whole day to show some of the things we’ll be talking about to work on some of the preparation we’ll be mentioning is really an important thing.

I think in times like these where there really is a crisis and an important turning point, the community has a covenant with social studies teachers to tell the kids what’s going on, to explain, for instance, with some sense of hope for the future about financial cycles, about presidential agendas so that students will be, eventually, the citizens we hope – we want them to be.

LEAH CLAPMAN: And in preparing for this day, do you have suggestions about how to deal with the history of inaugurations? Donna?

DONNA SCHELL: Okay, well, first off, I’d want students to understand that the inauguration is a celebration steeped in tradition and symbolism and it’s a celebration for all Americans, including them. I’d like them to understand that it’s a day that the candidate becomes the president of all the people, whether or not they or their parents supporting him during the election process. I’d also emphasize the social history of the event because I think that’s what people are interested in and curious about.

The Joint Congressional Committee on Inaugural Ceremonies provides wonderful historical background, trivia, interesting bits of tidbits about people, and memorabilia associated with the different traditions of the inauguration on their Web site. For instance, who sits on the platform, the cost of the most expensive inaugural gown – that happened to Nancy Reagan at over $22,000. The year that Geronimo participated in the parade is another fact they could find out from the site. The main events of the inaugural celebration could be developed into inter-centers, allowing students to choose the part of the inauguration that they would like to learn more about.

Using historic inaugural addresses

LEAH CLAPMAN: And, Syd, you've created a lesson plan that asks students to look back at the speeches of FDR and others. Could you describe the lesson plan and what you hope it will help teachers do?

SYD GOLSTON: Well, I picked the four most famous inaugural addresses - arguably the four most famous ones - but they also match the situation we find Obama in today. There's the Lincoln inaugural in 1865, the Wilson one in 1917, and most precisely matching Obama's situation, the FDR inaugural in 1933 and then there's also the Kennedy one. There are quotes in the Roosevelt inaugural address that could be lifted directly into Obama's because, of course, the country was facing the same situation.

The lesson asks jigsawed groups to read these, you know, each student read a different one and pick out some important words or impressions and share them. And then there's a template using Obama's major issues that face him and that he has pointed out and there's another handout that has Obama's own citations. Interestingly, Obama is already someone who could fill about 10 pages of a Bartlett's anthology, very eloquent. The issues he's going to speak about, I expect and so should the students after they read FDR's are going to be treated in a general way.

FDR says, at one point, "The most important thing is that we put people to work. Our greatest primary work is to put people to work," but he didn't announce the WPA at that point. It's not a time to discuss specific policies. It's a time to set a great inspirational agenda. There are some things that when you read it will just - we hope, for students - will ring a bell. For instance, FDR says, "Practices of the unscrupulous money changers stand indicted in the court of public opinion, rejected by the hearts and minds of men." The sounds pretty familiar. He also calls for strict supervision of banking and credit and investments. This is something Obama may do.

The writing of the speech itself may help students with their six traits writing that everybody's emphasizing across the country because it is a standard essay. Interestingly, almost all inaugural addresses end with an invocation to God - that they probably will notice that all four of those end that way and use the same strategy. I'm hoping reading the real ones and writing their own will make the moment of watching the actual address that much more meaningful.

LEAH CLAPMAN: Great. And again, you can find that lesson plan on our Web site. We have a question from Stephanie Schreiger of Brooklyn, New York. She asks: "Are there any lesser known inaugural addresses - meaning not Jefferson's first, Lincoln's, FDR's, JFK's - that might be helpful to share with students in order to stress consistent themes about the meaning of the presidency throughout history? Syd, do you want to take that?

SYD GOLSTON: Well, all the inaugural addresses are collected on Web sites that will put up on the Extra Web page. Whatever era of American history the students are studying, you're going to find that the inaugural address absolutely is totally relevant to the situation. Washington's is important because it sets the role of the president. We thought Reagan's was very apt because the United States was in pretty bad shape in 1981 and it's a very inspirational speech by someone who's known to be the great communicator. You can pick any inaugural - and by the way, they're not all very long. Harrison's, was, of course, three hours long and he died of pneumonia that he contracted while giving it in subzero weather in Washington. But most inaugural addresses are about two pages long.

Connect creatively in the class

LEAH CLAPMAN: And we had a question from Ann in North Carolina about whether the NewsHour will have live coverage of the inauguration that students can watch on their computers and I guess I'll answer that question. The answer is, yes, we will. But as someone who deals with video on the Web, I would recommend that you watch on your local PBS station unless your school has a really fast connection to the Web. PBS will be airing a three-hour NewsHour special and we'll stream the whole thing on our Web site.

We had another question that came in from Katie in Iowa about lesson plans for elementary-aged students. Do either of you have suggestions for the younger students? Donna?

DONNA SCHELL: Well, first of all, I'd probably emphasize the duties and jobs of the president and allow them maybe to look at grade-level biographies of past presidents. They could study those in advance of the inauguration, maybe make a circle map about the president that they've studied. They could make room-sized timelines that they could create, put the presidents in sequential order, provide highlights on the circle maps as well. There's all kinds of math activities, I think, you could do, for instance, with the inaugural ball there's statistics that kids could look at - lots of different things that they can tally. They can even look at the significant numbers in this event. It's the 56th inaugural, it's the 44th president. All of those kinds of numbers could come into play.

It's also, I think, the perfect time to teach about the nation's capital, Washington, D.C., and its landmarks, the White House and the Capitol specifically, and maybe even the background of Pennsylvania Avenue. With that in mind, a map of the parade route could be displayed in the classroom, important landmarks pointed out on it, pictures of past inaugural activities, which is on that Joint Congressional Committee site could be used, enlarged and used for oral discussions or writing prompts. I would certainly encourage teachers to have kids look at the inauguration live and do lots of activities based on what the kids see that day.

LEAH CLAPMAN: Great and you had some specific suggestions for inaugural balls, parades and luncheons? What have you seen that's been most effective?

DONNA SCHELL: Well, I think everybody loves a parade so I think kids could plan the parade themselves if they were, for instance, imagined that they're on the committee that's planning the parade, what would they think was the most significant people to have involved in the parade?

For instance, I'd also like them to know that the parade and the luncheon and everything on that day represents things that are - represents the new president and the vice president. For instance, since Obama was born in Hawaii, we would expect to see some kind of Hawaii representation in the parade. So what would they like to include in the parade, a perfect Obama-Biden inaugural parade?

On the same vein, I think kids like to look at the inaugural gowns and maybe even design one for Michelle Obama. There's lots of pictures; there's the First Ladies at the Smithsonian that they could look at those kinds of things. They could also plan a simple peanut-butter-and-jelly inaugural ball for their school. The cafeteria could be decorated and converted into the site of a gala. They could even pick roles. Someone could be president, vice president and enter the ball and play "Hail to the Chief." They could just imitate it. Ballroom dancing could happen in PE classes and prepare for that day. So I think there's lots of different things, ways that you can go.

Obama's challenges and charisma

LEAH CLAPMAN: And we had an e-mail from Jenna Sharner in Texas who said she's worried because her students think Barack Obama will save the world and she wants to help them think realistically about the presidency. What would you say to her, Syd?

SYD GOLSTON: Well, as I said before, I think one of the roles of the social studies teacher at this point is to point out the relevance of the past to the present. We were in really, really bad shape in 1933, but we aren't anymore. One of the great things to do is make the parallels, let students see the cyclical nature of crisis. I don't think that it's helpful to be completely negative and always bring up the problems that we face without looking at the fact that we have had great solutions.

In FDR's inaugural, he says that. He says, look at what our founding fathers faced. Look at the history of this country and the struggle it represents on the frontier. This is just money. It's not spirit. I think that's an important thing to do, to be positive in terms of other reference points that we can make to our history.

One of the things I hope teachers are doing is connecting this with what is going on with whatever it is they're teaching, even if it's ancient China. The way society mends itself, is resilient, the nature of progress, these are things that are available to all social studies teachers as their bread and butter.

So I'm hoping that that's how this will be couched by teachers, not as, you know, there's going to be some great dues ex machine and everything is going to be just fine, but that things have been very, very bad before.

I'd like to think of teenagers - I just was in 32 different classrooms in Phoenix Union High School district - as young people who believe they will own a house some day, people who believe that they will have jobs and there will be security and that society will work for them as it has for other generations.

LEAH CLAPMAN: You know, I think a lot of students were very excited, specifically about the person of Barack Obama. Do you think that he is kind of different in the minds of students, of young people, than other presidents that have come before him? And how does that affect the way that people will be looking at this day? Do you want to take that, Donna?

DONNA SCHELL: I'm not sure. I wouldn't - I think that there have been other times in history where people have been excited about a new president. I do think that there was an extensive interest in this one. But, I don't know. Syd, you probably can - you've had more experience at the high school level.

SYD GOLSTON: What I see in inner-city Phoenix is that this is the first president in their brief lives that they truly identify with. He is, in a certain sense, a rock star. He's a very attractive, very compelling person and he is black. That fact in and of itself makes him different and maybe more accessible to a multicultural society.

This is a different world. The 21st century in the United States is a different world from all of the other times. And this really, you know, close identification with Obama is something new. I think we have to recognize that it's compared to Kennedy - which, I was a high school student when Kennedy was elected. And I remember feeling some of that, but not exactly like this. I think this is a bit new.

Fostering debate and discussion

LEAH CLAPMAN: And we had a teacher write in from Atlanta, Georgia, Harriet Carter, who said that her students have pocket Constitutions and when we kind of ask teachers to reflect about how they're going to use the next - Obama's first 100 days to look at civics and government, she said that her students are going to be using these Constitutions to be vigilant and I guess watch what happens with this new administration very carefully.

Donna, how should teachers handle the different political perspectives that students might bring to this event and into the classroom that might cause controversy or debate?

DONNA SCHELL: Well, I think we're obligated to teach students to respect everyone's point of view, emphasizing that each is a valid view. I think teachers should always present and welcome multiple perspectives in any classroom discussion.

I think that NCSS promotes meaningful, integrative, challenging, value-based and active social studies instruction. And I think the brain research shows us that when students are in middle school through college, that's the optimal - that's the perfect time to develop that part of their brain involved in problem solving and decision making.

So this means to me that it's imperative that social studies instruction lead the way in presenting issue-based problem solving and discussion of controversial topics. I don't think we should shy away from this responsibility. If we don't offer opportunities for reasoning and critical thinking at this crucial brain-development time, our students may never have those abilities developed.

LEAH CLAPMAN: Okay. And we have enough time for a few final thoughts. Syd, why don't you go first?

SYD GOLSTON: Well, when I was visiting all of those classrooms in Phoenix Union this week, I told all of the teachers how lucky they were to be teaching students at this incredible moment. It's amazing that we have the technology we have.

I remember at Phoenix Union High School itself showing in 1977 Carter and Roselyn stepping off into the slush on a little TV that had all kinds of snow on it. Now we have SMART boards, we have projection systems. Some schools may not, but we all have television that is going to be clear and we have replay and the chance to really do things that we haven't done before.

Any teacher with students in front of him or her - and they were all telling me, you should have seen how the kids were during the election and what we were doing then. This is a wonderful, special moment. The first 100 days of this administration, which just extends into April, it's not very long, are a terrific time to tie what you're doing - and we know there are standards and lots of curriculum to cover - to what is happening in an epic-making moment.

I just want to point out that the Extra Web site has a daily news clip. Even if you really don't think you have too much time, that's like a four-, five-minute news clip. And you can pick one or two days a week where that becomes the bell work, the warm-up, where you show a news clip and the wonderful people at Extra have given you prompts for writing bell work.

I would make sure you do that. Don't let this one get away because it's so important and it will help so much to build a generation of 21st-century citizens who really can change the world.

LEAH CLAPMAN: Thank you, Syd, for those shout-outs. And, Donna, what about your final thoughts?

DONNA SCHELL: Well, for many reasons, this inauguration represents so many hallmarks in our nation's history. I would have them make connections between this inauguration and the Lincoln bicentennial celebration that's coming up, the use of Lincoln's Bible for the swearing-in ceremony, the borrowing of Lincoln's words for the inaugural theme, "A New Birth of Freedom," and extend that to February, which is President's Day. I think making this inauguration meaningful to all, making connections, should be the goal.

LEAH CLAPMAN: Great. I want to thank both of our guests, Donna Schell and Syd Golston, for joining us. And we want to thank all of our participating teachers. If you didn't have your question answered or have more questions, the conversation doesn't end here. Syd and Donna will continue to answer your questions via e-mail. Until next time, thanks for listening. I'm Leah Clapman for the Online NewsHour.