You’ve heard about it. Maybe you’ve even gotten into a heated discussion about it. President Obama is addressing schoolchildren about (gasp) sticking with their education. Today, the White House made his speech available. You can read for yourself this horrible, awful propaganda at the White House website. 

Obviously I’m being facetious. And I have something else to admit. Don’t be shocked. I didn’t vote for the guy. But, he’s our president. And he’s a role model, especially to black, inner-city kids whose high school dropout rate staggers the mind. President Obama understands his pervasive influence and I believe the motives behind this speech are out of a genuine desire to reach kids who are struggling in school. I’m hopeful that the speech is simply meant to give them a coach-like pep talk to start the school year out with a little bit of presidential, patriotic inspiration. 
What Obama Says in His Speech
The speech is pretty benign, as far as politics go. It definitely hearkens back to Kennedy’s “ask not what your country can do for you- ask what you can do for your country speech. There’s no doubt that Obama is trying to mold himself as a Kennedy or an F.D.R. presidential figure. 
There are some lines from the speech I, as a parent, especially appreciate (remember, he is addressing students):

  • I’ve talked about your parents’ responsibility for making sure you stay on track, and get your homework done, and don’t spend every waking hour in front of the TV or with that Xbox. 
  • But at the end of the day, we can have the most dedicated teachers, the most supportive parents, and the best schools in the world – and none of it will matter unless all of you fulfill your responsibilities.
  • You can’t drop out of school and just drop into a good job. You’ve got to work for it and train for it and learn for it.
  • If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for help when you need it. I do that every day. Asking for help isn’t a sign of weakness, it’s a sign of strength.

He even throws in a line about making sure to wash your hands often to stave off the flu. Can’t argue with that line, either. He throws in a good bit about love of country and talks a lot about working hard for the good of the country.
Why the Uproar?
Reactionary conservatives have actually invoked what is referred to as Godwin’s law– comparing someone or something to Hitler- and although we should be wary about mandatory viewings of our commander-in-chief on television spewing out scary propaganda, this speech is a) fairly innocuous, b) not at all mandatory and c) not unprecedented.
Reagan and George H.W. Bush both made similar appeals in speeches directed at school-aged youth. 
Obama’s administration has developed a curriculum for teachers to use to discuss the speech in classes afterwards. You can also take a look at the Menu of Classroom Activities that teachers can utilize before and after the speech. The activities essentially help students create their own academic goal sheets. Again, the curriculum is meant to be a helpful tool for classroom discussion and is not mandatory. 
Still, opponents of Obama are angry about the speech. Here is a quote from Jim Greer, chairman of the Republican Party in Florida:
"The address scheduled for September 8, 2009, does not allow for healthy debate on the President’s agenda, but rather obligates the youngest children in our public school system to agree with our President’s initiatives or be ostracized by their teachers and classmates."
School districts across the states are taking various positions about the matter. Some are not showing the speech at all. Some are showing the speech, but are choosing not to use the curriculum provided. Parents have the prerogative to request that their child not watch the speech at all. 
Talk to Your Child about Obama’s Education Speech
Parents don’t have to be in the dark about this first-day-of school presidential pep-talk. They can go online and review the material and discuss it with their children. They can even WATCH the video beforehand with their children and discuss what their teachers or fellow students might say about it when it is shown in school. 
Personally, I think instilling a love of education into our children is a non-partisan issue. The speech doesn’t discuss radical educational reform or the merits of an organized teacher’s union; it simply calls upon students to be responsible for their own education, encourages kids who are struggling to fight against the odds, and applauds teachers, parents, and volunteers for their hard work. Instead of beginning the school year with cynicism and distrust, I encourage parents to do the following:
1)      Become fully informed about the speech before making rash generalizations in front of your child.
2)      Discuss the speech with your child. If you don’t want him to watch the speech, have a reason why that they can understand prepared
3)      Start the school year out with a positive attitude.  Encourage your child’s interests, tell them about when school wasn’t so easy for you, become involved in your student’s education by helping with homework and being genuinely interested in what goes on during their school-day, and celebrate each small success with a warm smile, a hug, and encouraging words.
I expect some of you disagree with my sentiments about Obama’s speech. I’d love to hear from you! (Really!)

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