On Wednesday and Thursday I gave two very special homework assignments to the Fourth Graders I teach at a Title I school. My school serves a population that is 96% African-American and where 80% of our students receive "free or reduced meals". Wednesday my students wrote "August 28, 1963" at the top of sheet of paper. Their challenge was to talk to some adult, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts and neighbors who remembered what happened that day, and then write about it.
My students bounded into our classroom Thursday morning excited to relate what they had learned about August 28th, forty-five years ago. . They were shocked when I told them that Black people were not even allowed to vote in many states when that speech was made.
I told my students that Thursday night they too could be "witnesses to history". A letter went home to their parents/guardians asking them to allow the kids to take a nap and get up at 10 PM to "witness history". I also encouraged parents to watch with their students to answer questions and share their feelings about this awesome moment in our country's history. The excitement in my class tomorrow morning will be almost as great as at Invesco Field tonight. Here are the results.
My students excitement couldn't wait until they got into our classroom. They eagerly called out from the line by my classroom door,"Did you see him Ms. Adams?" "Did you see our new President?" "Did you see all those people at the football stadium?"
At our morning meeting the students were anxious to share what they had learned and what the reactions were of the adults who had watched with them. Thirteen out of sixteen of my students got to watch the speech. Upon learning that their classmates had missed it, the immediate cry became, "Is it on You Tube Ms. Adams? We want to see it again!". Two of the students even took notes, sharing the facts they had gathered about Sen. Obama. The level of detail truly amazed me. From the names of his daughters, to the name of his future Vice-President, these kids were really paying attention. When one student stated that Sen. Obama had gone to college at Harvard, he was "corrected" by another student, "No, no that's where he went to school to be a lawyer after he went to college!". When you know that very few of my students have anyone in their family that has attended college, you can appreciate what drawing that fine distinction means to a teacher.
Almost all of the students related that the adults that watched with them "laughed" at some parts of the speech, but that almost everyone cried. What impressed the kids most were the pictures of the people in the audience and the fact that there were so many white people crying and cheering a black man. The other thing they noticed was how quiet the people were. "They were really paying attention to every word he said". As a teacher these two comments warmed my heart: "Obama speaks formal English like you've been teaching us Ms. Adams. Now I know what you mean about it being important to learn to talk like that." And my favorite, "Obama has a really, really big vocabulary Ms. Adams. He used lots of different words. What does "insplicable" (inexplicable) mean Ms. Adams? I like the sound of that word." As a teacher, I'm looking forward to Sen. Obama providing me many "teachable" vocabulary moments over the next few months and years, woo hoo!
Thursday night Barack Obama made history, but he also made an immediate difference in 16 lives. He changed the way my students look at themselves, the importance of their education and the possibilities open to them if they "go to school and work hard like Sen. Obama" , as one girl said. Fortunately for our country, Barack Obama is a formidable candidate, but for a teacher like me, he is also a priceless role model.