Willing to Learn: Reactions to President Obama’s Back-to-School Speech from Finn

on Oct 05, 2011 in Blog by

Last week on September 28, 2011, President Obama addressed the students of the nation from Benjamin Bannecker Academic High School in Washington, D.C.  This was his third annual back-to-school address to the nation’s students and the second one I watched with my son, Finn.  Finn is in first grade and will soon be seven.  For the first time, this year he was old enough to know that the President was speaking to him and his classmates.  It was truly enlightening for me to sit with him this year and hear what the President had to say from the perspective of a six-year-old.

His class had spoken about the speech at school and he brought home the beautiful picture you see here, complete with the President standing alongside the White House.  When we sat down to watch the speech he told me that he didn’t know the President of the United States had time to talk to a bunch of kids, but that he heard Mr. Obama (as he calls him) say that he and his class were really important and needed to work hard.  We sat back on the sofa, me with my notebook, and Finn with a stash of homemade playing cards he has been working on.  We listened together, occasionally looking over at each other to gauge our reactions.

Of course, what I heard as I listened was different than what Finn heard.  He spent some time fumbling with his cards, fidgeting in his chair and looking at the ceiling as I took notes.  During the speech, I could feel myself nodding in agreement to the calls for students to work hard and take responsibility for education; I felt called to action as the President spoke about making America’s schools as strong as they could be; I was emboldened to think more about reforms to our system as he talked about rising as a country to once again have the highest percentage of young people with a college degree; I felt pride in the accomplishments of the young entrepreneurs he used as examples; as a parent, I felt obligated and determined to make sure my children get a great education; and I felt determined to make sure all the children of this country have that same opportunity.

When the speech finished, Finn and I had a conversation about what we watched that went something like this:

Me:  You said President Obama thinks that you and your classmates are really important?  Why might he think that?

Finn:  There’s two reasons, I think.  We have to do our very best and if he didn’t tell us to we might forget.  And our teachers work really hard, even harder than I thought.  If we don’t work hard for them, then they would just work hard for nothing.

Me:  I think you understand a lot about what he was saying and you are probably right about those two reasons.  We want to please our teachers and work hard like they do and it is helpful to have the President remind us of something we should do.  Can you think of some reasons why working hard would be important for you and your classmates at school too?

Finn:  Well…you remember when I didn’t know what addition meant and I got mad when you made me play Addition Bingo.  I learned all about addition at school and now when we play I always win.  Oh, and the President said we have to go to college and get jobs.  I am going to be a race car driver and you said I had to know how to read to drive.”

Me (laughing):  That is true.  I am glad you watched with me.  I never would have thought the President’s speech might be relevant to your plans to become a race car driver.

Finn:  You know what else the President said, Mom.  He said that school is about trying new things.  I am going to try new things and when I don’t do them right I will just try again.  Next time we have art I am going to listen to what the teacher says and not just work on my comic book.

As we turned off the computer screen we had been watching on, I felt proud that he was thinking about school and learning as positive opportunities—and, I must admit, I felt a little disappointed that he hadn’t been listening in art.

But the thing I took away from that conversation wasn’t something that made me proud as a parent or something the President said.  It was the amazing ability children have to try new things.  Learning addition or the basics of calculus, learning that a group of letters is a sound and that sound is a word, or learning the proper technique for a great jump shot are all big, sometimes scary steps and they require faith in your teachers, coaches and school leaders.   And they require a leap into the unknown that stems from a belief we all have to have to grow up:  Change is necessary to grow.

Change is necessary for growth in our educational system too.  As we work towards reforming educational policies and practices to create stronger schools and to support our teachers and students, we have to be willing to make big changes and to learn the lessons offered from past experiences, new research and other types of systems from around the country and the globe.

So as I continue with my work here at West Wind and at home, I will take a cue from Finn and his classmates and pledge to be willing to learn and push myself and my thinking to new levels, even if that makes me uncomfortable sometimes.

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