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Schools finding many teachable Inaugural moments to reach excited students

Many Minnesota students are following all the buzz over the Obama inauguration, and schools are ready to make the most of the situation.

Talk about teachable moments: Even with America shouldering two wars and its economy as shaky as a house of cards, the nation is genuinely excited for Inauguration Day, a chance for celebration and new beginnings.

Sure, the times are uncertain and the new president’s plate is full of complicated issues, but in and out of classrooms in Minnesota and across the land, school kids on Tuesday will once again witness the orderly transition of power, as Barack Obama becomes the nation’s 44th president. (PDF)  

So, just how big a learning experience is this swearing-in of Obama and Joe Biden?

BIG. Just surf the web and find an abundance of lesson suggestions. Better yet, ask a teacher, or a kid.

“It’s like a huge history thing,” said Anoka High School sophomore Amanda Rumpca, whose candidate did NOT win the presidential contest. Still, she prizes her opportunity to head to D.C. for the swearing-in, along with 21 other honors government classmates and teacher Tara Hoffman.

“They’re so excited they can’t stand it,” said teacher Hoffman. The trip caps an unbelievable presidential campaign, as seen through her students: “In 11 years of teaching, I’d never seen students so excited, so politically active as this [campaign] — no matter who they were supporting,” she said. 

And 10-year-old Moses Seley? He can hardly wait to see Obama on TV raising his right hand. The African-American/Chinese boy says he’s been cheering Obama’s win since Election Night. That’s when he heard his guy had won. He stopped eating his chocolate bar to join his parents and other adults in cheers, screams and hugs.

So, what’s the big deal about Barack Obama, Moses?

“People mostly know that he is black and he’s the first black president and people know he’s going to run the country good,” the boy said. Moses, teachers and classmates at Lincoln Elementary in Anoka will be watching the groundbreaking event on television monitors throughout the school.

“Regardless of your political persuasion, it’s clearly a historical moment these children in essence will live through, which makes it very important to focus on in the classroom,” said Derek Olson, Education Minnesota’s current state Teacher of the Year. “It shows history is real, that it’s something that is still happening,”

Olson will have his sixth-graders at Afton-Lakeland Elementary in the Stillwater District observe and discuss events in D.C., then process them by journaling what they’re thinking — just as he did with students immediately following the attacks of 9-11. Six years from now, when his students graduate from high school, he plans to mail them their jottings to reflect on.    

Some Minnesota kids will travel to Washington for the thrill of being where history is being made.

The 120-member Fergus Falls High School band, for example, will march in the inaugural parade. Estrella Seals, a sixth-grader at Cherokee Heights Elementary School in St. Paul, and Jaleice Johnson, an 11th-grader at Robbinsdale Cooper High School in New Hope, won trips to D.C. as first-place finishers in the Black Excellence Contest. 

An excited Estrella says the trip is the last thing she thinks of at night and the first in the morning, all because she wrote a winning essay for the contest sponsored by the We Win Institute, a nonprofit in Minneapolis that helps children achieve academic and life success.

A teacher coaxed her into entering the contest, but Estrella never thought she’d win, not just for writing what she believes in her heart: “Black people should think about their future instead of all the bad stuff and help each other out.”

A school sampler
Here’s a sample of other ways area schools are dealing with the Inaugural events:

• In St. Paul, the Phalen Lake Hmong Studies Magnet is holding a school assembly with the presentation of flags and songs, and a reading of the Inaugural pledge, along with discussion of what makes a good leader.

• Kids at Expo for Excellence Magnet in St. Paul are making flags and banners for a parade along Randolph Avenue, singing the national anthem.  

• In Moses’ fifth-grade classroom, teacher John Horton will talk about the groundbreaking moment in historical and racial terms as part of a curriculum leading into Black History Month. “We usually start in January talking about civil rights, fairness and equality and how people are treated, about Dr. Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks,” Horton said.

He says his class is excited about seeing the first African-American in the Oval Office: “Having a positive role model is one thing, but also making this a historic presidency is another.”

In his lessons students focus on overcoming obstacles in the face of adversity, he said. Fifth-graders need examples of what it means, such as studying Jackie Robinson and the hurdles he faced to become the first African-American Major League Baseball player.

• At Harvest Prep School in Minneapolis, a group of 23 students and 19 adults — including community elders who can share their experiences — have chartered a bus to be there to see events firsthand.

• In other Lincoln classrooms, teachers will decide just how much of the inauguration their students will benefit from viewing.

That means Angie Atkinson’s kindergarteners first will look at their Weekly Reader to learn about the new president and his family  and likely then watch just the swearing-in part of the day’s activities.

Will they talk about Obama’s race?

“I think we will,” Atkinson said. “We’ll talk about how it’s very special he’s the first African-American president we’ve ever had in the U.S. and see if it prompts any discussion. We let them guide where that goes. Mainly, we want to give them background, so they are able to say, ‘I saw the new president on TV.’ That can launch more discussion at home.”

Cynthia Boyd writes on education, health, social issues and other topics. She can be reached at