Monday, September 21, 2009

In case you missed it - SAU 43 students didn't watch Obama's Speech

The following piece appeared in the Valley News on September 15, 2009.

Newport, Croydon
Students Weren't Allowed to Watch
Obama's Speech
By Alex Hanson
Last Tuesday morning, Charen Urban was planning to watch President Barack Obama's address to the nation's schoolchildren with a Running Start college-level sociology class she teaches at Newport High School.

But during the first block of classes, an announcement came over the loudspeakers that the speech would be taped and shown at a later date, and that teachers were not to screen it live in their classrooms.

Urban was surprised. She had planned her lesson for the Running Start class around the speech. She did download and print the text of the speech and she had her students read it and discuss it, but that's not the same as having the president talk to you.

“I thought that it was an opportunity lost,” Urban said.

Marilyn Brannigan, interim superintendent of Newport and Croydon schools, told the Valley News last Tuesday that she supported the message of the president's speech. “Is encouraging kids to study hard and do their best bad? People say it's political, but I don’t know. Encouraging kids to study hard, work hard, is a good thing,” she said.

She also said the schools were offering the option to any class or students who would like to watch the speech. But early in the school day, Brannigan preempted the live broadcast.

Newport and Croydon students will see Obama's speech as part of this Thursday's Constitution Day activities, Brannigan said in an interview Friday.

“We didn't have time to do any planning” before the speech aired, Brannigan said, noting that students had been out of school the previous Friday and Monday. The delay will give teachers time to prepare, she said.

“We also had 10 parents call and say, ‘You can't show it to my kids,' ” she said. She and the school principals “decided on the morning (of the speech) that we hadn't had the opportunity to preview” the president’s remarks. “We didn’t know how many people were out there” who objected to having their children watch and discuss the 15-minute speech, she added.

Preparation time, and not pressure from parents, was the prime reason for the delay, Brannigan said.

Croydon School Board member James Peschke was among those who questioned whether the district should show the speech live. He sent an e-mail to Brannigan, and posted his objections on the blog he and his wife write on behalf of Croydon Citizens for Reasonable and Fair Taxes.

“I don't know if my letter altered their plans in any way,” Peschke said. Brannigan cited the letter in a conversation with the Valley News.

Peschke opposed the speech on several grounds: It isn't the president's job to talk to students, schools and parents wouldn’t have adequate opportunity to review the speech beforehand, and the speech was directed at students in kindergarten through 12th grade, too wide an age range.

“The lack of review was my largest concern,” Peschke said in a phone interview, adding, “I had concerns that (the speech) was propagandistic in nature.”

Asked to clarify how the president's speech, which urged children to stay in school and work hard, might have contained propaganda, Peschke said, “You could make the case that ‘stay in school' is propaganda.” It might be for a good cause, “but it's still propaganda,” he said.

“My personal view is that parents should make that individual decision” about whether their children should watch the president's speech, Peschke said, noting that he “would do that for any president.”

Peschke said he has read the speech and found it “relatively harmless.” Still, he's glad the district taped it.

Not all parents share Peschke's views.

“If it was a speech directed to the young people, then I thought they should be able to hear it,” said Rick Cota of Newport, who talked to a reporter while watching the Newport High School girls soccer match on Saturday. Even watching a taped speech wouldn't have the same impact as a live address, he said. “It's when it’s live that you’ve got everybody talking about it,” said Cota, who has a third-grader and an eighth-grader in Newport schools.

“I thought it was absolutely ridiculous,” said Lisa Clivio-Wentrup, a guidance counselor at Indian River School in West Canaan and the mother of two daughters in Newport schools.

“It's a prime example of how divided our country is,” said David Clivio-Wentrup, Lisa's husband and a teacher at Newport High School. “I'm 56 years old and I’ve never seen it as bad as it is now,” he added.

Would most Newport and Croydon students still have a chance to see the speech?

“I think everyone is planning to show it in some form,” Brannigan said.

“I guess we'll see,” David Clivio-Wentrup said. “Why wasn't it done in the first place, knowing for how long this speech would be done?” The White House news release about the speech was dated Sept. 2, the Wednesday before.

Brannigan said that the timing of the speech, on the Tuesday after a four-day weekend, left school officials with little time to plan. In the absence of central planning, teachers made their own plans to watch the speech.

“My principal and I had conversations via e-mail about it over the weekend,” said Debra Beaupre, a fifth-grade teacher at Newport's Towle Elementary School. Teachers “were thinking we could do what we wanted,” she said in a phone interview.

“I was looking at this as a gimme, a free little pep rally from the president of the United States,” Beaupre said. For some children, the speech might be one of those times when they might say “I remember when… .”

“The thing that was frustrating was I thought that we missed a chance to celebrate a free moment,” she said.

Showing the speech on Constitution Day, as the district now plans to do, doesn't hold the same appeal. “Maybe there's a point there, but I don’t see it,” Beaupre said, adding that as of the end of last week, there had been no talk in the school of curriculum in which to situate the speech.

Urban, who has made a point of reaching out to students in poverty, said she doesn't know what the plan was for showing the speech. She was ready last Tuesday. “I feel it was a very appropriate part of my curriculum,” she said.

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