Obama talks, students respond

Posted Sept. 08, 2009, at 12:34 p.m.

ORONO, Maine — Students in Mr. Baker’s sophomore Civic Engagement class on Tuesday were not persuaded that President Barack Obama’s speech to students was aimed at swaying them to his political agenda.

After listening to the 18-minute talk live on the Internet, the discussion in the classroom at Orono High School was firmly in support of allowing the president to speak directly to students, despite concerns by some Republicans that the event was designed to cultivate a liberal bias among American youth.

“Honestly, the only potentially offensive thing was the ‘God Bless America’ at the end,” said one female student, the first to speak after the president’s talk was over.

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“I don’t think it was a political speech,” said another. “President Obama is talking to us about how we should stay in school and that we can grow up to be something big.”

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“The worry is that everyone is going to hear the speech and say ‘Oh my God, Obama’s so great, I’m going to be a Democrat forever,” said another.

Teacher Dan Baker used the minutes leading up to the president’s speech to air some live Fox News coverage of the event, featuring talk-show host Sean Hannity interviewing conservative blogger Michelle Malkin.

Malkin said concern about the speech to students was “not about the text” of the address, but about the opportunity for Obama to indoctrinate students. Public school classrooms are “living laboratories of leftist activists,” she said.

“That’s us,” Baker remarked crisply, drawing some laughter from his students.

In his speech, Obama challenged students to take pride in their education — and stick with it even if they don’t like every class or must overcome tough circumstances at home.

“Every single one of you has something that you’re good at. Every single one of you has something to offer,” Obama told students at Wakefield High School in suburban Arlington, Va., and children watching his speech in schools across the country. “And you have a responsibility to yourself to discover what that is.”

At Orono High School, Baker handed out a printed transcript of Obama’s address and urged the students to consider both the content and the controversy surrounding the event. The students did three “quick writes” during class about their response to the talk and then carried on a lively verbal discussion.

“Most Republicans are worried [Obama] might try to get an edge over them in this speech,” commented one student. He characterized the controversy as “paranoid and a little unreasonable.”

As students crowded out at the end of class, Alexander Bernard of Milford said his parents had discussed the president’s talk with him on Monday night. Though they sometimes disagree with each other on politics, he said, his parents were united in their support for their son hearing the president’s speech in a classroom setting.

“Our generation has been coddled and sheltered by reality and X-Box,” Bernard said, adding that he appreciated the opportunity to engage directly with the political system.

After class, with a new group of students filing in, Baker said he would continue to use downloaded versions of Obama’s speech in his classes this week and would use both Fox News and CNN commentary to provide political context.

“Students are always intrigued by controversy,” he said. “But they often don’t know the difference between news and opinion.”

Principal James Chasse said he had been largely unaware of the president’s planned address until headlines indicated that some schools in Maine had been prohibited from airing the address.

He said he supported the speech being used in individual classes to support established curriculum, but would have balked at the idea of calling a school-wide assembly or requiring teachers to air the speech.

“Just getting school started last week was a pretty big deal,” he said. “We have a pretty complicated schedule. Do I really want to take away physics or calculus so [students] can listen to a speech?”

Other schools in the Bangor area took a variety of approaches.

Students at Central High School in Corinth did not watch the address, Principal Garry Spencer said, because the school’s social studies classes for the day were finished by noon.

Teachers will, however, be able to use the talk as soon as Wednesday if it applies in their classrooms. Spencer looked at the text earlier and thought the speech seemed “innocuous.”

“There was no overwhelming reaction and very spotty parent concerns,” Spencer said. “Today, here at Central High School, it’s a normal day. Teachers will deal with it a day later.”

Henry Pietras, principal at Mattanawcook Academy in Lincoln, said Tuesday that teachers were free to air the speech if they chose, but he did not know if any had plans to do so. Mattanawcook Academy is a member school of RSU 67, where last week Superintendent Michael Marcinkus issued a ban on airing the president’s speech in classrooms. Marcinkus later rescinded his directive, calling it “a mistake.”

Officials at Bangor High School planned to put the speech on a CD and distribute it to interested teachers. Brewer superintendent Dan Lee said he might have liked to air the event live to the whole high school but lacked the technology to do so. Hampden superintendent Rick Lyons said teachers would make their own decisions about whether and how to use the president’s address. And at John Bapst High School, head of school Melville McKay said the school is “extremely focused on academics” and that classes would not be interrupted for the event.

Donna Chellis of Bangor said she would have kept her first-grade daughter home from her private school on Tuesday if the president’s address had been aired during the school day. A former teacher, Chellis said she didn’t take issue with the speech itself but didn’t like the suggested lesson plans that accompanied it.

“It bothered me that the government was spending so much time writing lesson plans. I felt like it was so socialistic, I just had a problem with it,” Chellis said. “I’m trying to teach my children that government isn’t always the answer … It’s my responsibility to teach my children, not the government’s.”

It also troubled her that Obama targeted his remarks to public schools when his own children attend a private school and that Democrats were so upset over the controversy when a similar speech by President George Herbert Walker Bush created a furor in Congress.

“It seems a little hypocritical to me,” she said.

David Connerty-Marin, a spokesman for the Maine Department of Education, said Tuesday afternoon that the department had heard very little of the controversy and had not issued any guidelines to schools.

“We don’t give directives from the state on what teachers should teach or not teach,” he said.

Connerty-Marin added that he had watched the noontime address himself.

“It was about as safe and bipartisan a message as you could possibly come up with,” he said.

BDN reporters Nok-Noi Ricker and Jessica Bloch and The Associated Press contributed to this report.

mhaskell@bangordailynews.net

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