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Schools make inauguration a teachable moment

Schools across the country used the Jan. 20 inauguration of President Barack Obama as a teaching opportunity, broadcasting the historic event live in their classrooms and using web sites and other technologies to help provide historical context.

"It’s a terrific opportunity for schools to share in the excitement that the rest of the country is feeling," said Nina Senatore, assistant professor of education at Simmons College in Boston.

At CIVA Charter School in Colorado Springs, Colo., educators used the inauguration to highlight the history of race relations. Students, mostly in 11th and 12th grades, made presentations about the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education case, Rosa Parks, and the Little Rock 9 in a Jan. 20 program. The school also broadcast the inauguration live on a big screen.

"I really hope the students understand how far we have come and feel wonderful optimism regarding the future of more equality," said principal Randy Zimmerman.

Tidewater Community College in Norfolk, Va., showed a live webcast of the inauguration in its downtown theater, the TCC Roper Performing Arts Center, said spokeswoman Laurie White. The Roper is a restored 1926 Loew’s Theatre that seats up to 800 people. Political science and history professors led an informal discussion after the swearing-in.

Hathaway Brown School, an all-girls K-12 school in Shaker Heights, Ohio, offered continuous viewing of the inauguration throughout the entire school, including the dining hall, classrooms, and the auditorium. Students and teachers could write their thoughts in a scrapbook about what the day meant to them.

Online, educators had plenty of resources from which to draw as they put together lesson plans in honor of the event.

Pearson Social Studies, a division of educational publisher Pearson Education, offered a guide to past inaugurations at The site gives an in-depth look at the people, places, and events that make up the nation’s presidential history.

"Close to two million people [were] expected to attend the Obama inauguration, but most of us won’t be able to get there, so we thought we’d invite educators to let us help them commemorate the day," said Michael Gee, Pearson Social Studies vice president. "Our site presents an enormous amount of visually stimulating, interactive information that will stay relevant to classrooms long after Mr. Obama is sworn into office."

The site’s "Inaugural Factfile" focuses on media coverage, famous addresses, inaugural trivia, and life after the presidency, and it includes the collected inaugural addresses of every U.S. president. "The Presidency: Old and New" includes biographies of presidents, vice presidents, cabinet members, First Families, and more. An "Elections" section spotlights campaigns, voter participation facts from 1930 to the present, and residency requirements for voting.

The National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachers, the nation’s largest teachers unions, teamed up to offer a set of online instructional guides developed jointly by a team of curriculum experts (

The guides include information about the 2009 inaugural and past ceremonies, as well as suggestions for supplementing these lessons with discussion topics, films, books, and other educational web sites. A section called "Living History" encourages students to continue studying American government and the presidency beyond Inauguration Day. The materials are geared toward students from elementary school to high school, and they offer lesson modifications based on students’ ages.

"It is crucial that our students understand that we are not only living history and making history with this inauguration, but also carrying forward the historical contributions of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and his influence on our incoming 44th president," said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel. "These important lesson plans will help students understand President Obama’s message of a ‘sense of unity and shared purpose’ into the next four years and beyond."

NEA also partnered with kidthing to launch a project called "Dear Mr. President." Kidthing, a free digital media player, allows kids to download and read books, play games, and watch videos using a computer.

Through the kidthing web site, students can submit letters and drawings expressing their hopes, dreams, and ideas to President Obama. Owing to popular demand, the deadline for entries was extended from Inauguration Day to January 27, 2009.  Students and educators can learn more at

ePals, a company that operates a global network of K-12 schools and their students, oversaw a similar video project. On Nov. 4, 2008, ePals asked students nationwide to submit their thoughts directly to Obama through Your Presidential Minute, a contest hosted on the company’s election-focused web site, 2008 Election Central.

Students from all over the world submitted one-minute videos, audio recordings, and presentations expressing their views to Obama and his new administration. ePals has compiled the best responses and has shared them with Obama’s transition team and with members of the ePals Global Community.   

In one of the videos, a student from Kenya says: "Every child in the world needs education. Education empowers us mentally. The mind is the most powerful tool you have. In you, Mr. President, we see the evidence of what an empowered mind can achieve."

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