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What did we Learn? by Bob Sprankle

I've been thinking about this post since last week (when the "maelstrom" began), and I still don't have it clear in my mind how to approach it. I'm not even sure if I should add to the conversation... so much has already been posted and discussed and with much more eloquence than I think I can muster in this second week of school. But here lies my problem: How do I not write about it? How could I make no mention of it and just write about some new Web 2.0 tool and how it will engage students, or tackle some issue like Internet safety like I usually do at the beginning of the year. I even wanted to write about my new iPhone apps and how they're making me a more organized teacher. But I think those ideas would look pretty silly because there would be this big and comical mound in the middle of this post, where the proverbial elephant has been swept under the proverbial carpet.
So I must step up. I must say something. Difficult when, like many of you, I'm simply stunned by the caustic reactions that have rolled around the country this past week and am left with mouth wide open and nothing more intelligent to offer than a simple statement that I think should end all discussion (but I'm sure has had no such effect):

"But... this is the President of the United States."

(See... that alone has taken all the wind out of me, but I'll try to keep typing.)

As a meager olive branch offered to those who don't immediately accept my argument made above, let me try and describe how I've always practiced in the classroom when it comes to "politics" (though I really don't think this is a political issue). I work with elementary students. Developmentally, these students are definitely impressionable (perhaps more than the rest of us), and clearly haven't completely evolved their political ideologies, or officially declared their political parties. Most of them, if given the chance, would vote exactly as their parents vote. We see this every four years when we hold a "mock election". Because they are so impressionable, I have always firmly believed that I need to be incredibly careful to not influence their political beliefs in any way. I will even go further: I believe it is my duty to not influence them. I've worked hard to find balance for all sides when offering resources (connected to curriculum) during any examination of political current events. (With my students' age group, Politics is not really even in the forefront of most of our current events work. It comes up a lot during election years, of course. I'm sure it has much more prominence with older grades).

During an election year, throughout all discussions or studies of it, I make sure that my students NEVER know who I'm going to vote for. And I don't mean just when they outright ask me (which they do); I mean all the time. I have to check everything that I say and show and teach and make sure that there isn't a single atom of a clue as to what party I'm supporting. I would never put a political bumper sticker on my car. I would never wear a button or a shirt to school that suggests my political ideas... but I don't even wear them when I'm outside of school. What if one of my students were to see me? This may be a bit overkill, but I don't want in any way to influence my young students on political ideology. I want them to discover their own beliefs on their own, with the support of their family. If a student looks up to me as a role model and discovers that I am supporting "so-and-so", then they may want to do the same, or may feel conflict if it's different than what their parents believe. If my student can figure out what my political beliefs are, then I have failed that student and have intruded upon a family's right as much as if I had discussed religious beliefs. It is not my role to in any way push any belief towards my students.

It is, however, my duty to teach them about our democracy: how it came about, how it works, how they participate in it. It is also my duty to help them embrace our core values of Responsibility, Respect, Integrity, Compassion, and Courage. It is my duty to help them become independent and critical thinkers: to analyze information and seek out the truth.

We hold the "mock elections" that I mentioned above in order to help our students practice one of their most important future responsibilities: carrying out their duty to vote. If you disagree with the way things are being run, you will be able to affect change because you live in a democracy where your voice counts. With something so important as voting, we need to give students plenty of opportunity to practice. We want them to grow up to be involved citizens, not uninformed voters, or worse, non-voters.

Each morning our students stand and pledge their allegiance to the American Flag and "one nation, undivided, with liberty and justice for all." There is division in our country and there will most likely always be division... at varying levels of degree. But that pledge is a commitment to try and always make our country stronger and more united by working toward a "more perfect union." Isn't this why we have children as young as kindergarten age pledge these words each day? No matter who is holding the highest office in our republic; no matter if you agree with every single one of that person's policies or want him/her voted out of office; no matter what you want to change or what you want to stay the same... as Americans, we still all make that pledge to engage in civil discourse. I'm not sure that was what all students learned on Tuesday, due to the fact that not all students were present (one of the saddest ironies of the entire saga: the President encourages students to stay in school, which has the unwanted effect of some students not showing up for school). I've listened to some interviews about what students learned from hearing the President's speech. I'd like to hear what was learned from the students that didn't get to hear it. Did they learn the best way to participate in a democracy? Did they strengthen their critical thinking skills? Did they carry out the lessons that we teach them everyday on the playground... did they get to practice courage, compassion, respect?

I'd like to hear more about what they learned.

And then I'd love to show you some great iPhone apps that have helped me become a more organized teacher.