Students' Obama song: Is there a better way to teach civics?

The controversy over New Jersey students singing about the president raises the issue of how schools should talk about contemporary politics in the classroom - including the first African-American president.

By , Staff writer

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    New Jersey's education commissioner has ordered a review after a YouTube video shows more than a dozen children at Burlington Township's B. Bernice Young Elementary School learning a song celebrating President Barack Obama.
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A video of New Jersey elementary schoolchildren singing a song praising President Obama has sparked an uproar in conservative circles, with critics charging indoctrination – an echo of similar charges earlier this month when Mr. Obama spoke to schoolchildren in a nationally broadcast address.

In the song, originally written by a second-grade teacher and her class in recognition of Black History Month in February, students rap and pay tribute to Obama’s accomplishments.

The video has stirred up the conservative blogosphere, and people across the political spectrum agree that the song may be an error of judgment on the teacher's part. But more broadly, it raises questions about the place of politics in the classroom and how schools and teachers can discuss Obama’s presidency – and perhaps recognize its historic nature – in appropriate ways.

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“The biggest thing that worries me is that we’ll make our schools into politics-free zones where you can’t talk about anything that might offend anyone,” says Peter Levine, director of the Center for Information & Research on Civil Learning & Engagement at Tufts University in Medford, Mass.

Already, notes Professor Levine, far fewer kids take courses devoted to current events than did several decades ago. “I think we’ve squeezed most of the controversy out, which is bad for kids’ civic development.”

What the students sang

In the video, students at the B. Bernice Young Elementary School in Burlington, N.J., chant lines of praise, interspersed with the name “Barack Hussein Obama,” and later sing, including the verse: “Hello Mr. President, We honor you today/ For all your great accomplishments, we all do say hooray/ Hooray, Mr. President you are No. 1/ The first black American to lead this nation.”

The video was taken when Charisse Carney-Nunes, author of the children’s book “I Am Barack Obama,” visited the school in March, and the class reprised an earlier performance of the song. School administrators had no knowledge of the recording, district superintendent Christopher Manno wrote in a letter to parents this week, noting privacy concerns would prohibit posting such a video.

But when the months-old video surfaced last week on YouTube, it quickly went viral.

Conservative blogger Michelle Malkin was one of the first to take note of it, referring to it as an “O-cult lesson” and concluding at the end of one blog: “Out: Readin’, writin’, and ’rithmetic. In: Rappin’, revolution, and radicalism.” On Fox News, Tucker Carlson said the video was “pure Khmer Rouge stuff,” and Republican National Committee chair Michael Steele called it “the type of propaganda you would see in Stalin’s Russia or Kim Jong Il’s North Korea."

Such characterizations, says Richard Harris, a political scientist at Rutgers University, are wildly off-base. "Indoctrination implies an ongoing and systematic effort to advance a strategy … and is a program that’s devised or managed by an organization or government,” he says. “This doesn’t even come close.”

What he finds particularly troubling, says Professor Harris, is that the episode appears rooted in an ongoing effort to "associate [Obama] with centralized planning and totalitarianism.”

School to review the incident

Still, a number of people, including some parents in the district, have been bothered by the video, and the New Jersey Department of Education announced that the commissioner has directed the superintendent to conduct a thorough review of what happened.

Superintendent Manno, meanwhile, has tried to put the video in context, noting that it was created during Black History Month when there was “much exuberance throughout the country over the inauguration … of the first African American President of the United States.” Lyrics to the song were sent home with students beforehand.

While the district “is confident that this incident was not an attempt to promote a political agenda, [we] are sensitive to the concerns this has raised,” Manno wrote to parents.

For his part, Levine says that singing songs of adulation to a sitting president probably isn’t the best way to deal with politics in the classroom. A better way to talk about Obama’s presidency, he suggests, might be to start a classroom dialogue, eliciting a variety of responses from students and making sure people feel respected whatever their political viewpoint.

But the reality, he adds, is that some classrooms are likely to err in ways that offend both the right and the left when it comes to how they address current events.

“I’d be tolerant of some less-than-perfect practices,” rather than have both sides cancel each other out by eliminating anything remotely controversial, Levine says. The alternative is that “we all just veto each other’s videos.”

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