Moving at the Speed of Creativity by Wesley Fryer

President Obama’s Speech to Students: A Great Opportunity for Synchronous, Live Discussions

Novel, stressful or otherwise challenging situations can often tell us a great deal about individual and organizational attitudes and values.

very surprised to see that enormous bill

The responses of schools and school leaders to next Tuesday’s Presidential address to U.S. students is a case in point. It is instructive to listen carefully to the reasons school leaders are providing to either leverage the learning opportunities presented by this nationwide address or squander them. I think the address provides a great opportunity for teachers, librarians, school administrators, and parents to experience together the power and value of live, synchronous interaction and dialog surrounding an event. Next Tuesday during and after the speech, since my 4th grade daughter’s teacher has decided NOT to let students watch the address together, I’m going to pull her out of class so we can both watch and participate in a synchronous live discussion (via CoverItLive) with 5th grade students at East Elementary School in Littleton, Colorado. (H/T to Karl Fisch.) Interestingly, our local school board announcement about President Obama’s Tuesday speech provides guidance for parents who do NOT want their children to listen, but it does not provide any guidance for parents who DO want their children to listen live and interact with others about this address when their classroom teacher has decided to OPT OUT.

Edmond Public Schools Policy on President Obama's Address

Irrespective of the decisions made by your local school leaders regarding the speech, I challenge each of us with this question: How will we personally leverage the synchronous and asynchronous learning opportunities which our President’s speech provides for our students and our communities? In addition to talking and writing about the issues this situation raises, we also should ACT in ways that can potentially have a constructive impact on the perceptions of others who may not be well informed about the potential value of live, synchronous events today when blended learning methodologies are employed.

Following the example of the successful Film on the Fly cell phone digital storytelling contests, I encourage students around the world to post short, thoughtful responses to President Obama’s speech to YouTube,, TeacherTube, and other video sharing sites using a common hashtag. I’m not sure if a common hashtag has been suggested, so please share via a comment if you know of one– but I’ll suggest the hashtag #studentresponse09. The White House has provided a linked list of suggested classroom activities and media resources to use with students prior to and following the address, and a video contest should be announced soon on the U.S. Department of Education’s website. Whatever the focus of the forthcoming video contest may be, it’s a great idea to solicit direct student feedback and responses to the video address as well as the discussions which ensue online and face-to-face in the weeks that follow. (Of course, parent permission to post student videos online remains as important as ever.)

School leaders’ responses to President Obama’s upcoming speech tell us several things, some which we probably know already and others about which we may not have thought previously.


In our schools and communities, when most people think of “school learning” they frequently conjure an image of passive, disengaged students. We all know (or should know) that active, engaged learning is much better than a passive alternative for many reasons, including student learning and achievement. We are living in an amazing day for information sharing and blended learning, and need to help others in our communities understand that increasing access to asynchronously shared video content (like YouTube) as well as interactive web services (like CoverItLive) create NEW opportunities for learning which involve NEW pedagogies.

All U.S. families do not currently have a DVR, or a home computer with high-speed Internet access. The fact that the White House will be posting this video address to YouTube following the speech, however, means that LARGE numbers of people who cannot watch the speech “live” WILL be able to do so after-the-fact. Since the text of President Obama’s speech will be posted to the White House website tomorrow (Monday, Sept 7th) it appears he will NOT be responding to any student-submitted questions or comments during the presentation. I hope that is not the case, since it would be great for the President to respond to student questions, but even if he does the realities of viewer numbers and time constraints are such that he wouldn’t have time to respond to many individuals even if Q&A is part of the schedule/agenda. Since the speech will be available for easy, asynchronous access via YouTube after the “live” speech time and the speech’s content will apparently not contain any “surprises,” a logical question to ask is: What is the value of having students watch the President’s address “live” and together?

Listen to and watch President Obama's address to U.S. students

The potential for and value of “live” interactions between students, teachers, and others is THE primary reason to watch the address live rather than watching it later. Every teacher in the classroom today, and administrator in our schools today, grew up in a time when this type of asynchronous, nearly-ubiquitous access to recorded video was impossible. From the fireside chats of FDR to the weekly radio addresses of U.S. Presidents leading up to the Obama Administration, if you couldn’t catch / consume the message “live,” it was hard or impossible to hear it in its entirety at a different time. (Please correct me if I’m wrong: It’s entirely possible the weekly radio addresses of George W. Bush were archived and made available online– I never heard about that being the case, however, and guess it would have been something we’d have heard about if his administration was leveraging digital media in that way.)

My point is this: WE need to question the value of synchronous, non-interactive face-to-face learning contexts. When we ARE live and synchronous with other learners, we need to LEVERAGE the potential of that context to dialog, discuss, and interact. Tuesday’s Presidential address provides an ideal opportunity for students, teachers, administrators and others to experience an educational backchannel.

A Framework for Thinking Instructionally About Web 2.0 Tools

For more on educational backchannel options, see Scott Snyder’s 2008 presentation for K12Online08, “Back-channels in the Classroom.” Remember we’re all invited to join 5th graders in Littleton, Colorado, in their CoverItLive session for the President’s address on Tuesday. It’s free to join and participate there. 🙂


Whatever your opinion of President Obama, our current debate over health care, or other issues– I hope you can agree that his constructive modeling of the uses of social media platforms to communicate with constituents (both young and old) is very important and needed by many of our school leaders.

Presidential modeling of constructive uses of social media tools

In Oklahoma where I live, a LARGE number of public school districts block ALL video sharing websites as well as interactive/user-generated content websites including blogs and wikis. Many of our school districts, incredibly, continue to block access to our Celebrate Oklahoma Voices learning community and the 430+ educator/student created videos it now contains. The fact that this Presidential address is receiving so much attention and generating so much discussion is a GOOD thing, since adults as well as young people are going to likely grapple with the question, “Why don’t we just watch this later on YouTube?” That is a great question to ask at all levels of education, because it can expose the power of asynchronously accessible video as well as the priority we should place upon ENGAGED, INTERACTIVE learning environments devoid of passive learners. We’ve become far too accustomed to “passive learning” as the norm in classrooms, and this must change.

Cuban students sitting in desks


This past week, in the Education Week article “Filtering Fixes,” I addressed the common tendency of many U.S. schools to overfilter Internet websites by noting:

Some of that [overfiltering the web] is understandable because of the risk-averse, conservative nature of schools,” he [Wesley Fryer] said. “My position is not ‘don’t block,’ but let’s filter reasonably and let’s also talk with students about choices and digital literacy and ethics, and let’s prepare kids for the unfiltered Web.

In the past several days, I’ve read a number of excellent posts by educators articulating the reasons students and teachers in our schools SHOULD watch the Presidential address and seize the moment to discuss a host of important ideas and issues together. Three (among many) I’d highly commend are Stephanie Sandifer’s post, “Fear, Censorship, and Agendas…”, Buffy Hamilton’s post, “It IS About Intellectual Freedom, Not Politics,” and Will Richardson’s post, “The Obama Speech.” To these thoughts and the comments shared in response, I’d add the following two observations.

A – We have too much HATE in politics today.

If President Obama had intended this message to be heard primarily by students and parents at home, he would have chosen to share this address in the evening rather than during the school day. The “official” reason my daughter’s teacher gave for NOT permitting her students to watch the address “live” in class next week was that the video would be more appropriately viewed at home with parents. Understand: This was the version of “why” which Sarah brought home on Friday. That reason could have been obscured in 9 year old translation, and I’ll confirm that next week.

I think the root issue with many schools choosing to give teachers the choice to “opt out” of watching the address with students, and parents the choice to “opt out” of permitting their students to watch the address at school, is HATE and dislike among many constituents for President Obama and his politics. I am NOT saying that teachers or school officials hate our President. I AM observing that it is far easier for school leaders to provide these “opt out” guidelines and policies for schools and teachers rather than face the predictable (but of course, highly unfortunate) wrath of parents who don’t like President Obama and don’t like the idea of him speaking directly to their children at school.

This situation of parents worrying over our President speaking directly to students is not only “silly,” as Arne Duncan has observed, it’s also RIDICULOUS. As I noted at the start of this post, however, this response is also highly instructive about our state of affairs not only within schools but within our communities more generally. We need MORE democracy and civic participation in our nation, not less. We need MORE opportunities for civic discourse and dialog among constituents today, not less. We need our schools to provide opportunities for students to question, to debate, to listen, and to learn. Announcing “opt out” school policies for the President’s speech reflects a broader tendency in many of our schools to kowtow to almost any type of parent demand, and seek the path of minimal risk / least resistance in most situations.

Our schools need to address HATE and become venues for civil discourse about these issues and others that matter. Schools should not be viewed primarily as institutions of social control where the thoughts, opinions and beliefs of students are shaped in a top-down model: rather they should be places where students learn how to THINK and practice THINKING every day. I’m not opposed at all to local control of schools, I’m actually an ardent supporter of it. It’s sad to see many of the choices which local control leads to, however, not just in the context of this Presidential address but in many other arenas: sports, technology, etc. The good news is, not all schools are making the same choices, and we can amplify those who are making more constructive choices which support student civic engagement rather than focusing only on those who give teachers and families the “opt out” choice.

B – Many adults overestimate the power and importance of the formal school curriculum.

I am going to write a separate post in upcoming weeks about this topic, but I’ve been amazed by the “permission forms” which our girls’ school district has sent home asking for parent permission to let students view specific video titles during the school year. Personally, I’d think we’d just leave it to the professional judgement of professional educators to determine the instructional materials appropriate for our students to view, read, and consume both at school and elsewhere as homework during the academic year. While educational officials have varying levels of control over the content of “the formal curriculum,” I think this situation with the Presidential school address may highlight an overestimation on the part of many adults of the power and importance of the formal curriculum. Don’t get me wrong, I am all “for” students watching the Presidential address “live” and engaging in discussions before, during and following the speech. A question that comes to mind in this regard, however, is this: What effect will “opting out” of viewing the Presidential address truly have on students and families, in terms of their knowledge about the ideas and themes of the speech? My guess is, in most cases: very little. The fact that there is so much buzz about this upcoming speech will insure that the vast majority of students as well as parents are going to be wondering, “What is the President going to say? What did he say?” There are going to be CONVERSATIONS around the ideas and themes of his message. Adult attempts to silence or prevent these conversations are going to backfire and achieve the opposite result: Those ideas are going to be even more likely to be amplifed and discussed because of these suppression attempts.

My guess and prediction is: President Obama’s message will be strong and shared in a compelling way. I predict he’ll tell stories, and work hard to connect with students’ hopes and dreams for themselves and for their own families. We should never underestimate the POWER OF WORDS. It IS a big deal that our President wants to directly speak to the students of our nation. I think it is great he wants to do this, and is going to do it. Even if my children or yours do not view President Obama’s speech “live” when it happens, there will be power and influence to his words as they are shared with the world. He is, after all, our chief executive and the leader of the most powerful nation in the world. His words SHOULD have power. They will have power, whether or not teachers in my school or yours choose to let students hear them “live.” Those who think they will diminish the power and influence of those words by keeping their children out of school on Tuesday if their class is going to watch the address are probably mistaken. Just like a teenager whose curiosity is piqued when told, “You can’t do/watch this,” student interest is going to be higher about the speech because of the absurd ways many adults have responded to it: With fear, trepidation, and disrespect in some cases. The power of the formal curriculum in schools today may be weaker than ever, in large part due to the tremendous power of mainstream media coupled with social media.

I’ve been trying to finish writing this post all day amidst our family Labor Day activities, and I’ve probably written too much. Remember that whatever your local school, classroom, teacher, or fellow teachers may choose to do with respect to the Presidential address on Tuesday next week, it will be an instructive moment. Ask yourself, what is motivating this decision? Are leaders trying to do what is best for children, for learning, for thinking and for our democracy, or are they simply doing what seems reasonable when “risk aversion” is the top value driving decisionmaking? Remember to ask what YOU can do to highlight the power and value of blended conversations during and following the address, and highlight the importance of an informed as well as active citizenry in discussing the affairs and priorities of our nation.

Behold, the value of social media is before us. We’ve only just begun to realize its potential to revolutionize learning.

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12 responses to “President Obama’s Speech to Students: A Great Opportunity for Synchronous, Live Discussions”

  1. Peter Avatar

    Wes, I do think that some of the uproar over the speech is silly. The speech should be (and probably will be) a great opportunity for students. The problem many have isn’t with the speech itself but with the suggested classroom activities the Department of Ed released. In fact, the Department recently changed one activity (although they don’t mention it on the site – so much for transparency) because one had suggested elementary students “write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president.” For many individuals, that crossed a line because it went beyond just thinking critically about the speech.

    I suspect that if former President Bush had a discussion guide that asked this question you would be one of the first to object. And I suspect your bog post would be that students shouldn’t be asked to think of ways they can help the president (which could be mistaken to mean helping support a political agenda), they should think about ways they can help themselves, their community, and their country.

    My guess is that this is all a result of poorly chosen wording. had the discussion guide not had that activity, there wouldn’t have been the controversy (the speech data was public for several weeks prior to last week’s uproar).

  2. Terry Smith Avatar

    Two ideas from this blog that stand out to me are the hate factor and the clear example of how schools are fearful of parental comments and constantly seek approval before doing anything. I’m a 4th grade teacher and my kids will be viewing the president’s address. We’ll hear it, then decide what we think. At the same time, we’ll marvel at the technological ability to have the leader of our country streamed live into the classroom.

  3. gopmom Avatar

    Hmmm, lets see. The most polarizing partisan President ever has his Secretary of Education send a letter to school principals across the nation telling them POTUS will address the nation’s “schoochildren” and they should refer to the accompanying lesson plans whilst participating in this unprecedented event. And you have no issue with that because you just love the guy. Fine. That is your prerogative, just as it is mine to protest the participation of my child my private parochial school. (My school is not participating by the way. Responsible parents FTW.) Parents are the decision makers, followed by elected school boards and superintendents. The Secretary and the Prez attempted a complete usurpation of the power of parents across the nation and all the MSM and Libs can whine about is that we don’t want our children indoctrinated. Nice dodge but those of us who are paying attention fully understand that it is that usurpation of power and the ridiculous lesson plans that are the issue here. This is the missing link. No other President who has addressed the nation’s children – voluntarily, I might add – has had the arrogance and stupidity to provide a read about my magnificent but still unverified life story”and/or write about how you can help POTUS instruction.
    Obama and his cronies completely overstepped on this one and they are the ones who should be lambasted for their mistake. You know full well that if W had made such a poor move, heads on the Left would have exploded. Anyone with any intellectual honesty would recognize this.

  4. Wesley Fryer Avatar

    @Peter – Transparency is not only provided by particular authors using social media, it is provided via social media and the window it provides into the process. The fact that people have picked up on the “discussion question” and have caused it to be changed is a positive for social media and the cause of governmental transparency, I’d say.

    @gopmom – Good grief. Over-the-top reactions like yours to this situation can and should make great case studies for students and teachers, examining our modern day polarized politics and the language of conspiracy and hate which has sadly become mainstream. Sheltering your child from the President’s address is not likely to help him/her become a more critical thinker and informed citizen. My position is that we should leverage opportunities like this to advance those goals, and not narrowly see the world through a partisan lens.

  5. Peter Avatar

    Wes – good point on the transparency. But more to the point, do you have any issue with the activity that encouraged students to ““write letters to themselves about what they can do to help the president”? I still maintain that’s the source of concern behind this controversy. The speech is about what students should do but the activity lessons seem to focus more on supporting, helping the President. That could be a good thing but the way it was framed and phrased invited the controversy.

  6. Jonathan Wylie Avatar

    I think that regardless of what you think about the speech, for or against it, the speech itself has promoted a lot of discussion and is bringing education back to the forefront of discussions at all levels. There has been so much about the economy, corruption and natural disasters that education has been given a back seat for a while.

  7. Elizabeth Barrette Avatar

    I’m glad to see other folks blogging about this. I have posted about it in Gaiatribe too, with links to official resources plus some added study questions of my own.

  8. James Sigler Avatar

    Wasn’t the essay prompt in question, “Write a letter about how you can help the president improve education?” I agree with you Wes, that there is too much vitriol in both sides of the political isle. Several presidents since Reagan have addressed students. That is a tradition of the President and we should teach our students to respect the office of the President despite whichever political party is a part. The president SHOULD encourage students to work hard in school and graduate to meet their goals.
    BTW, I already created a Wordle of the speech at

  9. Michael Bodine Avatar
    Michael Bodine

    Critical thinking skills are key in almost any learning situation. Whether the lesson plan was “Write a letter about how you can help the president…” or “…[same] improve education,” the *first* item of discussion is why? Does this make sense? Why would you write such a letter? Do you want to? What would you hope to accomplish? What are the writers of this lesson plan hoping to accomplish? This addresses both the far-right distrust of Obama and also should inform the students and teachers about what the students think is missing from their educational motivation today. The lesson should always be as much about our assumptions regarding the subject matter as it is the subject matter itself.

    Would that more leaders took the time to address our kids and admonish them to study hard and stay in school, not fewer! Would that more schools approached controversial subjects as opportunities for learning rather than issues to be avoided!

  10. Andrew Pass Avatar


    I think that you are absolutely correct. I am not a supporter of Obama. In many ways I still think the less government the better government. But, Barack Obama is the President of the United States, and as such, the Head of State of the United States of America. He not only has the right, but also the responsibility, to preach about the importance of education. Similarly, as citizens of a democratic society, we have a responsibility to judge for ourselves whether or not we agree with the things that President Obama says. Personally, I disagree with much of what he says. But, I’m certainly not going to ignore what he says. Consider the relationship between the words ignore and ignorant.

    By the way, as a teacher in a Jewish day school, I used to have my middle school students read some of Mein Kampf. Hitler was ignored in the 1930s, to the peril of the world. (No, I am absolutely not comparing Obama to Hitler. But, I think my point about listening to different perspectives is made by this anecdote.)

    Thanks for posting!!