Menlo Park teacher's inauguration trip gives students a glimpse of the historic event
By the time President-elect Barack Obama took the stage on election night, Menlo Park teacher Jacqueline Cebrian knew exactly where she'd be on Jan. 20 — in Washington, D.C., for the inauguration.
"While he was doing his acceptance speech, I was booking my (plane) tickets," says Ms. Cebrian, a reading specialist at Oak Knoll elementary school in Menlo Park.
Ms. Cebrian doesn't have any special entree to inaugural balls, and she hasn't snagged any coveted tickets to see the swearing in of the 44th president of the United States. Instead, she, her husband, and their 4-year-old daughter will be part of the crowd on the National Mall — and thanks to a video camera and Skype's online videoconferencing, students at Oak Knoll will get a first-hand glimpse of the scene at the nation's capital.
"I'll be with the huddled masses, watching on the JumboTron," Ms. Cebrian laughs.
In the morning, students will watch the inauguration in their classrooms, and around 2 p.m. they'll watch Ms. Cebrian's video clips, then quiz her, live via Skype, about her experience, she says.
"As they get more excited, I get more nervous," she admits. "I've never been to an inauguration, and I've never seen three million people in the same place at once."
To get into the spirit of the event, Oak Knoll students have been doing a variety of inauguration-themed activities and projects for the past week. Kids in the "mileage club" are running around the school and tallying up their laps to equal the number of miles between Menlo Park and Washington, D.C. Ms. Cebrian's classroom has a selection of Obama biographies written for a variety of reading levels.
In Barbara Cottrell's art class, fifth-graders are designing and making ball gowns for First Lady Michelle Obama out of candy wrappers. Oak Knoll's staff has magnanimously assisted by eating the contents of those wrappers. "We've been collecting candy wrappers since October," Ms. Cottrell says.
It took a little convincing to get the boys on board, Ms. Cottrell says. "We talked about the fact that boys are fashion designers as well, and I told them to think of it as an engineering project."
"It is a big deal"
Oak Knoll's focus on the inauguration isn't just about tying lesson plans to a historic event. It's part of a broader outreach effort to the school's students of color, especially Tinsley students who transfer in from East Palo Alto and Menlo Park's Belle Haven neighborhood, according to Principal David Ackerman. School officials are actively trying to make the school more multicultural, and focusing on the election of the country's first African American president is a great opportunity, he told the school board at a recent meeting.
In fact, it was an offhand comment made to Mr. Ackerman that really drove the point home at Oak Knoll. A young student remarked to the principal that he could be Barack Obama's son, noting that since the president-elect already had two daughters, he could use a son.
"It is a big deal," says Vice Principal Maria Clemo. "Just that fact that he's thinking that is great. This little boy's life is not much different than Barack's. With hard work and a good education, and perseverance, he could do the same things."
Perhaps it's natural for teachers to feel an affinity for an erudite, well-educated president whose speaking style is often described as professorial. For Ms. Cebrian, not only is Mr. Obama's election a validation of a good education, it also highlights the potential of children raised in single-parent and non-traditional families.
"Now it's OK to be an eloquent speaker, it's OK to be smart," she says.
Ms. Cebrian isn't a recent arrival to the Obama bandwagon. Her husband attended law school at the University of Chicago when Mr. Obama was teaching there, and told her that Mr. Obama was one to watch, Ms. Cebrian says. A year after her husband graduated, Mr. Obama leapt into national politics when he gave the keynote address at the 2004 Democratic National Convention.
"We've been watching this eagerly," she says. "It's the first time in my adult life that I voted for someone I wanted instead of against someone I didn't want."
Ms. Cebrian started her teaching career on Chicago's heavily segregated South Side, and the stark contrast in teaching conditions between her first job and Oak Knoll aren't lost on her. Back in Chicago, only two of her third-grade students started the year reading at grade level, and school supplies were kept in a locked vault, she says. By comparison, the Menlo Park district is "the land of plenty," she says.
Teaching in Chicago was a great experience, despite the challenges, she says. Her African American students accepted her so whole-heartedly that they told a substitute teacher that Ms. Cebrian wasn't white, she was just light-skinned. "I was so shocked that they would have that misconception," she says, attributing it to the fact that her students' notion of white people was so negative, it didn't occur to them that they could have a white teacher.
Ms. Cebrian says Mr. Obama's message of unity, "that we are responsible for the people around us," is deeply meaningful to her. The notion that poor people just need to work harder to get out of poverty is faulty, she says. The poor are working hard, if not harder than the affluent, just to stay afloat.
"I'm educated, I have a good job, and I couldn't just work harder to be able to afford (to buy) a house," she says. It's thanks to the city's below-market-rate housing program targeting teachers that her family was able to buy a house in Belle Haven, she says.
"I like that we have a president who gets that it isn't just about working harder," she says.