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Virginia Journal of Education


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Three classes of Chesapeake first-graders correspond with President Obama.

By Tom Allen

Writing a “friendly letter” is part of learning communication skills for first-graders at Southwestern Elementary School in Chesapeake. They get a chance to sharpen their writing ability and to understand the value of reaching out to others.

This year, they also learned a little about how powerful communication can be. Or, perhaps, that it’s possible to communicate with the powerful: They managed to exchange letters with President Barack Obama.

“Usually, we have the children write letters to family members or characters in books,” says Kimberly Hudson, a Chesapeake Education Association member and one of the first grade teachers at the school. But this time, after spotting a writing template and White House contact information online, Hudson and fellow teachers Donna Askew and Rosalyn McPherson decided to aim a bit higher.

“Presidents Day was coming up,” says Hudson, “and since one of our social studies Standards of Learning is helping students know who our President is and understand the importance of voting, we decided to combine everything.”

The approximately 60 first-graders in the three classes spent about a month going through the writing preparation process, which included reading some children’s biographies about President Obama. They then planned their letters, which were to include telling their recipient a few things about themselves, asking a question and telling Mr. Obama how they thought he was doing as President.

“They got a lot of their questions from reading those biographies,” Hudson says. “And, if you first-graders, you know my teacher assistant and I got many laughs reading their letters.” Among the questions students posed to the President:  How did you get such a pretty wife? Do you ever feel like quitting when people on TV say mean things about you? Can you come to my birthday party?

The letters hit the mail in early January, whereupon many of the youngsters promptly forgot about the project.
 
Hudson hadn’t thought a lot about it, either—until the last Monday in February as she returned from bus ramp duty.

“Ms. Askew came running up and hugged me,” she says. “I asked her, ‘What did I do?’ and she told me we’d gotten some mail from the White House.”

Hudson, Askew and McPherson had to wait, semi-patiently, until the next day to spring the response on their students.

“The kids were so excited,” says Hudson, “I think they were a little shocked.” She’d posted a morning message on the board reading, “We got mail. Guess who it is from?” 

She read them the letter from the President and “I don’t think in my more than 20 years of teaching my class has ever been more quiet.” They listened wide-eyed and their only “complaint” was that Obama closed the letter with “sincerely.” They thought he should have said “love.”

Along with the letter were photos of the First Family and their dogs, and information about the White House. There was also an interview featuring the President that answered many of the questions the students had asked in their letters.

“President Obama’s comments, which encouraged students to dream big and to work hard in school will remain with them for a lifetime,” says Askew. “How many students will be able to say they’ve received an official letter from the first African-American President of the United States? I’m hoping my students will be able to look back at their letter in 20-plus years and remember this experience.”

McPherson was able to describe her experience of having attended President Obama’s first inauguration to her students. “They were in awe that I was actually there,” she says. “They wanted to know if I’d been able to speak to him and I told them that even though I hadn’t, his speech had a great impact on me.”

Hudson thought that the excitement was beginning to wind down after the letter-reading was over, but as the class got ready to move on, she discovered another envelope inside the package that had her name handwritten on it. Inside, she found a card that read:

Thank you for your service as a teacher, and for sharing your students' letters with me. From the moment a child enters the classroom, the single most important factor in their success is the person in the front of the room, and I am inspired by your enthusiasm and dedication. Your work is making a difference in young people's lives, and it will shape our nation's future. Keep pushing your students to think bigger and set their sights higher!

Sincerely, Barack Obama

Those words were a significant morale-booster for Hudson and her teammates. “Our school is currently on warning,” she says, “and we’re all working so very hard to get in good standing. The President’s card came at a time when we really needed to hear that we were appreciated. I couldn't get through reading it to my students without tearing up. I could tell some of them were getting a little nervous, but I just couldn't control it.”

One of the girls in the class came to the rescue, jumping up from the carpet and announcing to everyone it was OK because the tears their teacher were crying were tears of joy.

“She was absolutely correct,” says Hudson.

“I already have the letter to my students and the card addressed to me personally in a frame, and I also have an even greater amount of respect for President Obama for simply taking the time to say thank you,” says Askew.

Allen is the editor of the Virginia Journal of Education.


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