A teachable moment

The Baltimore Sun

They wrote speeches and poems and plotted graphs with the ages of presidents upon inauguration. Yesterday's inauguration of Barack Obama provided boundless learning opportunities for students in area classrooms - assuming they were in school.

Baltimore schools were closed yesterday amid predictions of high student and teacher absenteeism. But Baltimore Freedom Academy and Robert W. Coleman Elementary organized field trips to Washington for students, the first departing at 3:30 a.m., the other at 5 a.m.

Suburban districts reported higher-than-usual absenteeism of students and teachers. Without enough substitutes to fill in, 91 classes in Howard County schools doubled up or improvised in other ways.

Anne Arundel County schools saw their highest absentee rates in high schools, where about 73 percent of students attended class, compared with about 90 percent normally. Schools spokesman Bob Mosier said that if parents write a note explaining that they watched the inauguration with their children, the schools will excuse the absence.

In Columbia, Franklin Hernandez, 42, decided to share the event with his children by visiting them at Running Brook Elementary School. At the back of a classroom, he held his son,Donovan, 7, on his lap, while his daughter, Alanna, 10, worked at her desk. "We've been talking about the Obama election for a long time," he said. "Today is a good day to be with them."

Fourth-graders at the school listened quietly at first when the sound on a classroom television was turned up. They erupted into shrieks and cheers when Obama was shown walking to the podium and again after the oath was administered.

"Today is a really big day for Obama, and I decided to support him," said Tineer Ahmed, 10, who had borrowed her dad's "Yes We Can" baseball cap.

Her teacher, Michaeline VanReenan, had students chart how old each president was when he took office. At 42, Theodore Roosevelt was youngest. Ronald Reagan was oldest at 69.

"Mostly, a lot of presidents were 54," Tineer said.

Whether they were in session yesterday or not, schools spent weeks preparing for the inauguration.

The Baltimore school system developed lessons for classrooms and also sent home a list of suggested activities for kids and parents to do together. The activities included, for younger children, making cards to welcome Sasha and Malia Obama to the White House and, for older students, writing their own inaugural address and exploring the struggle of African-Americans to obtain voting rights.

At George Washington Elementary in the city's Pigtown neighborhood, first- and second-graders had written a poem that read, in part:

The time has come for America to see

A president can look like me!

Baltimore County officials said they had not yet compiled yesterday's overall attendance figures. At New Town High in Owings Mills, only a third of the 1,100 students showed up.

Many of those who were present dressed in red, white and blue. They watched a biographical video about Obama that addressed his struggles with his racial identity when he was young.

"In America, there are a lot of black people and a lot of white people. Obama knows about both sides," said Zoe Jourdain, 16, an exchange student from France. Biracial herself, Zoe was impressed that a man of mixed race could rise to America's highest office. "I am so impressed and really happy for America," she said. "This would not happen in France."

Matthew Sullivan's ninth-grade government class was silent while watching Obama's speech on TV but applauded heartily at the end. When Sen. Dianne Feinstein asked the audience to stand for the administering of the oath, several students also stood.

"You can tell that their families are talking to them about this on a daily basis," Sullivan said.

Angela Skipper, 14, was impressed with the personal history Obama put into his speech: "I liked that he talked about how his father could not be served in a restaurant 60 years ago and now he is taking the oath of office. It really meant something to me."

Baltimore Sun reporters Mary Gail Hare, Larry Carson and Tyeesha Dixon contributed to this article.

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