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The Best Part Of The President’s Speech & How I’ll Use It


The President’s speech has been released by the White House. Here is what I think is the most useful part:

That’s why today, I’m calling on each of you to set your own goals for your education – and to do everything you can to meet them. Your goal can be something as simple as doing all your homework, paying attention in class, or spending time each day reading a book. Maybe you’ll decide to get involved in an extracurricular activity, or volunteer in your community. Maybe you’ll decide to stand up for kids who are being teased or bullied because of who they are or how they look, because you believe, like I do, that all kids deserve a safe environment to study and learn. Maybe you’ll decide to take better care of yourself so you can be more ready to learn. And along those lines, I hope you’ll all wash your hands a lot, and stay home from school when you don’t feel well, so we can keep people from getting the flu this fall and winter.

Whatever you resolve to do, I want you to commit to it. I want you to really work at it.

I know that sometimes, you get the sense from TV that you can be rich and successful without any hard work — that your ticket to success is through rapping or basketball or being a reality TV star, when chances are, you’re not going to be any of those things.
But the truth is, being successful is hard. You won’t love every subject you study. You won’t click with every teacher. Not every homework assignment will seem completely relevant to your life right this minute. And you won’t necessarily succeed at everything the first time you try.

That’s OK. Some of the most successful people in the world are the ones who’ve had the most failures. JK Rowling’s first Harry Potter book was rejected twelve times before it was finally published. Michael Jordan was cut from his high school basketball team, and he lost hundreds of games and missed thousands of shots during his career. But he once said, “I have failed over and over and over again in my life. And that is why I succeed.”

These people succeeded because they understand that you can’t let your failures define you – you have to let them teach you. You have to let them show you what to do differently next time. If you get in trouble, that doesn’t mean you’re a troublemaker, it means you need to try harder to behave. If you get a bad grade, that doesn’t mean you’re stupid, it just means you need to spend more time studying.

No one’s born being good at things, you become good at things through hard work. You’re not a varsity athlete the first time you play a new sport. You don’t hit every note the first time you sing a song. You’ve got to practice. It’s the same with your schoolwork. You might have to do a math problem a few times before you get it right, or read something a few times before you understand it, or do a few drafts of a paper before it’s good enough to hand in.

This fits in with a goal sheet I have students use, though it’s not a typical goal sheet focused on doing their homework or behaving better.  Let me explain…

Researchers have identified several characteristics that “good language learners” have.  I think they’re pretty good qualities of any kind of learner.  And, based on my nineteen year career as a community organizer, they’re also similar to what makes a good leader. I have them listed on a big poster on my classroom wall:


• Work well with others.
• Are willing to take risks.
• Are willing to make mistakes and learn from them.
• Have a good sense of humor.
• Teach others.

In my book coming out next year — Organizing To Learn: The Art Of Teaching English Language Learners (Linworth Press) — I go into detail about the different ways I use this list during the year.  But, for purposes of this post, I want to share that I ask students — ELL’s and non-ELL’s alike — to regularly reflect on these qualities, and to pick one of them that they are going to work on and what specifically they are going to do to improve (generally every week or two).  At the same time they pick a new one they reflect on how they did on accomplishing the previous goal.  And they share both their goals and reflections with their peers (in pairs and, if they want to, with the entire class — I also get a copy).

That’s not to say students don’t also get opportunities to set other types of goals — they do.  I’ve just generally found focusing on the qualities of this list seem to fit more into developing the life-long learners our school, and I, want to develop.

Feedback is welcome!

Author: Larry Ferlazzo

I'm a high school teacher in Sacramento, CA.


  1. Beautifully posted – good to make President Obama’s words even more personal for our students. I’m going to do the same thing, thanks to this.

  2. Perfect!!! This is what I say to students EVERY year, and how powerful it will be to hear from the president. I can’t believe how crazy people have gotten over the possibility of their child hearing words of ENCOURAGEMENT from the president!

    I hope all teachers do this!

  3. This is a wonderful post, Larry, and your set of goals sounds terrific. It’s nice to see the president using his bully pulpit to promote goal-setting, responsibility and hard work.

    His text points to another issue as well. Student engagement shouldn’t necessarily mean instant gratification. I often worry that some school reformers OVERsell engagement as if it would eternally remove every difficulty involved in learning. Students who are truly engaged will wait for deferred rewards and develop persistence when things get tough. The president’s speech makes this point well.

    • Claus,

      Thanks for the kind words.

      You’re right on target about the dangers of pushing immediate gratification. Of course, in order to avoid that trap, teachers have to spend time developing relationships with their students to learn what their visions and goals are so that they can structure their learning “propositions” (an old organizer term) effectively.


  4. Some parents are LUCKY and have perfect children who believe and do what their parents say. Those parents whose children are not like this need all of the help they can get. The same can be said for teachers. It is a help that the most powerful person in the world , who is admired by children and youth, takes the time to address the youth and to deliver a message that MOST parents and teachers try very hard to get over to their youth. In teaching I found that it was helpful for me to point out that the public through the laws of the state indicates that these are qualities needed and that doing class assignments and group were just not my expectations, but those of the citizens of the entire state. I noticed surprised looks on the faces of many teens who did not realize that things are expected of them by society and it was just not a teacher or parent trying to take away their freedom.

  5. I would add that real students ask questions! And that helps us learn throughout life, as it leads us to think critically, and not just swallow everything we see and hear.

  6. Wow, so good. I surfed here from the Edutopia site.
    I too teach in an urban school, in Brooklyn.
    I think I will go over part of President Obama’s speech with my kids in September. I wish I could post it on the wall somehow but it is kind of wordy. I may put some on the projector one day and hand some out another day. Now that I’ve taught for a few years I am increasing my pep talks and this speech is a great pep talk.
    Thanks for posting it!

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