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Teaching and Learning in a Living Classroom

Witnessing history is tough work, but somebody has to do it. This middle school civics teacher lives near the national capital, and he makes it his business to be where history happens. Today, he writes about being on the south lawn of the White House with his daughter to help President Obama welcome German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the United States.

As a Civics, US Government, or History teacher, the opportunity to witness a state ceremony such as the welcoming of a foreign dignitary is a meaningful if not significant event in one’s personal and professional life. When I received the invitation to attend the ceremony welcoming German Chancellor Angela Merkel to the United States, I was able to share the experience with one of my teenage children. My seventeen year-old daughter, Grace, agreed to accompany me to the south lawn of the White House. She is a future teacher herself, though in the area of English. She knows how important it is for me to be where these events are happening so that I can engage in my own form of professional development, which I can then, in turn, share with my students through verbal anecdotes and multimedia presentations.

Since the Obama campaign of 2008, I have become something of a veteran in attending political functions with their large crowds, an ever-present press corps, and secret service agents constantly surveilling the scene. When I have the chance to attend a history-making event, there are numerous goals at hand: 1. observing the political process first hand. This goal involves getting the best vantage point from which to witness history unfold before our very eyes. Goal 2: Record the event. Grace and I are both amateur photographers (she is better than I am at it, though). She captures the details of an object or scene. I try to get the big picture, framing the historical and social context of a given event or political symbol. Goal 3: Meet the candidate or government official. This goal is the hardest to achieve in a post-9/11 world because of the numerous layers of security surrounding those on the public stage. I see government service as an honor and the members of our government as a sort of “civil celebrity.” It’s a great honor to shake the president’s hand or talk to a member of Congress or a candidate running for office.

Each event presents its own challenges. I have learned from experience that to get the best positioning, you must be first in line. This morning, we were up around 3 AM, in the nation’s capital by 5:00, and at the front of the line by 5:30. The event had a 9:00 AM start time. Security guards often change the entry or access point just before the event. Select groups are given preferential seating or placement, so it’s important to be constantly vigilant to what is happening around you. Finally, you have to know who to ask the right question, from whom to receive a ticket or permission to enter. Knowing who is in charge can make or break your success in reaching the front of the rope line. When we arrived on the south lawn of the White House, we were thrilled to be first, coming right up to the rope line with a clear view of the podium and the south lawn. Little did we know we were doomed to be directly behind both the American and the German press corps, making detailed photographs of the event more difficult.

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