by Kyle Miller
Think back to November 9th, the day after the presidential election. How did you wake up? Maybe you woke up with a smile; maybe you woke up excited that the election was over; maybe you woke up annoyed; maybe you woke up not caring. I woke up in a complete fog. Donald Trump was our new president-elect, and I had to get to campus to instruct courses with teacher candidates.
As I drove to campus the looming question was, “Do I address this in class?” My first thought was to ignore the topic, get through the day, and process it with my family that night. My second thought was to spend the whole period discussing the election, and what this might mean for their current and future students, as well as the field of education. I decided to introduce it at the beginning of class and allow it to unfold without any specific expectations. This is how it unfolded…
After welcoming students I said, “So….something happened last night. I think we need to talk about it. I want to begin by telling you that I am very emotional right now. As you know, my husband is a Haitian immigrant and my daughter is biracial. This presidential campaign was very draining to watch and hurtful in many ways. However, I also want you to know that I respect all of the ideologies in this classroom, and I am not here to endorse a side. Rather, I want to process this major event.”
I continued with, “After any election, students come to school scared. They have heard many things about the candidates and may have fears or misconceptions of what will happen if a certain candidate is elected. When I worked in Boston Public Schools, I had one student arrive in tears because she was scared that her single mother would lose her public assistance and housing based on the positions of the new president. I had a Muslim-American student who stopped attending school for a while because her family feared how she would be treated. Even yesterday, a friend of mine told me that her first grade daughter came home from school and begged her mom not to vote for Hillary Clinton, because her friend’s dad said she “cuts off people’s heads” (yes, that is a true story). So, I want to open it up to the class – how would you address the election with your students?”
There was a significant pause in the classroom, and then students began to share. The suggestions began with taking a neutral approach to the election:
“I work with first graders, and I really don’t think they knew what was going on. They knew that people were voting for a new president, but my school didn’t get into the candidates or their positions. I think that is probably for the best.”
“My students learned about democracy and the voting process, but my teacher made sure to avoid talking about the candidates. So, they all voted on whether they wanted new swings or a slide for the playground. They were able to talk about the pros and cons of each and go through the process without getting too political.”
Then one student challenged the idea that young students are unconcerned with the election:
“I don’t think they are that oblivious. I work with first graders and we didn’t talk about it in class, but it definitely came up at recess. They even started forming teams for a game with the team names of Trump and Hillary. I would want to discuss it. My cooperating teacher didn’t talk about it, but maybe she should have.”
This opened up the discussion to explore the other side:
“I think my cooperating teacher has handled the situation well. Students kept asking her who she was voting for. At first she didn’t want to tell them, but then she finally let them know. But she also told them that her husband was voting for the other candidate. She explained her reasons and her husband’s reasons. She also emphasized that even though they have different views, they love each other and live in the same house.”
“I do agree that it is not the place of the teacher to encourage students to support a certain candidate. But I do think a lot of good can come from helping students understand different sides and perspectives. That’s one of the big things now, helping students be critical thinkers. Since they are going to be voting one day, I want my students to be able to think critically about their voting decisions.”
I agreed with my students that it can be intimidating to bring controversial topics into the classroom because you do not want to offend any students or their families. At the same time, classrooms are probably the best place to discuss controversial topics because you can set expectations and facilitate the discussion or activities in culturally responsive ways (McBee, 1996; Hess, 2002). I reminded my teacher candidates that knowledge of your students is the most important component of appropriately selecting which topics to bring into your classroom and how to facilitate the teaching and learning process. But, you also need to know yourself, and affirmed one student’s comment that she was too upset about the election to address it with her students in an unbiased way.
I ended the discussion by distributing a quote I found from a teacher educator in response to the election. I encouraged them to use it as a starting point to address the election or a tool for the future. I read it aloud:
Tell them that you will honor the outcome of the election, but that you will fight bigotry. Tell them bigotry is not a democratic value, and that it will not be tolerated at your school. Tell them you stand by your Muslim families. Your same sex parent families. Your gay students. Your Black families. Your female students. Your Mexican families. Your disabled students. Your immigrant families. Your trans students. Your Native students. Tell them you won’t let anyone hurt them or deport them or threaten them without having to contend with you first. Say that you will stand united as a school community, and that you will protect one another. Say that silence is dangerous, and teach them how to speak up when something is wrong. Then teach them how to speak up, how to love one another, how to understand each other, how to solve conflicts, how to live with diverse and sometimes conflicting ideologies, and give them the skills to enter a world that doesn’t know how to do this (Retrieved from http://alimichael.org/blog/what-should-we-tell-the-children/).
I am not suggesting this was the best or right way to process the election, but it is one example of how a post-election discussion transpired. It was an opportunity to model how controversy can be integrated into the curriculum and classroom. It was also an opportunity to begin the “healing” for many students. I walked away from class feeling a little more optimistic about the world, and I hope my students felt the same.
McBee, R. H. (1996). Can controversial topics be taught in the early grades? Social Education, 60(1), 38-41.
Hess, D. (2002) Teaching controversial public issues discussions: Learning from skilled teachers. Theory and Research in Social Education, 30(1), 20–41.
Dr. Kyle Miller is an Assistant Professor of Child Development in the School of Teaching and Learning. She has worked in a number of educational settings, as a teacher and student support coordinator. Her research focuses on lower-income families and strengthening the relationships between families and schools.