My community near Washington DC is among the most diverse in the United States, with a multiracial population and a large immigrant presence. The students of my school reflect their community, representing over 50 countries. That diversity, along with the welcoming atmosphere of the school and the local community, is what first drew me to teach there. Despite its overall climate of acceptance, my school was not immune to the contentiousness of the recent election.
During a time when ugly rhetoric dominated the news, it was tempting for teachers to avoid the election entirely, and focus instead on teaching only academic content. Yet to do so would have ignored the opportunity to engage students as citizens. By confronting the election instead of retreating, we could teach students more about our messy, fascinating democracy – and also build their communication skills. Adolescents – like many adults – sometimes speak before they think. The question: how to challenge that natural impulse and encourage empathy? We needed a plan.
Part of my job is to develop daily school-wide lessons that reinforce students’ growth as lifelong learners, critical thinkers, and responsible global citizens. By consulting with other teachers and administrators at our school, and using resources from Teaching Tolerance and Edutopia, I created a road map for teachers to use the election as a springboard for teaching civil discourse. Here was the progression of our lessons:
- First, we invited students to develop a list of “Rules for Classroom Discussion,” building consensus within each class. I combined the rules formulated by each class and selected the most frequently mentioned as our school-wide “Rules for Discussion.”
- We asked students to reflect on collaboration and to role-play effective collaboration skills. Here is a resource our school made to help students understand what effective collaboration looks like.
- Students viewed and discussed debate clips like this one for examples of civil discourse – and not-so-civil discourse.
- The words of Kid President talking about “How To Disagree” helped underscore the central idea that even those with different perspectives deserve our respect. “Let’s treat people like they are people, people!”
- We learned more about the election process with the help of CNN News and iCivics.
- After the election, we reflected on its impact. To empower our students and to encourage them to express their opinions in positive, forward-thinking ways, our school participated in “Students Speak” through Teaching Tolerance. This campaign invited students to share their words of advice for the president-elect.
Here are some of the words of our students. I have left the original spelling and grammar intact:
Please take all of America into account. You have sparked fear into so many people’s hearts including mine. Remember that our country fought for our freedom, we deserve freedom to be who we are. I don’t know you, you don’t know me, but I know that you were not who I wanted to win. That doesn’t matter. You won. Please, please, please remember that America is diverse and embrace that diversity. Remember that your words have impact, and think before you speak. Remember that there are struggling people in this country, and it is your job to protect them too, not just the wealthy and well off. Remember that women have the right to control their own bodies. Remember that love is love.
Dear Mr. Trump,
You’re soon going to be the official president. Congratulations on the victory. Some people may not like you, but I think they are wrong. I hope you do great in office. I hope you make all the right choices. I hope you go with your ideas to make America great again. I hope you do make America great again.
Dear Mr. President, In school we are learning about the rules of culture. One rule we are learning is that people can accept or resist change. This relates to us because as a young female, I can choose to resist you becoming president of the United States. But that doesn’t mean you don’t have the potential to gain my interest. First off, I am an only child who lives with a single mom. As I have read, your tax plans to a certain extent discriminate single parents. My mom and I, and all the other single-parent families would appreciate if you listen to their perspective. That’s all I’m asking you, just listen. Next off, I come from a very diverse school. Even though I am a white Christian girl, I respect everyone’s opinion, no matter what race, culture, religion, or gender. As leader of our country you must represent EVERYONE. You shouldn’t put someone’s life at risk to make you feel more powerful. In my opinion building a wall and deporting illegal immigrants is not efficient. Instead of deporting them, support them and let them gain citizenship.
How are the lessons going? The process is ongoing, but I’m pleased to report that feedback from staff, students, and parents has been positive. Our students weathered a tough election season and maybe emerged just a little wiser and a little kinder. I’d love to hear what other schools have done to discuss the election with students.
For our next steps as a school, we will continue to examine perspectives and foster communication. This winter, we plan to teach a series of lessons on shattering stereotypes.
More on that to follow in the new year. Wishing you and yours a 2017 full of growth and adventure!