How classrooms are dealing with a Trump win

As high school students in American cities walk out of class to protest the election of Donald Trump, teachers wonder how to lead discussions about the president-elect and the election. 

Ricardo Arduengo/Reuters
High school students gather in front of the Arizona Capitol in protest against the election of Republican Donald Trump as the president of the United States in Phoenix, Arizona, Nov. 9, 2016.

As crowds gathered in the streets of American cities to protest the election of Donald Trump, many elementary and high school students are confused at how Mr. Trump edged out an unexpected win and how a divided America can move forward.

“It’s definitely going to be a big change,” Jackson, a sixth grade student at Martin Luther King Jr. High School in Berkeley, Calif., told NPR on Wednesday during a teacher-facilitated discussion. “Not necessarily a good change or a bad one. It’s just going to be big and different.”

The election of Trump – a presidential candidate celebrated by his followers for his hard-line stance on immigration, and disparaged by his opposition for, they say, being a racist, misogynist, and a bully – has posed a dilemma for teachers in the United States and Canada on whether they should lead conversations with their students about the president-elect. But many teachers have found an opportunity to teach their students about tolerance, self-expression, bullying, and democracy.

"I was surprised that students wanted to talk about it," Andrew Campbell, an elementary school teacher in Ontario, Canada, told The Globe and Mail newspaper. "I thought it wouldn’t have a lot of meaning to Grade 5 and 6 students, but I think they got caught up in the media storm and were reacting to that."

Throughout the presidential election, with its racially-charged rhetoric, sexual assault allegations, and undercurrent of violence, teachers have been challenged, wondering how to encourage civic engagement and learning while welcoming all views, as Gretel Kaufmann reported for The Christian Science Monitor when Jericho Elementary School in Centereach, N.Y. canceled a mock presidential election due to the negative vibes it was creating.

"Preparing citizens who are able to engage in civic discourse and have a certain level of political tolerance is an important part of the role of public schools in a democracy, and there are important opportunities for students to learn during critical moments, like now, in US history," Laura May, an associate professor of early childhood and elementary education at Georgia State University, tells the Monitor.

"But in times like now, in the midst of heated and extreme views that are often uncompromising, teachers and schools are vulnerable," she says.

To foster a good environment for conversation, Dr. May says, teachers must make children feel safe, comfortable, and respected among their peers to share personal and, perhaps, unpopular opinions. Once a teacher establishes this environment, students and teachers can develop ground rules for political discussions. For younger students, she adds, it may be best to discuss the election through familiar concepts such as kindness and fairness.

The day after the election, Berkeley Unified School District in the San Francisco Bay Area took a different approach. Teachers and administrators accompanied students as they gathered in the courtyard of Berkeley High School and marched to nearby University of California, Berkeley, to protest the election of Trump.

“It’s not the first time we’ve had a walkout,” said Berkeley Unified spokesman Charles Burress, referring to the city’s history of liberal politics. “We know what to expect, and we know what to do.”

The 1,500-odd students at Berkeley High were among thousands of young Americans in Seattle, Phoenix, Los Angeles, and the Bay Area that marched in opposition to Trump. In Los Angeles, about 300 predominantly Hispanic high school students walked out of classes and walked to the steps of City Hall. A giant Trump head was burned in effigy there, according to the Los Angeles Times, while students chanted in Spanish, “the people united will never be defeated.”

Many of those students were members of the “Dreamers” generation, children whose parents entered the United States with them illegally, school officials told Reuters. These students fear deportation under a Trump administration.

"A child should not live in fear that they will be deported," said Stephanie Hipolito, one of the student organizers of the walkout, and who said her parents are US citizens.

Teachers reported some of their students carried these same fears during the election, according to an online survey by the Southern Poverty Law Center. More than two-thirds of teachers surveyed said some of their students, particularly Mexican-American and Muslim students, are afraid they will be deported or disliked because of their heritage or religion.

But some of the sixth grade students at Martin Luther King Jr. Middle School in Berkeley are hopeful the country can move past these divisions to come together.

“If we work with [Trump], we might be able to change his mind about building a wall and sending all the immigrants back,” Jackson, the student, told NPR.

This report contains material from Reuters. 

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