Rich Pedroncelli/AP
Emery Martin, 3, plays under a voting booth as her father, Chris Martin (r.) marked his ballot in Sacramento, Calif., on Monday, Nov. 7. Chris brought his daughter and son Ezra, 1, in stroller, with him to cast his vote the day before Tuesday's election.

How teachers calm, educate students amid swirl of election emotions

A key lesson is to help students learn how to disagree – with civility.

In Springdale, Ark., a second-grader from Mexico came to school Wednesday with tears in her eyes. She asked: “Does this mean we’re going to have to get all the stuff out of our house?” says Justin Minkel, her teacher at Jones Elementary, where 99 percent of the students live in poverty, and 85 percent speak English as a second language.

He reassured her that President-elect Donald Trump doesn’t have the power immediately to send her family back to Mexico, and helped them understand when Mr. Trump will take office and how checks and balances work. He also took his students for a walk outside to give them a chance to think.

“Every teacher I know today was grieving,” Mr. Minkel says, “but we will be channeling this into making sure our students feel safe and loved.”

Others around the nation, of course, are happy with Trump’s stunning win, or face politically mixed classrooms. Yet wherever they sit on the political spectrum, teachers and parents are confronting not only their own swirl of feelings about the particularly tumultuous – and at times, unsavory – election campaign, but those of children as well.

Sometimes adults “jump to conclusions about what [children] might be afraid of and don’t give them the opportunity to talk,” says Lyn Brown, an education professor at Colby College in Maine and author of “Powered by Girl: A Field Guide for Supporting Youth Activists.”

So the first step, educators say, is to listen. 

Many are taking the opportunity to educate young people not only about the principles of American government, but also the importance of civility in discussing the direction and leadership of the country. And sometimes, students themselves lead the way.

At Lincoln High School in Tacoma, Wash., senior Austin Meneghel credits his AP Government teacher, Nate Bowling, with creating “a lot of energy in the class that gets people to talk more.”

Austin came to school Wednesday on the “winning” side of the presidential vote, having supported Trump largely because of his stances on taxes and gun control. But he says he and his friends who supported Secretary Clinton don’t let their disagreement get in the way of their relationships.

“I’ve seen a lot of childish activity from the adults and kids,” he says. But he also hopes that those who didn’t vote for Trump will “stop overreacting about what’s going on. They see Republicans as evil, and that’s not what we are.”

Speaking up – but civilly 

One challenge for teachers in this particularly rancorous campaign has been setting a tone of civility but still speaking up about what they see as civic or moral failings.

Minkel and nine others who have won awards as state or national teachers of the year recently wrote an essay published in the Washington Post saying that this year the election went beyond normal disagreements over policy issues. In their view, Trump’s “words and actions have shown a consistent disdain for human dignity” and “the most un-American of values,” such as hatred and discrimination.

Characterizing Trump’s campaign as un-American crossed a line into a lack of professionalism, says Frederick Hess, an educator and scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute. He says he’s not a particular fan of Trump and rejects the crassness that was revealed, for instance, in his comments about women. But, he adds, “the role for teachers is not to decide which side of these debates is real and legitimate and American.”

Many conservatives have felt that the dominant conversations in recent years have only been going one way: Muslims and immigrants can say they feel targeted and attacked, for instance, but “if a white student says, ‘I feel my community is being transformed by people not here legally and who don’t speak the language,’ that’s [considered] illegitimate,” Mr. Hess says. Educators “have to address multiple perspectives.”

Richard Ognibene, another signatory to the letter, has tried to do just that at Fairpoint High School in Rochester, N.Y. On Wednesday, he took a few minutes at the beginning of each class to tell students that of the nine times he’s voted, his candidates have won four times and lost five times.

“The beauty of America is that four years later we get another election,” he told them.

He also shared how he fiercely debates politics with a friend who is conservative, but still maintains the friendship. He says he drove home “how important it is to be in civil dialogue, rather than digging into silos on social media.”

Addressing incivility

Some educators are concerned about what they have dubbed a “Trump effect.” They point to instances of bullying and mocking by students, such as the high school basketball game in Indiana where students chanted “Build the Wall” at the mostly Hispanic opposing team.

The “modeling of hurtful behavior by someone who was triumphant … is probably going to encourage more of the same kind of behavior” among students, says Nancy Willard, director of Embrace Civility in the Digital Age.

Generally, schools aren’t paying sufficient attention to the climate, nor are they enforcing rules against bullying enough, she says. But when schools actively promote civility, it makes a difference.

She offers concrete steps schools can take to do that, such as printing out cards that say “I appreciate,” and encouraging students and staff to fill them in and hand them to people. Students can also be encouraged to aim for three acts of kindness daily, and share some of them each morning. Research has shown this increases peer acceptance, Ms. Willard says.

Girls who were passionate about the prospect of the first woman being elected president might feel particularly “distraught about the ways they are talked about and treated,” but that can be countered with opportunities to engage in social activism, says Prof. Brown.

And no matter who adults voted for, they can agree – and tell their children – that the ability to vote is part of what makes the country great, says Jennifer Powell-Lunder, an adjunct psychology professor at Pace University in New York.

“Our kids have seen the first African-American president; they’ve seen a woman be a real contender for the presidency,” she says. “That’s wonderful. Just because she didn’t win doesn’t mean those ideals aren’t out there anymore.”

Brown's husband, Mark Tappan, wrote to his daughter on Wednesday morning, knowing she and her friends had just voted for Clinton in their first presidential election – as did an estimated 55 percent of 18- to 29-year-old voters.

“It’s not always going to be easy,” he wrote, acknowledging her feelings that there was a backlash to values she held dear, and noting that the road to full equality is long. “But we can do it, and you and your generation are going to lead the way, for sure.”

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