I woke the morning after the election with a sense of clarity, calm, and fierce love.
My student Xiomara, who is Mexican-American, came up to me as soon as she entered my classroom, choking back tears. She asked, "Does this mean we have to put all the stuff in our house into bags?" I asked what she meant, and she started to cry. Through tears, she explained: "When my mom and I have to move back to Mexico." She is seven years old.
For many of my Latino students, the world they woke to that morning was a terrifying place. It was a world where a man who had denigrated their entire identity, and had threatened to round up and deport undocumented immigrants in staggering numbers, had just been elected to the most powerful office in the land. It was a world where they felt they could be forced from their homes in the night, on any night, or have the people they loved most—their mom or dad, sister or brother—torn from them without warning or recourse.
What do we do for these brave but terrified children? Here is a brief list of what I have come up with so far. I would love to hear how any of you are making this path by walking it with your own students, whatever their age.
1. Reassure them.
The first thing I said to my second-graders that morning was, "This is your home. You are safe here. You have so many people at this school who love you, and we will all make sure you are OK, today and every day."
The children started naming some of those people. Their teachers from last year. Our wonderful principal. The Latino police officer assigned to our school to build relationships with troubled students.
I also responded to some of their misconceptions. Many of them didn’t realize that Barack Obama would still be our president until January, or that Donald Trump had to work with lawmakers and could be checked by the Supreme Court, rather than wielding absolute power.
After Xiomara broke down crying that morning, I gave her a hug, pulled up a chair beside her, and we talked for a little while. I told her that anytime she feels sad or scared, she can talk to me or the school counselor, and we will almost always be able to say something true that will make her feel a little better. At the end of the day, once she had calmed down and started laughing again, she handed me a drawing of the two of us.
2. Keep talking about it.
Our students have heard our president-elect say disparaging things about women, Mexican-Americans, Muslims, and disabled people. We can counter that negativity by teaching respect and civility, but it takes multiple conversations and our own constant example.
It's tempting to avoid or suppress the whole topic. This election has divided the nation, and those deep divisions exist within our own classrooms. But while banning the topic may be easier for us, it's hard on kids.
On the morning after Election Day, a Latina aide—who looked visibly shaken herself—kept trying to tamp down the children's conversations about Trump in the hall before breakfast.
"You guys, it doesn’t matter," she said, her voice tight. "We're not talking about that here."
But it does matter. It matters tremendously. And we need to talk about it in school, which is our students' second home.
Children know a lot, and they sense a lot more. We can't forget that kids process things differently than adults do. Some of the effects on our students are immediately apparent, while others may not be clear for months. We have a role to play in guiding them through their thoughts and emotions about the outcome of this election, and that will be a long road to walk.
Our classrooms have to be places where young people can talk about what's on their minds and hearts. We don't need to share our own feelings or political beliefs, but we have to address children's fears, thoughts, and questions in as clear and gentle a manner as we can.
A friend of mine who teaches at a racially diverse K-12 school in Boston wrote this post following the election:
"Yesterday I saw how the kids at my school—almost entirely students of color—were experiencing this election. They weren't coping with an abstract sense of betrayal. It was more personal and raw; they felt unsafe. So we cancelled morning classes and gave teachers resources to facilitate conversations, and then I walked from room to room and listened. One young woman broke down as she explained how her mother is undocumented and she's afraid they'll take her away now. A young man asked whether anything had really changed for black people in this country, whether this meant more police shootings. Teachers and students listened and hugged and mourned, and we didn't figure anything out, but it felt like maybe we were all a little bit less alone."
3. Be our best selves.
The most important thing we can do for our students may be to simply ensure that their world in school is peaceful, joyful, and intact. That requires each of us to be the best teacher we can be for them—hour after hour, day after day.
My students and I only spent a few minutes that morning discussing the election. But I was gentler with their misbehavior than I would usually be. I was more patient, and talked to them more about their lives outside school.
We had a class meeting, all of us sitting in a big circle at the rug, to talk about their ideas for changes they would like to make to our class. I loved their ideas, like doing Writer's Workshop outside in nature sometimes, or buying enough bean bags that every single student could have one during reading time.
We took a walk around the fields behind the playground, just to stretch our legs, bask in the sunshine, and feel the wind on our faces. Much of my students' calm and happiness that day came from the comfort of the routine that school provides: Guided Reading groups, Read Aloud, Math.
At its heart, our job as teachers is to make children's lives better—safer, more joyful, more meaningful, and more fun. For children of color who woke to a frightening world the day after the election, it is more crucial than ever that we do that job well.
Justin Minkel, a Milken Educator, Lowell Milken Center Fellow, and member of the Center for Teaching Quality Collaboratory, teaches second grade at Jones Elementary in northwest Arkansas, where 85 percent of the students are English-learners and 98 percent live in poverty. He is currently writing a book for teachers on how to ensure that children in high-poverty schools have the chance to develop creativity, critical thinking, and joy in learning, so they can go on to live the lives they dream.
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