“I pledge to speak up.”
This was an oath by a student in my 2nd grade classroom in Manhattan, written on the day of the presidential inauguration in January. In the lead up to the election last fall students were itching for chances to talk about what they had seen or heard in the news. Conversations sprang up at lunch or in class meetings, political chants and slogans erupted on the way to gym. It was clear we needed a forum for students to process what they were hearing and thinking about the election.
On Inauguration Day we led students in an activity where they wrote their own inaugural oaths about what they would “preserve and protect” if they were elected president. Many chose issues close to their own lives. “I promise to protect animals from litter on the ground,” wrote one student, accompanied by a picture of a girl picking up loose bottles. “I promise to stand up against gossip and other untrue stuff,” wrote another (gossip had a been a topic at one of our class’s recent community meetings).
Other pledges touched on issues that were surfacing in the national conversation the week before the inauguration. One boy made his pledge about women’s rights:
This was the day before the Women’s Marches in D.C. and all over the world. One of the few students of color in my class wrote this:
We asked if she had something on her mind when she wrote this pledge. “It seems like Donald Trump only wants certain people to be in this country,” she offered, “like maybe people who are white.” This stirred a murmur of recognition in several other students. It was the first time the president elect had come up in a full class conversation.
“Yeah, Trump wants to build a wall between the U.S.A. and Mexico!” a white classmate responded. I braced for the follow up. Earlier that day, this student had started a chant of “TRUMP! TRUMP! TRUMP!” in response to a pro-Hillary chant at recess. I asked him what he thought of the idea of building a wall, and his reply surprised me. “I think it’s wrong,” he said. “It makes it seem like if you’re from Mexico you’re not allowed to be here, but lots of people from Mexico are also American.”
At the end of January we introduced a comment box as a way to collect students’ questions and thoughts about things they had in heard in the world that were on their minds. The first card I read was another surprise. The same student who shared about the border wall had hastily jotted: “Don’t be rude to the president.” After sharing his objection to what the wall signified, he was also concerned about how the president was being treated. In our class conversation that afternoon, he explained that he had heard lots of rudeness when students talked about President Trump and Secretary Clinton. I asked if it was “rude” to disagree with the president. “No!” the student who wrote it clarified, “that’s a protest, and it’s good to protest if you disagree.” The issue he had was with name-calling, something he reminded us we shouldn’t do in school either.
Over the next month we returned to the comment box weekly. Not all the comments were about President Trump, but the majority were. Students wrote their concerns about the travel ban, questions about impeachment. Misconceptions came up in our conversations almost daily. When one student wrote “Why are we building a wall with Mexico when the countries are already separate?” another responded “Because Mexico is our biggest enemy and we need the wall if there’s a war.” Moments like this were challenging for me—the stakes of these comments felt high, and the misunderstandings pressing to clear up. I was also glad there was a space for these misunderstandings to emerge. I saw how willing students were to listen to each other, and change their minds when presented with new information.
100 days into the Trump presidency the fervor of these conversations has abided some. Students have been drawn to the comment box less often, and there have been fewer flare-ups of political chants and disagreements. I worry, like Ruben described, that a new normal has settled in as students (and teachers) become used to rhetoric and policies that around the election felt explosive and inflammatory but now feel commonplace. I feel a particular need to keep the conversation going where I teach. My class—majority white, in a private school in an affluent Manhattan neighborhood—is comprised of students who may not be impacted immediately by President Trump’s policies or the whims of his executive orders. At the same time, their world is part of a larger world, one that I know they are struggling to understand. When the travel ban was issued one student whispered to me with concern that his grandmother was from Syria, and asked if she may have to go back. A white student asked an Asian classmate if her Chinese-American grandparents were going to be deported. If I don’t make space to talk about these policies, I leave my students to make sense of them themselves—and evade the responsibility of explaining my own stance on them.
As the teacher in the room, my decision to acknowledge these complexities or remain silent speaks volumes. I’m moving into the final stretch of the school year with the same questions I had leading up to the election. What role do I have in opening conversations about the presidency that students may not initiate as a class on their own? How do I make space for disagreements and misunderstandings while pushing my young students to think more deeply, and see outside their own experience in our very particular classroom? The first step has been to invite the ideas they’re already grappling with into our class discussions. In the rest of the year, I’m interested to see what next steps they take.