Following the election, I wanted to debrief with my students in some way about what happened, what the consequences were, etc., of Trump’s election as President. Obviously, I had to be pretty careful as I have students of every stripe and political persuasion, but also, as their English teacher, I believe there’s a duty to challenge them to think about the world in different ways, to think critically and deeply about the issues facing our country, and to argue for their viewpoints, using evidence to support their claims.
Some may disagree, but one of our standards is Speaking and Listening, so the critics can piss off. Ultimately, it’s every individual teacher’s decision what happens in their classroom–we serve at the pleasure of the principal, superintendent, and school board. As soon as they direct me to run my class in a different manner, I will, but until that time I have the autonomy to decide what’s best for my students.
As my regular readers know, our high school has experienced a rash of racist incidents in which students of color have been verbally assaulted by white students. Moreover, some of my Latino, LGBTQ, and female students have confided in me outside of class, saying they’re absolutely terrified of what Trump’s presidency will mean for them. In any case, I felt it was necessary to frame the conversation in a way that would promote compassion, as well as to reaffirm that racism, bigotry, and sexism is wrong and has no place in our society or our school.
The lesson I taught, therefore, was simple. Before we began, I assured students that regardless of their political beliefs, I respected them, would fight for them, and that in no way, shape, or form, would I ever hold it against their grade or how I treated them. I also congratulated Trump supporters on their win and expressed that I hope he is a successful president who does good things for this country. Students were then divided to represent certain groups: Latinos/Hispanics, African Americans, women, white men, and disabled people. Each group stood in a different corner of the room. As we all know about Trump’s wall, I erected a barrier of desks and chairs in front the Latino group, and then displayed some of the things Mr. Trump has said about these various groups of people–direct quotes, no editorializing on my part. I asked students to consider how those statements might make people in those groups feel, and gave students a chance to respond.
The reaction I got was mostly silence, with some clear moments of shock, nervous laughter, as well as some push back. I then pivoted to talk about why Trump supporters were excited to vote for him, some of Clinton’s flaws, etc. To finish, I gave students the chance to comment or ask questions, and we had mostly productive conversations.
I ended class by once again reassuring students that regardless of whom they supported in this election, they were welcome in my classroom and I would always treat them with the utmost dignity and respect. However, I added, I hoped they could understand why certain groups of people were afraid and made it clear that racist, homophobic, sexist, or otherwise bigoted comments or bullying was not acceptable in my classroom or in our school, and that if I heard it, those students would receive a referral and be asked to leave immediately.
Before teaching the final period, my principal–who’s a great guy by the way–came down to inform me that one of my students made a video of me walling off the Latino group, and it had made its way to the superintendent. Obviously, taken out of context, that looks pretty bad. In any case, we came to the agreement I wouldn’t divide people up in the next period, and when I was finished, I wrote an email to my principal and superintendent laying out the lesson much as I have done here.
Later that night, I then received an email from a parent, saying that they were “appalled” I’d read Trump’s quotes to the students and expressing their pro-Trump views.
That’s it so far–hopefully I won’t get fired–but it was followed by a third straight night of poor sleep and a whole lot of uncertainty and questions:
- What does it say about our next president, that a high school teacher cannot read Mr. Trump’s direct quotes to students without offending them to the point where they make a misleading video or their parents freak out? What does it say about Trump supporters, that they’re appalled by the words of a man they just elected President, and retaliate by… attacking the high school English teacher airs them?
- Have we entered a post-truth, post-racist society? And by that I don’t mean neither exists, but that neither matters. I mean, look, I won’t post the actual email my student’s parents sent me, but they wrote the following: “I am appalled that you had the audacity to say ‘grab them by the p’s’ to the students in your class.” I didn’t say that. Trump did. If they’re so angry at me for mentioning it, shouldn’t they be even more angry at Trump? Apparently not. Apparently, in our post-truth, post-racist society, it only matters if a person they disagree with says something they don’t like–even if it’s not something they said. If it’s one of their own, they just black it out and move on as if nothing happened.
- Do we have shared values as a country anymore–or is it just pure partisanship? Because it would seem, based on Trump’s election, and the reaction I received, we don’t. I could tell my conservative students were pissed and offended by what their Trump said, but why didn’t that matter more to his supporters in this election? Why were so many people more concerned about conspiracy theories and donning their tinfoil hats and casting doubt about Hillary than they were with stopping a man who said horrible things about almost everything. Hillary had one bad gaffe (deplorables), and people freaked out for a week. Donald Trump belted out at least 10–whether lies, bigotry, or fascist–at every rally, and no one gave a damn. Think about this: if Hillary hadn’t released her taxes, or praised Putin, or ran a fake university that defrauded its students, Republicans would have lit their hair on fire. But when it was Trump… silence.
And the hypocrisy is deafening.
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