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Finding Words

I get to school early and my students know that. This morning, a student that I’m not even particularly close with arrived at 6:00 AM in tears. Ever since then, I’ve been trying to figure out what to say to students and colleagues about the presidential election.   

This student and I talked about fear. We talked about her history. We talked about how she encouraged her mother to vote for the first time—ever. We talked about how she can’t understand why people would vote for a fear-mongering, hate-talking candidate like Donald Trump. We talked about her experience Monday seeing President Obama for the first time, an experience that she was so motivated to make happen. Toward the end of our conversation, she said that she finally finished Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. Not that I’m equating President-Elect Trump to the Dark Lord, but we talked about how even with Voldemort, people supported him. It may have been out of fear and group loyalty, but it was support nonetheless.  And while I’m glad she loves the Harry Potter series as much as I did, I’m really starting to think that there’s some truth to the “Harry Potter Effect” just as much as there is to the “Trump Effect” in creating a new generation of Americans that don’t tolerate hate and will always work for what is good.

While I do not respect Donald Trump (my individual moral compass refuses to respect a man who has degraded women, Muslims, the LGBTQ community, and so many other minority groups), I do respect the position of president.  And I can model this behavior for students, even if I need to bite my tongue while I write this. I can talk about ways to hold our elected representatives accountable and model my own civic action that does exactly that. I can deplore poor behavior, rushed judgments, and indefensible opinions that aren’t supported by sufficient data. Like I have worked to explain to students before, opinions are not truth or fact. They are just that: opinions.

Today, I find myself making more connections than ever to the book I’m reading, No Citizen Left Behind. And for the first time in my life, I have been made aware of a “civic empowerment gap.” As a white male—and as a white male whose father was a union activist—I have never felt disenfranchised. I have voted in every election since I was 18. I have phone banked. I have canvassed. I have picketed. I have visited legislators. I have attended town hall meetings. In so many different ways, I recognize that I can have my voice heard and also hold my representatives accountable. But with so many of our students and their families, they feel helpless. They don’t know where to start.  

But as a teacher, my goal is never to indoctrinate. It’s never to push a liberal agenda. My goal is for students to articulate a strong line of reasoning to fully support their ideas. That’s the standard that I am held to as a teacher, and that’s the stand that I expect of my students, even when they disagree with me. And I like disagreement. For weeks, I’ve even challenged students who have pro-Clinton to support their lines of thinking. Just saying you support a candidate because of the platitudes they might say they stand for isn’t enough. It will never be enough.

I ended school with a visit from a Muslim student. I never knew this student was a Muslim, but the fear was present in her eyes. And whether or not that fear will actually become a reality, it’s still there. A sixteen-year-old stood in front of me and expressed her pain, her agony, that someone like Donald Trump could be elected.

She didn’t come alone. Arriving with a dear friend of hers and a student that I’ve never had in class, I noticed red eyes and frustration. He told me that he just didn’t get it. This was the same kid who was jokingly accused of being a “terrorist” by a stranger during a recent school event because he pretended to have a strong accent.

And I responded the only way that I knew how. I told them that this wasn’t our darkest hour. We have survived taxation without representation, and our country was once so divided that it was split in two. We can work to understand each other, to find commonalities, and to leverage what we know about our system of government to make our voice heard. And that starts with getting her mother registered to vote. An immigrant—a legal one and now a U.S. citizen, if I might add—that has never felt quite comfortable or American to do so.  And I told them that we also have an obligation to not tolerate any comments or even any jokes that belittle race, religion, sexual orientation, etc. That if we tolerate them, that if we don’t speak up, we are perpetuating the problem. Our responsibility is renewed and we must be all the more vigilant.

Like my students, today I am hurting. But I do believe in system where the minority voice is one that is valued and appreciated, where we all should seek first to understand and then to be understood. I believe in teaching and practicing sound argument, where we explore claims, where we question the validity of evidence, and where we seek to uncover the often invisible warrants that link evidence to those claims. And that’s my responsibility as a teacher. And in every way possible, the Common Core State Standards, the standards of which I am obliged to follow and the standards that I have often expressed frustration with, encourage me to do just that.

As a teacher, I’m renewing my vow to ensure a couple of things. All students will feel safe in my classroom. I will not vow to make them feel “comfortable.” It’s discomfort that forces us to grow. Every voice will be heard and valued, even when we disagree. I vow to uphold every student to rigorous thinking and developed arguments. Lackluster emotional appeals will not be tolerated or accepted. Our students deserve a better education than crafting weak arguments. I write this as I try to understand how people came to support a litany of claims with very little support.  They deserve rational and reasonable conversations. They deserve a safe space to practice their thinking and to talk about their lives and current events in productive ways. They also deserve teachers that will teach them not what to think but how to think, and how to use their thoughts to advocate to make their school, their community, and their country better.


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