The 2016 presidential election season has been an especially harsh and bitter one, filled with offensive language, bigotry, sexism and misogyny, bullying, and taunts. Many groups and communities have been targeted, and the students in your classroom are likely to have been affected in one way or another.
According to research by the Southern Poverty Law Center, this election has produced an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children—especially those whose races, religions or nationalities have been targeted on the campaign trail. Many immigrant students are afraid of deportation. Muslim students too are afraid of deportation and even incarceration under a Trump presidency and even native-born African American students have expressed fear of being sent "back" to Africa.
The campaign has inflamed racial and ethnic tensions between students as well. Teachers have reported an uptick in bullying, harassment, and intimidation. Students have been emboldened to engage in name-calling, use slurs and inflammatory statements as they put their classmates down. When teachers confront the behavior, they receive pushback as students point to the campaign: they are "just saying what everyone is thinking."
From preschool all the way up through high school, students are aware of the tone and rhetoric of the campaign, the slogans, the slurs and the offensive behaviors. Students hear about it on television, the radio and through social media. They are exposed to it in conversations at home or they "simply" absorb the stress that their parents are experiencing. Older students are posting, texting, joking and disseminating taunts on social media.
Students are bringing their thoughts, concerns, opinions, and heightened emotions into the classroom, whether we as educators decide to open up the topic or not. No matter what the outcome of the election, these feelings and behaviors are likely to linger, especially if we don’t talk about them.
Through class meetings or talking circles, you can provide a safe environment where students can share feelings and thoughts, clarify information, and receive support. If you have spent time building community with your class and establishing supportive group norms, much of the groundwork for dealing with sensitive issues and feelings is already in place. In addition you may want to consider the following suggestions for supporting students and strengthening community in times like these.
Don't ignore issues. They are present whether you talk about them or not and are likely to come out in one way or another. If you, the adult, provide a supportive environment in which to address challenging and sensitive issues constructively, they can become powerful teachable moments. If you don't, these very same issues can become disruptive and divisive in similarly powerful ways.
Be present and available. During times of anxiety, students need to know that the adults in their lives are present and are available and ready to provide support when needed.
Invite student feelings and thoughts. When students are worried or upset, it is helpful for them to know that they are not alone. Feeling a sense of connection and support is more reassuring than a detailed explanation of what happened. Consider providing a space where all students have the opportunity to share their thoughts and feelings about the issue in question. You might do this through a "talking circle" (or restorative circle): pass an object (a talking piece) around the circle. Whoever is holding the object can either talk about what they are thinking or feeling about the issue, or pass. Students who pass will have another opportunity to speak when the talking piece comes around again. You can keep the talking piece going around for as long as it seems constructive and useful, or for as long as the time allows. Talking circles structure a conversation and ultimately allow the group to moderate itself.
In a talking circle, it's important to use ceremony as you set the space apart from other spaces in the school. This may mean using a poem, quote or some quiet reflection time to open and close the circle. For a talking circle to work well you also need a good opening question and supportive group norms—for instance, speaking for oneself, confidentiality and no put downs. You may want to encourage students to use their time wisely when they have the talking piece. Talking circles are useful in times of stress, but can be introduced to encourage sharing throughout the year, allowing students to build the kind of community and trust that will allow them to deal more constructively with difficult or stressful situations, when they arise. For more on circles, see this introduction.
Listen and paraphrase. Acknowledge student feelings and thoughts. It is important, especially in difficult times, for students to know they are being heard without judgment. Listening, paraphrasing, and acknowledging students' feelings and thoughts allows students to process their feelings and possibly move beyond some of their worries so that they can begin to explore the issue and generate questions that might further understanding.
Normalize student feelings and thoughts. Let students know they are not alone in feeling confused, upset or angry. Many people feel this way in times of turmoil. It is not at all unusual and talking about it will help kids understand that they are not alone.
Check in with students. Some students will reach out themselves when they are struggling. Others need to be encouraged. Look for kids who are acting out of the ordinary, because even if they are not reaching out verbally, there may be behavioral telltales that they are struggling.
Provide structure. At times of uncertainty and anxiety, it is especially important to structure how information is shared (whether through talking circles, pair shares, triads, microlabs and/or fishbowls) and to re-emphasize community norms. These structures and norms can provide some comfort and reassurance for kids to hold on to when their community is shaken. This is especially true if these structures have been used before and will continue to be used regularly.
Encourage students to generate questions. Generate lots of questions, open-ended questions, questions from different perspectives. (For more on how to generate good questions, see Alan Shapiro's Thinking is Questioning.) The world is a complex place and the tools we use to engage it should embrace that complexity, rather than ignore it. It's easy to resort to black-and-white thinking, assuming that things are either good or bad. But this thinking promotes polarization and pits people against each other. Instead, try to promote thinking that recognizes not only shades of gray but the spectacular colors that bring the real world into view, accepting and respecting a multitude of varied thoughts and opinions.
Brainstorming open-ended questions that do not assume answers, especially not "the one right answer," cultivates critical thinking and encourages students to think creatively, without judgment or fear of giving the wrong answer. A classroom environment that emphasizes good questions rather than right answers prepares students for the complexity of today's world and the wealth of information that is available to them if they know how to look for it.
Promote dialogue. Too often young people are only taught to debate issues. And though debating skills are useful to have in today's world, dialogue is perhaps a more valuable skill when it comes to better understanding complex issues. Debate is about competition and convincing your opponent. Dialogue, on the other hand, is about cooperation, understanding your partner and opening up new ways of thinking. Dialogue promotes a widening of horizons and openness to change. (For more on teaching on controversial issues, see our guidelines for Teaching on Controversial Issues.)