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Helping Students Process the 2020 Elections
Political campaigns and elections are opportunities to teach our students about democracy, government, voting, and what it means to participate in the democratic process in the United States. At the same time, it is important for educators to not only recognize, but address the divisiveness of the current election season, the socio-political context of race and justice in the historic and present-day United States, and the impact the 2020 elections will have on many of our students.
On November 3rd, voters will choose who they want leading our communities and our nation. For some students, the election season and some politicians have become large pieces of their personal social identity. They see themselves and see their futures as part of a narrative promised by a candidate. For other students, those who are members of groups targeted by proposed or current legislation or executive order may experience mounting fear and uncertainty. Winning and losing become personal to students for many reasons and educators need to be prepared for the range of emotions and reactions their students have.
As educators we take steps to support students that are responsive to their cultural identities to create a climate of care and safety and foster the positive relationships needed for student’s social and emotional well-being. These intentional actions create the foundation for students to learn about difficult subjects and have challenging and productive conversations.
Culturally responsive practices that support student social-emotional well-being
Establish an expectation for civil discourse.
Civil discourse, respectful dialogue between people, is how a community can come together even with differing opinions, world views, and political stances. Current public conversations about issues of race and justice have been polarized in our state and in our nation and there are far too many examples of the inability to hear the viewpoint of another. As educators, we wrestle with these issues and have a responsibility to create the conditions for students to be safe to examine their thinking, share their ideas, and develop the skills that inform and impact their decisions.
School leaders can begin this work by clearly modeling for staff, students, and community civil discourse practices expected in the school. Stating the communication and behavior expectations establishes the guardrails for difficult conversations that allow people to hear one another and find a path forward, even if they don’t agree. It takes practice. It takes stamina. And, it allows individuals time and space to examine their emotions and thoughts in a productive way that respects the humanity of another.
Act with a Culturally Responsive Lens
Culturally responsive pedagogy in teaching: i) infuses practices and strategies that support students in framing their own thinking; ii); celebrates and builds on their cultural interests, heritage, and strengths; iii) examines the curriculum from multiple viewpoints; and iv) creates a safe and inclusive classroom and school environment where students can critically think and solve community and world issues.
Controversial topics and difficult conversations are opportunities for students to grow in their own thinking and their own social-political consciousness. Their ability to critically analyze community, national, and world issues from a variety of cultural perspectives allows them to see who benefits and who doesn’t from an expansive lens that considers the advantage and oppression people experience in social systems based on components of their identity.
Listen and acknowledge students when they share their fears.
A student’s membership to a group that has been oppressed by a policy, legislative action, or persons in an elected position will impact how they respond to the election outcomes. Recent political threats or actions against Latinx communities, immigrants, LGBTQ+ communities, people with disabilities, Muslims, Asians, and Black/African Americans exist and have inflicted real trauma. Students need to have a safe place in which to share their fears and be acknowledged. This includes providing assurances on student safety at school, both in person and in virtual classrooms. Learning happens when students feel safe. From knowing your policies on the sharing of data and directory information, and how to respond to a subpoena from local, state and federal agencies -- to knowing your district’s anti-discrimination and harassment policies, educators can provide the needed assurance to help students feel less vulnerable by communicating the standard for student safety in the school.
Provide students with opportunities to express how they feel that respects others.
Victory laps and celebrations of elected winners in the classroom can cause harm and may further polarize student groups. Those who supported the candidate who lost may have a range of emotions including frustration, hurt fear, and anger. What students feel is real and deeply personal to them. Students need productive, age-appropriate avenues to share their thinking and explore their ideas while still respecting the beliefs of others. This promotes self-awareness, self-management, and empathy. Classroom discussions and assignments that are international and purposeful have a place in helping students process their thinking. However, teachers should also consider the context and amount of time needed to address students’ concerns. The constant reminders of who won and who didn’t could retraumatize students who felt targeted by the policies and actions of the winner, or the loss of protection or privileges afforded by the one who lost. The likelihood of contested results is a reality. The election results may not happen on a single day. They could extend for a length of time, stretching out the uncertainty and anxiety students experience about the potential outcomes. Teaching safe ways for students to express their thinking, regulate their emotions, consider the experiences and feelings of others and deepen their relationships need to be established well in advance of November 3rd and fostered long after. These skills are a foundation for students to grow in their socio-political consciousness to think critically; examine their current situations; develop a deeper understanding about their reality and empathy for others’ reality; and devise, implement, and evaluate solutions to their problems and the problems of those around them.
Communicate the expectation that All Students Belong. Racism does not.
Racism doesn’t have to be elected to take root and be legitimized in government, public policy, communities, and in our schools. Racial injustice has been intertwined with political rhetoric and has reached a new level of the divide in recent months. Racism is insidious. It will creep in and make its presence known in our classrooms and staff rooms if the door is left open to it.
Be clear. Talk with your staff about racism, what it is, what it looks like, and what it sounds like. Soft selling the impact of racism only allows it a stronger foothold. “It’s not that bad.” “They’re too sensitive.” “It’s not really that way.” When the impact of racism isn’t understood by the offender or the bystander, its power grows stronger. Silence is an invitation for oppression to thrive. Using your voice and letting your stance be known is one of the first, and best ways, to stop acts of racism and to set the expectation that each student is seen, heard, and valued in our schools.
All Students Belong is a rule passed by the State Board of Education in September 2020 that clearly states symbols of hate will not be allowed in Oregon schools, classrooms, school activities, and events. Staff, students, and community members need to know they are protected by this rule, and the restorative and corrective actions your schools will take if acts of racism or hate happen. The rule not only is in place to create safety for students, it provides educators with resources and support if/when incidents of racism occur.
There are a number of resources available for educators to facilitate learning on difficult or polarizing topics. Teaching students how to process the difficult conversations surrounding the 2020 elections will require planful actions rooted in culturally responsive practices that establish a climate of care. Students need thoughtful and facilitative teachers and teachers need strong principals who establish safe and supportive schools. While pockets of excellence benefit students momentarily, systems of excellence dedicated to culturally responsive practices that support the social-emotional well-being of students change the trajectory for outcomes, especially for those who have historically been the most underserved or harmed by the system.