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Stepping Up to Teach in Turbulent Times

By Karen Engels — December 06, 2016 6 min read
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In the wake of the election, it’s been hard for many teachers to find their bearings. For those of us who teach in diverse communities, we’ve had to gulp down our own shock and fear in order to project calm and confidence for our students. Despite the horror I felt after watching images of members of a national alt-right group using fascistic salutes at a meeting in our nation’s capital, I strove to express hopefulness to my 4th grade students the next morning. I told them that while history zigs and zags, we can take comfort in Martin Luther King Jr.'s belief that the “arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends towards justice.”

Civility seems to have drained from our political discourse like water from a sieve. As educators, we have an awesome responsibility: to ensure that within our classroom walls, our students develop qualities of kindness, compassion, empathy, and optimism that can often contrast with the leadership qualities now on display by politicians of every political persuasion.

But we are living in an age in which the public school day operates at high speed, shifting from one cognitively demanding task to another with much less time available to nurture social-emotional development and to veer from the forward-marching curriculum when teachable moments arise. Now is the moment to reevaluate. What good will it be if our 4th graders can divide four-digit numbers or analyze textual claims if they can’t also regulate their emotions or listen to those with differing viewpoints?

The dismay that so many of us feel at the state of the country’s national politics should compel us to re-examine our purpose and practices. We need to recommit ourselves to nurturing wonderful people, not just skills for the 21st century. I’ve been focused on a few key strategies for my classroom in recent weeks:

Prioritize a morning meeting. It’s especially important now to make the time to check in with students at the beginning of the day, to share what’s happening inside and outside of the classroom, and to make sure that students know that their whole selves matter. By taking just a few minutes in the classroom each morning, we can prepare to turn more fully to the academic routines of the day, allowing ourselves to engage in curious learning. We need to make space for children to process their feelings, and just as importantly, we need to give them permission to continue to experience the comfort of normalcy.

Reaffirm the classroom’s core values. Many classrooms collaboratively develop rules or norms to guide their work throughout the year. This is an important time to check in on these values and to structure individual and collective reflection with students. Which agreements can you really feel proud of? Which need more focus and effort? One agreement in my 4th grade that feels especially important at this historical moment: “We include, help, and support each other.”

Celebrate acts of kindness. When we create opportunities for students to recognize and affirm classmates’ acts of compassion and kindness, we reinforce these core values. When my students notice their classmates performing small acts of kindness, such as helping someone clean up a mess or consoling someone who is feeling distressed, they record these observations. We conclude each week with a ‘Closing Circle’ where we share “Bucket Filler awards” based on Carol McCloud’s book Have You Filled a Bucket Today? Celebrating our acts of kindness as a group affirms and reinforces this value in our community.

Create a problem-solving circle. When problems arise, as they inevitably do, students in our school are used to siting in a circle and talking about them. I allow children to figure out solutions and to take ownership to implement them. For example, students enjoyed playing dodgeball at recess, but the game often devolved into squabbles. In our problem-solving circle, we brainstormed ground rules that made the game more fun for everyone. Then we periodically check in to see if the ground rules are working and how they might need tweaking.

Have a peace talk. We need to actively teach and model strategies for students to resolve interpersonal conflicts. While the rest of the world is demonstrating how to escalate grievances through impulsive tweets, posts, and rants, we need to show children another path. My 4th graders have learned a “peace talk” protocol in which each party listens intently to the other’s perspective and must successfully paraphrase the other’s view before sharing his or her own. The rules for these peace talks include: 1) Believe you can find a solution; 2) Listen and speak to each other, not about each other; and 3) Always use respectful language, even when you disagree.

Teach about “change makers,” past and present. Some days, it’s tempting to submit to feelings of helplessness. Rather than crumpling, teachers at my school are doubling down on our curriculum, planning every possible opportunity to highlight the historic individuals and social movements that have successfully tackled past injustices. This year, the 4th grade teachers from two schools in our district have developed a full-year study that integrates social studies, science, and literature to explore the way our nation changed during the 1800s. We aren’t shying away from our national legacy of hatred and oppression as manifested in slavery and the dispossession of Native Americans.

But we are also studying how social movements brought about important victories for human rights, including the national abolitionist movement, the 10-hour workday campaign in the Northeast, and the strike of Chinese workers on the Transcontinental Railroad. We are comparing those historic struggles to the change movements happening right now—from the effective resistance to the Dakota Access Pipeline to the Black Lives Matter movement. We are also exploring our own avenues for making change in our local community and beyond.

Breathe. I noticed that my class had been having a lot of trouble getting settled after lunch, so I asked them to propose solutions. One little boy said, “Maybe we should just have a minute to breathe quietly before we start the lesson.” His idea worked so well that we have been pausing a few times each day to simply breathe and notice our feelings. For me, it’s a time to notice the worry that’s waxed and waned in recent weeks and to remind myself to stay present with the students in front of me.

When words fail, sing. Music speaks louder than words. On the day after the election, when I was struggling to find the words to comfort my classroom of 9-year-olds whose families hail from Bangladesh, Korea, Eritrea, Vietnam, Tanzania, Guinea, India, Somalia, and the United States, we sang. We sang our sorrows and our fears, and we sang a tentative hopefulness in the words of Woody Guthrie:

As I went walking I saw a sign there/ And on the sign it said ‘No Trespassing.'/ But on the other side it didn’t say nothing,/ That side was made for you and me.

There’s an old adage that times of crisis are times of opportunity. This election has exposed deep rifts in our country and unleashed acts of hatred. But this challenging moment also provides us with an opportunity to teach with greater passion, heart, and commitment than ever before, to nurture the next country’s generation of leaders. It’s up to us.

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