Equity & Diversity Opinion

Teaching the 2016 Presidential Election: Racism, Immigration, and Xenophobia

By Apoorvaa Joshi — May 12, 2016 10 min read
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I can’t say I envy teachers this year as they try to address the national election in their classroom—especially the debate on the issue of immigration. But my colleague Apoorvaa Joshi, Executive Associate, Education at Asia Society, provides resources and strategies to approach this issue in a fair and factual way. Most of these suggestions are aimed at middle or high-school level students.

In the United States, demographic shifts due to conflict, economic hardship, climate change, and other major events have historically triggered a debate on ideas of belonging, often reinforcing an “us versus them” mentality. This mentality, in turn, is an easy wedge tactic for politicians to exploit while seeking power or to influence policy.

Sometimes these tactics result in political violence, and usually they succeed in dividing people along group identities, eventually reinforcing privilege of a more powerful group over another. The current election cycle for President of the United States, as well as the refugee crisis resulting from the Syrian civil war, have highlighted how these tensions are being played out on the campaign trail and in the media.

There have been numerous pieces written recently on introducing children to the coded (and explicit) racism and prejudice in the stump speeches of Donald Trump and other candidates. And the messaging from some of the presidential candidates is having a powerful, negative impact on the children of immigrants, or children who are immigrants themselves.

Given the rampant misinformation and high emotional tensions that run through this topic, we may instinctually keep quiet on the issues, wanting to maintain a safe and orderly space for young people, or to avoid giving more attention to vitriolic speech. But as educators, there are some important ways in which you can empower students to use the current rise of xenophobia and intolerance in the US and abroad to inspire global competence. Doing this will, in turn, help develop your students into young leaders who can engage with the current political discourse in a way that is meaningful and authentic to their own lives and contexts. Indeed, the four domains of global competence can act as a guide for you to help students to investigate their world, weigh perspectives, communicate across audiences, and finally take action on issues of global significance like immigration and xenophobia.

Investigate the world
It may be helpful to take a step back from the emotions that run through topics like immigration and reframe them as a research project, acknowledging that there are some objective facts (as well as subjective truths) that are at least recoverable by students. For example, have students start by researching statistics about immigration and addressing some key questions: How do these facts support or dismantle current rhetoric around the issues? What are the actual laws surrounding immigration? Ask your students to reflect on what it takes to immigrate to another country and what sorts of punishments are doled out for illegal immigration. What exactly grants someone status as a refugee? What is the history of immigration to (and emigration from) your country? What are current political and economic factors that influence immigration?

Some online resources on immigration and migration research:

Part of investigating our world may be to also acknowledge personal experiences. There is value in referencing personal experience when discussing politics; it can be an important and useful form of argumentation, but students should be aware that their own experiences, while personal and valid, constitute anecdotal evidence and do not necessarily represent an average—or even anything more than a singular—experience.

It’s important to acknowledge experience as a specific type of information that can inform a person’s stance on a topic. A student in your classroom who deals with the struggles of being undocumented, for example, could bring up facts that the general public, including researchers, may not recognize at first. The personal backgrounds of immigrant students, however, need to be handled with sensitivity. Students may be hesitant to share their views out of fear of endangering or drawing unwanted attention themselves and their family members, especially in the case of students who may be undocumented. For instance, a teacher at Fort Vancouver International High School, a very diverse school in Washington state, encourages her students to tell their stories—when they are ready:

“I had a couple of students from the Congo, and they [shared] how their parents were hiding them under the floorboards as these people were coming in to kidnap [children]... Stories do have a huge impact on our students, especially the US-born citizens, because they’ve never really had to even think about that, let alone imagine that scenario.”

Celebrating experience is another way of allowing students to investigate issues, and leads to the appreciation of diverse perspectives—the next component of global competence.

Related resources

Weigh perspectives accurately
Have students posit some hypotheses about immigration, including who they think an immigrant is, what drives immigration, and what it’s like to be an immigrant. You could have them journal what they think when they hear the word “immigrant"—where do they picture a person coming from? You can also have them share these entries in a safe environment where students can air their (mis)conceptions, and be gently challenged by other members of the classroom.

In order to inform different perspectives on immigration, or any other topic, we need to study and reflect on the philosophical underpinnings of why people believe certain things. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy has an article dedicated to the philosophical roots of differing stances on immigration that could serve as a guide for students. Have students reflect on what they believe in regards to this issue, and why—are the reasons cultural, religious, or based on personal experience? Do their beliefs stem from one of the philosophies they came across in their research?

Some more resources on the ideas of morality, philosophy, and immigration:

It is imperative for students to develop the skills necessary to be critical consumers of media. An effective way to work on this could be to have them pick a recent speech by a political figure on immigration and fact-check it. One such example is Donald Trump’s speech that included the now-infamous caricature of most immigrants as criminals and rapists. (In fact, the Washington Post has already done this.) It is important to consider the idea of tone and historical context when looking at speeches and have students reflect on how that impacts their interpretation of certain media. How do politicians create a sense of urgency in their speeches, and why do they think that is happening? For example, how did this anti-immigrant speech by Woodrow Wilson affect the history of immigration in the US—and how does the context compare or contrast from the current political climate?

Communicate across different audiences
After having had time to delve into the facts and arguments for immigration, a formal debate is an example of a classroom activity that can help students hone their skills at writing and reciting persuasive oral arguments. Debates are part of the Common Core and other state standards and they are a powerful way to sharpen formal argumentation. The practice of asking students to bring both sides of an argument to the table in a structured way is important today, given the ever-decreasing diversity of political opinions in the public arena.

There are a number of resources online that can help structure classroom debates and establish clear guidelines that keep the focus on the merits of each argument and away from demagoguery.

A few resources on classroom debates:

One of the most difficult things to do when discussing political issues is to challenge the viewpoints of those with whom we disagree, or to do so without getting emotionally involved to the point that we lose the argument, or more importantly, a relationship. At the same time, standing up against colleagues, friends, or family members misusing statistics, quotes, or conflating opinions (and anecdotal evidence) with facts is an important part of being globally competent.

To that end, educators need to encourage students to stand by their arguments, so long as they remain well-formed and grounded in good research and reflection. In fact, the classroom can be a crucial safe space in which students can work on challenging peers’ stances in an effective and structured way. Improving these skills and arguments is good practice for the final component of global competence.

Take action
There is a tendency to shy away from “teaching activism” in the classroom, due to beliefs that activism is too radical for a space like a school. The ultimate goal of developing global competence, though, is to grow students who can take action to improve their world. Educators should address the importance of disruptive protests to social movements throughout history, such as the American Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and ‘60s. Help students navigate the complexity of viewpoints on organizing tactics, talking through the utility and potential consequences of differing approaches. As a possible resource, The Chicago History Museum has developed a lesson plan around protest in American history.

For example, what are the pros and cons of staging a counter-protest at a political rally for a politician who has been vocally anti-immigrant? Perhaps even help students understand what is involved in planning an action like this this, ensuring students are aware of the legal requirements (e.g., permits, types of allowed speech), and how to deal with counter-protestors, including safety issues in light of the recent violence against protestors at Donald Trump rallies.

Additionally, you can suggest students write essays, blogs, pen letters to editors, and other types of advocacy that allow them to voice their opinions on immigration.

Some resources for teaching about activism in the classroom:

Being able to take action on an issue of significance, such as immigration, is an important link to developing a love of civic engagement. As this election cycle continues to heat up, encourage students to look into candidates’ positions on various topics. Do they find their opinions on a particular issue would lead them to vote for one candidate over another, if/when they are old enough to vote? Encourage them to get involved with the campaign process if it is appealing to them or even encourage them to run for office one day. By educating today’s students for global competence, we are helping ensure that the next generation of politicians will be able to tackle important issues like immigration with the skills, knowledge, and attitudes of a true global leader.

Follow Asia Society on Twitter.

Photo credit: “No Human Being is Illegal,” Los Angeles, 2006 © Jonathan McIntosh | Wikimedia Commons

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The opinions expressed in Global Learning are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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