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Teaching & Learning Opinion

‘Standing Up for What Is Right': Teaching in the Aftermath of the Presidential Election

By Larry Ferlazzo — November 22, 2020 16 min read
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(This is the final post in a two-part series. You can see Part One here.)

The new question-of-the-week is:

How are you handling the aftermath of the presidential election in your classroom now and in the coming weeks and months?

In Part One, Sarah Cooper, Kiera Beddes, Eliot Waxman, and Jennifer Hitchcock share their experiences and suggestions.

Today, Tawana Jordan, Justin Lopez-Cardoze, Susan Jurries, and Bill Polasky share their written commentaries.

“But this election was far different”

Tawana Jordan is a 1st grade teacher at Burns Elementary Middle School in the Detroit Public School Community District. She has been at DPSCD since 1997 where she has served in many roles, including teacher and ELA coach. Ms. Jordan won the 2020 Klingenstein Teacher Award from EL Education.

This presidential election was the most charged election that I can remember in my lifetime. Never before have I seen Democratic and Republican viewpoints so far apart from each other. There seem to be no gray areas.

My 1st grade students do not have as many opportunities as adults to form their own opinions about our current political situation. They end up naturally absorbing the viewpoint of their parents. As a result, I’m very selective about how I present things to them and what words I choose.

During past elections, I have taken a neutral stand in my classroom and engaged my students as a facilitator. My role has been to foster discussions, pose questions that may push student’s thinking, and have students look at things from multiple perspectives, all while being careful to not interject my own personal opinions. In past years, students have come away from the process feeling that though I may not agree with you 100 percent, I still respect your point of view.

But this election was far different.

Leading up to any election, my class, like many others, has many discussions about the democratic process and what steps we go through as a country to select the president. We even conduct our own mock elections. The students I serve are 100 percent African American. Their parents are heavily Democratic, and they all openly expressed their views about voting Democrat in the 2020 election. So, not surprisingly, the results of our classroom election resulted in a unanimous winner. All of my students voted for Joe Biden. In other years, I would have pointed out the reasons that some people may have chosen to vote differently, but this was a very different year. My students had very strong feelings about some of the negative statements that President Trump has made. I could not stand before them and defend him. I found it very insulting to offer up explanations to my Black students about his racial injustices.

Because my students live in a bubble and their world includes only the things around them, they could not image anyone voting for Donald Trump. I had to explain to my students that not everyone thinks and feels like they do. In America, we can vote for anyone, for any reason, and that is what makes democracy great. But at the same time, it is OK to not be OK with things. It is OK to take a stand, to oppose things, and to speak out about injustice. But we have to learn how to do it in a manner that is productive, without being disrespectful to one another.

During the election, our swing state, Michigan, voted blue, which pleased my students, but clearly upset President Trump. He had harsh things to say about Detroit, which my students took very personally. At this point and moving forward, I am no longer neutral. Ultimately, I have to stand up for my students.

I am taking this as an opportunity to show my students how their voice mattered in this election and how, together, we have the power to make change. We have remained active, even after the election. We took a close look at the vote count in 2016 and compared it with 2020 and we found out how important the Black vote is and how important it is to stand up for things. We wrote to our Michigan state senators to let them know that we wanted each vote to be counted.

Throughout this process, I can only hope that I have sparked a group of future voters and kind people. Because elections are not always about winning or losing, but they are always about standing up for what is right.


We must build students’ “capacity to lead”

Justin Lopez-Cardoze teaches 7th grade life science at Capital City Public Charter School, a P-12 EL Education network school in the District of Columbia. He is also the District of Columbia State Teacher of the Year for 2020.

As my students and I convened virtually for our daily morning meeting on Nov. 2, students showed excitement in responding to the simple starting prompt:

“What are your thoughts on the election?”

Students either turned on their mics quickly or typed into the chat box like never before. Although every student’s response varied significantly, our small community shared the same concern with one another. Fear.

“What if Trump wins again?”

“How can our country choose him again after all of the damage he has created?”

After students expressed their sentiments and shared an abundance of information from debates and the media, it was time to transition to their next class. Everyone began to log off; however, one of my boys - who was silent the entire discussion - stuck around. When I realized the two of us were the only participants left in Zoom, I asked if he needed anything. His response framed how I would address the election in class moving forward.

He said, “We shouldn’t be worrying about which white guy wins. We should be worrying about the millions of racists who hate people like me, no matter who they vote for. It’s not about one, it’s about everyone.”

After our conversation, I questioned how to handle the consequences of the election in my classroom. Before my discussion with this student, I hadn’t really thought about how some students may perceive the election itself as a distraction away from the real problems produced by the masses. Given this frame of reference, I have begun to implement ways to address the outcomes of the election in my classroom in the short term:

  • Create spaces for students to express their feelings and viewpoints on how to hold President-elect Joe Biden accountable to promote change. This means to avoid broad questions like, “How do you feel about Joe Biden winning the presidential election?” and providing students with questions like, “How do you believe Joe Biden and other political leaders throughout the country should handle police brutality?” Crafting specific discussion questions for my classroom community will allow for more meaningful discourse.
  • When creating spaces, don’t limit learning experiences to just speaking in whole-group settings. Politics feels uncomfortable to confront at any age, let alone in front of what feels like a large group in the classroom. Educators may consider small-group discussions to specific prompts before giving students the option to share whole group. Remember that students might learn best by reading information and responding in writing before feeling confident to speak. Also, do not underestimate the power of listening. Just because a student doesn’t actively speak in whole-group spaces does not mean they don’t have a viewpoint.

In the longer term and throughout the short term:

  • Remain conscious of the sociopolitical climate and make sure that students do, too. When events or decisions deriving from federal politics happen, incorporate them into classroom experiences. And when possible, activate a sense of agency for students to engage with the sociopolitical climate to promote positive change. For example, if and when a political decision is made to return students to the classroom safely, empower students to make decisions with teachers and school leaders to reopen safely. Create a student-advisory council, within your classroom or school, to examine policies or political decisions and consider how the student community can respond.

Addressing the election in the classroom is a necessary step, but it isn’t enough. We must give students the opportunity to interrogate and confront political events in order to build their capacity to lead. Assuming that students aren’t ready to engage with politics silences the most important voices in our buildings and virtual classrooms, especially during this monumental time where our world remains compromised due to a pandemic. Don’t just give your students a voice. Allow them to use it.


“We must teach students to search for truth”

Susan Jurries has been an educator for 20 years, teaching the first 12 as a middle school English and history teacher, and the past seven years in 4th grade at Arbor-Vitae Woodruff School in Woodruff, Wis.

It is the middle of November, and still Americans are filled with uncertainty about the future. Anxiety is high. Coronavirus, school shutdowns —the fear of what’s to come is real. And if that isn’t enough to cause havoc and mayhem in our lives, we are most likely witnessing the most bitterly contested presidential race we will ever know. As citizens, we have questions and are looking for answers. Our students are experiencing these same stressors with even more questions and probably with much more anxiety than we will ever realize. Who and where do kids look to for answers to their questions? Parents? Peers? Teachers? Media? Most certainly all of these sources contribute to their understanding of the world they live in.

Teachers are there to not only teach content but to also cultivate young minds to be compassionate souls with the highest of integrity. Teachers present the “all knowing” aura exemplified with trust (unless you are like me and make multiple mistakes and admit them several times just before lunch). It is important that teachers model how to own up to mistakes and remind learners that their knowledge and attitudes will be ever-changing. Without change, we cannot progress and learn. Daily, teachers are on display as role models for young minds.

How do we answer the questions students have about the election? As an EL Education school, Arbor-Vitae Woodruff believes strongly in taking on the tough topics of today’s world. When my 4th graders ask me about today’s political world, I stress my love of the freedoms and democracy that the United States of America was built upon and my rights and responsibilities as a citizen of this great country. I remind them to rely on their core values—integrity, compassion, courage—and their habits of scholarship—curiosity, craftsmanship, and grit—that they apply every day in their lives at school.

Preparing students for difficult times and to make difficult decisions should start on day one of their education so they are prepared and have the tools to think critically. This journey begins with the commitment to teaching and learning about multiple perspectives—how to consider and appreciate what others think even if it contradicts what you believe. Now more than ever, we need to be truthful and open about our discomfort and uncertainty with today’s civil and political challenges and commit more than ever to teaching our students to think, speak, and write with evidence. It is important to stress to students that with reliable evidence, our views and opinions are continually changing. As teachers, we must teach students to search for truth, evaluate primary sources, and practice the skill of inference on a daily basis.

This entails reinforcing the importance of respect for each other even if we have different beliefs. Each and every day, students should learn new ways to celebrate the diversity that makes our country unique. Children need constant examples and opportunities to treat others with respect and compassion because we learn what we live. It is only with these beliefs and actions that our students can change some of the ugliness we are witnessing in today’s political world.

What am I going to say when students ask about the election, who I voted for or support? I am going to remind them that my views are supported by evidence I believe to be true. However, I am also going to communicate that I believe in their ability to have an educated opinion, and in no way would I want to rob them of their opportunity to form their own unique views. It is not my place. My job is to give them the tools to become independent, intelligent thinkers who will someday influence the freedoms of this great nation. My job is to model compassion toward others and expose them to many different perspectives in many different cultures.

This exposure must also be accompanied by deep, meaningful, and sometimes uncomfortable conversations. If we teach children to have these conversations now, they will be more likely to have them as adults. In the words of Kofi Annan: “No one is born a good citizen; no nation is born a democracy. Rather, both are processes that continue to evolve over a lifetime. Young people must be included from birth. A society that cuts off from its youth severs its lifeline.”


Asking “important foundational questions”

Bill Polasky is the department chair for social sciences at Stillman Valley High School in Stillman Valley, Ill., where he has taught for 27 years. He is a twice-over national-board-certified master teacher, an Illinois Teach Plus Policy Fellowship Alumnus, and a 2019 Illinois Teacher of the Year finalist:

I teach AP U.S. History, American Government, and AP American Government in a rural exurban community just beyond the Chicago area that is consistently pretty conservative in its politics. That being said, I have been teaching in election cycles since 1996, and this election has been without equal in terms of the interest and varieties of opinions and passions it has generated in my students. Along with the pandemic, it became the central driving story and topic of discussion of the fall in a way that is unparalleled in my experience as both a citizen and an educator. Also, the fact that the election and the pandemic are intertwined in so many ways means that the politics of our times are impossible for my students to ignore. The only thing I can think of that was similar was the interest generated by the Clinton impeachment of the 1990s, and even that does not really come close.

The contested nature of the outcome and the closeness of the race in several battleground states meant that the school days following the election were very different from in 2016. Four years ago, my students who had supported Trump were jubilant, direct and vocal in reminding my Clinton-backing students early and often of her defeat, and they took a lot of pleasure in doing so. Because sorting out the winner took several days in 2020, this actually served to take some of the air out of the post-election horse-race partisanship in our hallways and classrooms to a certain extent, because it was not immediately clear whose side had prevailed.

In some ways, this election cycle and the Trump administration in general has put a real spotlight on both government and civics instruction. The president’s outlandish statements on race, ethnicity, gender, and science; his disregard for truth, expertise, ethics, and norms; and his destabilizing model of governance and wielding power has culminated in his claims that the national election results are illegitimate. All of this commands such interest, among his adherents and detractors, that he has set the table for discussions of process, procedure, leadership, ethics, and power that would not have seemed nearly as resonant, relevant, or enticing for my adolescents had he not ever been the president. There has never been a more engaging, or necessary, moment to teach civics in my lifetime.

The competing policies and priorities supported by candidates and parties at all levels in 2020 and the manner in which they have pursued them have given our courses compelling entry points into some real first-principles, big-picture questions of civics and political science. My approach to the election and post-election period with my students is to have them unpack and wrestle with several really important foundational questions in open discussion. What purpose should our government serve, and what do we want it to do? What is the proper balance between liberty and order, individualism and commonwealth? How well does a system of governance set up to meet the needs of this 18th-century nation meet the needs of this 21st-century nation? What does it mean to be an American? What does “consent of the governed” mean in practice? What is the meaning of “equal justice under the law?” What is the meaning of “one person, one vote?” What does it mean, to be a conservative or to be a liberal? As various policy choices are weighed, who wins and who loses from those various choices? How would a change in administration then shift who wins or loses on policy? Is a “post-truth” nation governable?

Whether my students’ favored candidates won or lost this November, exploring the stakes of the 2020 election and/or the attempts to delegitimize the election’s results lead unavoidably and inevitably to these larger questions and discussions. My goal then is for the students in my charge to use these questions and discussions as a way to find meaning in what this democratic republic is, or ought to be, all about.


Thanks to Tawana, Justin, Susan, and Bill for their contributions!

Please feel free to leave a comment with your reactions to the topic or directly to anything that has been said in this post.

Consider contributing a question to be answered in a future post. You can send one to me at lferlazzo@epe.org. When you send it in, let me know if I can use your real name if it’s selected or if you’d prefer remaining anonymous and have a pseudonym in mind.

You can also contact me on Twitter at @Larryferlazzo.

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