Teach­ers help stu­dents process po­lit­i­cal di­vi­sions

Baltimore Sun - - FRONT PAGE - By Liz Bowie

The raw emo­tions be­ing voiced by young peo­ple across the coun­try af­ter the pres­i­den­tial elec­tion are spilling into school hall­ways and class­rooms, prompt­ing ad­min­is­tra­tors and teach­ers to search for ways to help stu­dents cope with the po­lit­i­cal and so­cial fall­out.

In the Baltimore re­gion, racist graf­fiti have been scrawled across bath­room walls in sub­ur­ban schools, fright­ened im­mi­grant stu­dents have sought re­as­sur­ance that they would not be de­ported, and prin­ci­pals have in­structed staff and stu­dents to act with ci­vil­ity and re­spect.

“With such an emo­tion­ally charged elec­tion, it is nat­u­ral that our stu­dents are en­ter­ing our build­ing and bring­ing in what they hear,” said Hope Baier, co­or­di­na­tor of Baltimore County Public Schools’ of­fice of school coun­sel­ing. “We have to have these re­ally raw dis­cus­sions.”

Even a su­per­in­ten­dent has en­tered the fray. When Dal­las Dance retweeted a mes­sage about car­ing for non­white stu­dents af­ter Pres­i­dent-elect Don­ald J. Trump’s stun­ning vic­tory last week, politi­cians and parents lam­basted the Baltimore County su­per­in­ten­dent.

Ed­u­ca­tors said they are try­ing to

en­cour­age calm and rea­soned dis­cus­sion. They want to help their stu­dents make sense of a deeply po­lar­ized elec­torate while en­cour­ag­ing them to un­der­stand and re­spect the views of class­mates with dif­fer­ent back­grounds and po­lit­i­cal per­spec­tives.

Thou­sands, in­clud­ing many young peo­ple, have staged protests in cities na­tion­wide since Trump’s elec­tion. That has brought a back­lash from con­ser­va­tives, who say that the na­tion needs to unite be­hind Trump and that his sup­port­ers are be­ing un­fairly char­ac­ter­ized as racist, misog­y­nis­tic and xeno­pho­bic.

Teach­ers are ex­pected to re­main po­lit­i­cally neu­tral, but ed­u­ca­tors said they can­not ig­nore the fall­out from a pres­i­den­tial cam­paign marked by de­bates that sin­gled out Latin Amer­i­can im­mi­grants, Mus­lim refugees and black com­mu­ni­ties, and caused anx­i­ety among some stu­dents from those groups.

“It has been a very emo­tional week for a lot of stu­dents,” said James LeMon, prin­ci­pal of Wilde Lake High School in Howard County. “There are ob­vi­ously two dif­fer­ent opin­ions on the elec­tion and the out­come. We are go­ing to have an out­let for stu­dent voices.”

LeMon said he plans to of­fer small groups of stu­dents the op­por­tu­nity to gather in the school cafe­te­ria for guided di­a­logues start­ing this week. Seated at round ta­bles, stu­dents will be able to dis­cuss is­sues while a teacher mod­er­ates.

Atholton High School in Howard County has been roiled by an in­ci­dent in which a white stu­dent took a pic­ture of herself in black­face and flash­ing a peace sign, and posted it on Face­book, stat­ing: “I’m fi­nally a n— —er.”

Else­where in Howard County, ad­min­is­tra­tors re­ported “in­ap­pro­pri­ate” graf­fiti on Mur­ray Hill Mid­dle School’s build­ing. They de­clined to re­lease de­tails of the mes­sage, only say­ing it could be de­scribed as racially or re­li­giously in­tol­er­ant. English and ESOL teacher Joel Neft, left, and Con­neXions so­cial stud­ies teacher Steven John­son, cen­ter, flank Salam Ge­bremichael from Su­dan.

And in Har­ford County, a racist sen­ti­ment was writ­ten across the bot­tom of a flier an­nounc­ing a De­cem­ber blood drive at Fall­ston High School. It stated: “P.S. NOT FOR N— —RS.”

School coun­selors and psy­chol­o­gists said dis­traught stu­dents should be given the chance to vent their feel­ings and help with chan­nel­ing any con­fu­sion and anger in a pos­i­tive di­rec­tion.

Shreya Hessler, a child psy­chol­o­gist in pri­vate prac­tice, said teach­ers and parents can help fos­ter a healthy dis­cus­sion by shar­ing their own feel­ings.

The youngest chil­dren have some of the most dif­fi­cult and in­sight­ful ques­tions, she said. For ex­am­ple, she said, they may ask why the adults can’t get along, or why they can’t sit down and talk to one an­other.

She said chil­dren, who are ex­pected to lis­ten to teach­ers and work with fel­low stu­dents, can have dif­fi­culty un­der­stand­ing the di­vi­sive na­ture of Amer­i­can pol­i­tics.

Older chil­dren can learn to ad­vo­cate for change, even in very small ways, she said. “Are there things that can be done to make your voice heard?,” she asks chil­dren. “Are you will­ing to hear the per­son on the other side?”

Teach­ers said they are en­deav­or­ing to give stu­dents the space to ex­press their views in a con­struc­tive way. The con­ver­sa­tions have taken place in hall­ways, in fo­rums af­ter school and among small groups of stu­dents.

Many said this is a teach­able mo­ment.

Howard County Su­per­in­ten­dent Re­nee Foose re­leased a state­ment en­cour­ag­ing di­a­logue in schools about the checks and bal­ances in gov­ern­ment and “what it means to live in a di­verse and in­clu­sive so­ci­ety.”

Car­roll County ad­min­is­tra­tors re­minded teach­ers to re­main po­lit­i­cally neu­tral and en­cour­aged them to fa­cil­i­tate a con­ver­sa­tion if stu­dents had ques­tions or wanted to dis­cuss the elec­tion results.

Baier, in Baltimore County, said schools aren’t just teach­ing aca­demic sub­jects; they are also fo­cused on so­cial- emo­tional learn­ing. She sees the elec­tion as an op­por­tu­nity for schools to teach stu­dents how to cope with dis­ap­point­ments.

“What we know is that all voices need to be heard and re­spected,” she said, adding that stu­dents need to learn to dis­agree re­spect­fully.

Some teach­ers are dig­ging into how the U.S. gov­ern­ment works and the checks and bal­ances that keep the Amer­i­can pres­i­dent from be­ing the coun­try’s sole au­thor­ity fig­ure.

On the morn­ing af­ter Elec­tion Day, so­cial stud­ies teacher Rashawna Syd­nor said an AfricanAmer­i­can stu­dent asked if he would be sent to Africa when Trump be­comes pres­i­dent. She told him he has rights as a cit­i­zen of the United States.

Af­ter get­ting sev­eral more ques­tions from scared and con­fused stu­dents, Syd­nor dropped her les­son plans and de­cided to teach stu­dents about the branches of gov­ern­ment, the im­por­tance of vot­ing, and the Elec­toral Col­lege.

She also showed stu­dents parts of a doc­u­men­tary about the 1965 civil rights march from Selma, Ala., to the state’s cap­i­tal as part of a cam­paign to gain vot­ing rights for black peo­ple.

The lessons are pay­ing off and her stu­dents seemed much calmer Mon­day, she said. Stu­dents are now dis­cussing the at­ti­tudes of Trump sup­port­ers. “Not ev­ery­body who sup­ports him have these neg­a­tive at­ti­tudes to­ward peo­ple of color,” she told them.

Steven John­son, a so­cial stud­ies teacher at Con­neXions, a West Baltimore char­ter arts school for stu­dents in grades six through 12, had been teach­ing his stu­dents about im­mi­gra­tion the week of the elec­tion.

Many of his stu­dents had not had much con­tact with peo­ple from other coun­tries, so John­son de­cided to take the class across the city to visit Pat­ter­son High School, where half the stu­dent body is made up of stu­dents who re­cently ar­rived in this coun­try.

The stu­dents from the two schools had plenty to dis­cuss at the event called “Build­ing Bridges, Not Walls.”

Salam Ge­bremichael, 16, told two mid­dle school girls about how she bal­anced wa­ter on top of her head when she was just 10 years old in Su­dan.

Daisha and Kelsey Hum­mer, both 13, asked her why she left her coun­try and how she ended up in Baltimore.

“We are Chris­tian,” Ge­bremichael said. “In Su­dan they kill all the Chris­tians.”

At the end of the visit, Ahchaad­barkayakyah McNeill, 12, an­other Con­neXions stu­dent, said he wanted to go to high school at Pat­ter­son so he could learn new lan­guages from the other stu­dents. He also had a new view of the city where he lives.

“The way I see, it is poverty and vi­o­lence,” McNeill said of Baltimore. “The way they see it — they like it here.”

Some stu­dents have joined the post-elec­tion protests; oth­ers have staged their own.

One evening last week, a few dozen high school stu­dents gath­ered at the Wash­ing­ton Mon­u­ment in Mount Ver­non. They held hands and chanted, “Love trumps hate!” and “United we stand, di­vided we fall!”

The stu­dents — from Baltimore School for the Arts, City Col­lege, Polytech­nic In­sti­tute and West­ern — said they op­posed Trump’s views on many is­sues.

“We de­cided to have this rally to re­mind our­selves and our class­mates and any­body in our com­mu­nity that we still have a voice,” said Abby Pel­ton, 18, a se­nior at the Baltimore School for the Arts.

“It’s also about ask­ing ev­ery­one in Amer­ica to come to­gether and rally as a peo­ple,” said Daniel Imhoff, an 18-year-old se­nior from Baltimore School for the Arts. “We are so di­vided right now.”

Tow­son High School stu­dent Ais­linn Bratt, who’s also the stu­dent rep­re­sen­ta­tive on the Baltimore County school board, said the elec­tion got stu­dents talk­ing to each other.

They’re also tak­ing more of an in­ter­est in how the gov­ern­ment op­er­ates and how for­eign and do­mes­tic poli­cies are set.

“The mes­sage that many are re­spond­ing to the elec­tion with is one of love and ac­cep­tance ... that Amer­ica is home to all dif­fer­ent peo­ple, re­gard­less of their race, re­li­gion, gen­der, or po­lit­i­cal views,” she said.


Chil­dren draw to­gether in the com­mon lan­guage of illustration as stu­dents from Con­neXions Academy visit stu­dents at Pat­ter­son High School, which has a high pro­por­tion of im­mi­grants.


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