Last Wednesday morning, before the school doors opened for our middle and high school students, Mr. David, our principal at Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists in New York City, announced over the loudspeaker that we’d have a short faculty meeting in the library. A few of my colleagues and I had already gathered in a classroom, hugging one another, checking in, and reflecting on the results of the previous night’s election.
We weren’t sure how we’d talk to our students about the results and were seeking ideas from one another. When our principal’s announcement came over the loudspeaker, I was relieved. I wanted to come together with my peers to process and talk about what we’d just experienced as a nation.
Once we arrived in the library, our principal thanked us for coming and stated that today may be a tough one for our students. Many of them would have concerns, fears, questions, or just want to talk about what happened. He assured us that we didn’t need to stick to “business as usual” and if kids wanted to talk about the fact that Donald J. Trump is our President-elect, then we should create a space to process it with them. He shared that he and the entire administrative and social work teams had cleared their schedules to be available if students or faculty needed to talk or process the results.
I appreciated the support from my principal and my colleagues, and decided to start each class with a “Do Now” that asked my 7th and 8th grade students to respond to the following questions in their Writer’s Notebooks:
1. How are you feeling this morning?
2. What are your thoughts about the election results?
After students finished writing, they shared in small groups of three or four and then we opened up the conversation to the entire class.
What students shared was raw and profound. They were experiencing a range of emotions. Most mentioned they were disappointed, sad, worried, stressed, tired, and upset. A few said they weren’t surprised. A lively discussion ensued after one young man shared that he knew Hillary Clinton wouldn’t be elected because she was a woman, and some people feel like women are inferior to men, so they wouldn’t elect her. A few of my girls spoke up to share that “there’s nothing wrong with a woman being president.” They expressed that she’d be just as qualified as a man.
The same young man followed up to explain that many Americans had a hard time accepting Barack Obama, a black man, as President of the United States for eight years, so there was no way they were going to elect a woman. They would definitely feel safer with a white man. He said, “People are afraid of change, so they don’t see the bigger picture.” One of his friends responded that change isn’t always bad, to which he said, “I know. I agree, but most people are scared to change.”
In another class, one of my students, an English language learner from the Dominican Republic, shared that she was upset that Trump had been elected because of all the negative things he said about women, Muslims, and Mexicans. She made a connection to the civil rights movement, a time period we studied earlier in the year, and shared that just like African Americans were discriminated against during times of segregation, she felt like groups Trump had disparaged were in danger. Another student said he was worried about his friends because some of them may be undocumented. One of my girls, who is Muslim, asked me over and over again if ISIS would now start to attack the United States. She was genuinely fearful. And one of my quieter students asked me more than once if Trump was really going to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
We processed and we processed. There was no “business as usual” that day. My students were hurting. They were shocked. Throughout the campaign my students heard Donald Trump say mean things, encourage violence against others, and they noticed he didn’t play by the rules. After a period of time I asked the group, “How do we move forward? As a group of young folks in the Bronx, how do you move on? What happens next?”
Their responses inspired me.
One of my boys said that we could protest, but that protesting may not do much. A classmate pointed to a picture in our room of the Freedom Riders, black and white college students who rode together to integrate interstate buses in the 1960s. In the photograph they’re holding hands with crisscrossed arms, singing in front of a bus.
The classmate said that the Freedom Riders protested, and while those eight students in the photo didn’t change segregation laws alone, their actions did something. At that point, another student pointed to a quote we have in our classroom that served as the starting point of a class discussion for our historical fiction book clubs.
The quote, from Sydney Smith, reads, “It is the greatest of all mistakes to do nothing because you can only do little.” She said that like the quote says, we can’t stand by and do nothing. Even if we can only do something small, it’s better to act than do nothing at all. And then she said, “We have to stick together and not let him take things from us. Trump wants to take our family members away from us and we can’t let him do that. We have to stick together and do something.”
And so it is. In this time of uncertainty, I’ll take my direction from some of the wisest humans I know – my beautiful, kind, and intelligent black, brown, Muslim, Christian, Dominican, Puerto Rican, African-American, Mexican, Ecuadorean, Bangladeshi, Yemeni, Ivorian, Garifuna, Senegalese, multilingual 7th and 8th grade students. I will band together with those who are committed to acceptance, unity, and love.
Together, we will set our sights on hope, and work to build bridges with those who may see things differently than us so that as a nation, we can not only rebuild, but advance, improve, and grow.
Geneviève is an educator, artist, and activist who has taught middle school for over a decade. She is a proud National Board Certified Teacher and U.S. Department of Education Teaching Ambassador Fellow. Geneviève strongly believes that education is a tool for social justice and empowerment, and that learning experiences for children should be culturally relevant, student-centered, and interactive. She started her teaching career as a 1999 Teach for America corps member and currently serves as a commissioner on the National Commission on Teaching and America’s Future. Geneviève is a 7th grade English Language Arts teacher at Bronx Studio School for Writers and Artists in New York City. Connect with Geneviève on Twitter: @GenevieveDeBose.