If there is one thing the most recent Presidential election has done for society, that no one can deny, it’s that it made talking politics cool and relevant again. Sure, Former President Barack Obama has gone down in many people’s eyes as the coolest and most casual president in history, but no doubt about it – even back during the primary elections of 2016, people who were never much into politics starting talking about it, living it, breathing it in ways that hasn’t happened in many years…. even in classrooms among students as young as in first grade.
During a recent morning circle with my students, my 1st-3rd grade class was asked the question, “What are some things you would like to see improve in our classroom?” instead of naming things like, “more books in our library,” or “longer recess!” they began listing things like, “immigrants should be treated fairly!” and, “we need to stop a wall from being built!”
I was floored and impressed with their thoughts, and their insightful knowledge of the current political climate around them. The impact of political decisions and processes on children has since been on my mind and a deep area of interest I have been exploring on several chats I’ve had with teachers. Check out some ways that politics has affected our teaching:
- We have to be activists!
“We have to be activists,” reflects Phil S. Quinlan, 7th grade social studies teacher in Scottville, MI, as he chats about what he believes is the role of educators when discussing the current state of politics with students. “How did all of a sudden our profession become demonized?” he continued. “I have an opinion on it, but I have to be careful as far as, if I want to encourage my students to have voice and choice, I have to model that. I don’t want the students to know my perspective. Because what am I doing? I am not really enabling them to have a thought of their own. So, when it comes to students, I want them to ask driving questions, essential questions of the ‘how’s’ and ‘why’s and try to make connections… of how politics, and today’s world, plays into their future.
- We have to plant seeds
“Anybody in power can come and take away your life, they can take your wealth, they can take your freedom, but they can never take your education,” shares Bill Price, upper elementary teacher in Oakland, CA, as he recalls the lasting impact his grandmother’s words has had on his teaching life. “…that really stuck with me and I thought, ‘Yeah, she’s right.’ They can stick me in a prison cell, they can keep me away from the people that I love, they can take all of my material wealth, but they can’t take what I’ve learned. And if I can’t play rock and roll guitar […] then I want to plant seeds, I want to grow gardens on these young impressionable minds and have them be the next change makers.”
- We must seek inspiration from our students
“I am inspired by my students at the high school I teach at in Denver, Colorado. My students are primarily Latino/Hispanic, and a large percentage are children of undocumented parents, or are undocumented themselves. I see these young people defeat the odds every single day,” shares Edwina Lucero a teacher in the Denver metro area for the last 13 years.
“I see them survive through the inherit grit that they bring every day with them to the classroom – a skill I don’t need to teach them,” Edwina continues. “I see them dream and hope and love and create. I also see them fear and wonder what the future brings. These young people inspire me to be an active citizen – as the saying goes, we will never be truly free until we all share the same rights as you and me.
“The arts are the avenue I travel with these young people. It is on that road that we are able to intersect with things like human spirit, empathy, empowerment, and knowledge of self. This country is full of free-thinking, critical-thinking, and forward-thinking people. Regardless of your politics, the arts are an integral part of our existence. Whether you are celebrating triumphantly or marching in resistance, you are doing so to the beat of some drum – the music, the art, the expression of self – they are part of who you are.
“We cannot allow the tyranny of fear to overtake our culture. Now is the time to write, sing, play, dance, sculpt, and create our destiny.”
- We have to design curriculum based on citizen engagement and helping students see themselves as change makers.
What began as one teacher’s “crazy idea” has now become an annual tradition at Urban Montessori Charter School (UMCS) — where I have the pleasure of teaching in Oakland, CA — “TARDIS Time Travel Change Makers Day” has become an annual tradition at UMCS. Students get to explore change makers: people who make peaceful, positive change in the world and focusing their energy on creating research projects and costumes to match the change maker of their choice. This project engages children to explore how ancestors have shaped the larger story of where we come from and how we have changed the world and helps them envision themselves as confident change makers. Teachers get to act as Time Lords and invoke the TARDIS (from Doctor Who) to bring together all the researched change makers to share about themselves. Children are invited to wear costumes they’ve made ahead of time as a classroom art project and dress up as a peaceful
representation of what they envision their change maker to have looked like.“One crazy idea, to a spirit week activity, is now a School Wide Community Celebration,” says Gilbert Parada, Lead Teacher at UMCS. “I am very grateful and excited to have seen my ridiculous idea become something real, and, something that inspired many children to see change makers in our past to present timeline, with the inspiration to think of their future change making potential.”
- We have to share and relate to our students so they know they are not alone.
“I just think all the women in my family are pretty amazing. They really inspired me, because growing up there was no fathers around. It was kind of an interesting situation. You know of course, I had to go through my traumatic experiences as a young person, but I got out of it,” shares Jackie Rodriguez-Vega on relating and connecting to her students. “But I think that’s one thing that really connects me with my youth, I am just so open about how I grew up. I was raised by a single mom and a lot of kids connect with that, because they’re raised by single moms, or they’re raised by their grandma, or they’re raised by their tia, their aunt. My father left my mother when I was five, and she was two months pregnant with my sister … my mom, she’s just a hard worker. She raised three kids on her own, and she just completely inspired me.”
- We must validate one another in this amazing teaching profession that we are in together.
“Find ways everyday to avoid the isolation,” reflects Estella Owoimaha-Church, a top 50 finalist for the 2017 Global Teacher Prize as she discussed the heartfelt validation she felt among colleagues at the recent ceremony in Dubai. “The isolation I think is what leads to the depression and teachers leaving the field in […] hoards, it’s the isolation – we’ve got to figure out how to avoid that. So connecting with like-minded teachers and working with like-minded teachers, and doing everything we can to uplift the entire profession. I know that’s hard and we maybe didn’t sign up for that, but I think it’s kind of on us now and I appreciate Varkey, Mr. Sonny Varkey and the Varkey Foundation, for what they’re doing to do that around the world. We’ve got to avoid the isolation.”
- We have to truly have zero tolerance for bullying and take the time to stop class and have discussions about things we hear our students are feeling.
At no point during my teacher training program was it mentioned that teaching was actually 90% relationships and 10% academics. At least that’s what it feels like, and what many teachers I have had the pleasure of chatting with have expressed too. During my first year of teaching I was so focused on making sure I delivered the best lesson plans possible, that in hindsight, I realize that my students, and myself, would have benefited immensely from strong relationship building first. Now, as the political climate has permeated the classroom – empathy and creating a classroom culture of inclusiveness through things like restorative justice circles are what matter most.
Sure, bullying should never be tolerated – but it shouldn’t just be something discussed with the students or families involved in the situation either. The restorative process of mediation and conferencing in a circle that includes the entire classroom community provides a space where everyone can have a voice about how they are feeling about things going on around them. Whether a specific instance of bullying, or a general consensus of feeling like a change needs to happen for the betterment of our classroom community, students are able to speak out around the circle. The entire process is value driven and designed to bring healing and understanding to the community.
Students are empowered to “design think” around solving a problem together. It’s not about me telling them what the rules are, it’s about them noticing and caring about a problem, brainstorming a solution, prototyping that solution and coming back together to reflect and start the whole process again if need be. If that means we spend a chunk of time together in this process, then that’s what needs to happen. Rushing to the content, if something is truly affecting the classroom community, will only lead to students who are not ready to learn and a teacher burnt out and frustrated that a well-thought out lesson plan has gone down the drain.
As I reflect on all the ways that politics has affected my teaching, a pattern presents itself: Our classrooms are a training ground for the real life our students will undoubtedly step into one day. We are there to teach content, but we are also there to help build values of respect, honesty, listening, truth, sharing, and growth.