For months prior to Election Day, Hillary Clinton’s campaign ads framed president-elect Donald Trump as a bully, editing together clips of Trump speaking juxtaposed with famous Hollywood villains. Other ads focused on the need for a universal role model with the tagline “Our children are watching. What example will we set for them?”
Now, in light of one of the most unprecedented elections in history, educators are asking themselves the same question.
The week before the election, IU senior and student teacher Kane White taught his third grade class about the roles of the president. He asked his students at Smith Elementary School what characteristics they thought a leader should have.
His students’ answers were reflective of their school motto, “Be kind, be safe, be respectful.”
“From my perspective that’s a big disconnect from what we got,” White said.
After Trump was elected president, White, an education major and the only person of color in his classroom in Martinsville, said he came to class that Wednesday feeling defeated.
“For those students it’s hard for them to empathize because they don’t see anyone who doesn’t look like them,” White said. “Kids only know what they see.”
For Keith Barton, Associate Dean for Undergraduate Studies in the Office of Teacher Education, adding diversity in the classroom begins with adding varied opinions and perspectives rather than just skin tones.
“Our general level of public discourse, particularly this election, has been so unthoughtful and just so offensive almost, that you can hardly blame kids for not really understanding what’s at stake here,” he said.
Barton, who researches students’ understanding of historical agency, historical significance, national identity and human rights, said American schools often teach history as a story of progress, leaving out the many steps back and hardships along the way.
Although this helps children simplify and grasp historical milestones, it glosses over teaching students democratic values, especially in the face of adversary, Barton said.
“We need to do more than just teach knowledge or skills,” Barton said. “We have to do a better job of helping students develop values — fundamental democratic values like equality and justice. That’s something that schools have really never done a very good job of.”
After such a contentious election, Barton said he fears that teachers will be even more hesitant to bring up controversial topics and facilitate discussions in the classroom. This is especially relevant for teachers who would be pushing back on community values. The open hatred and racism that has come out of the election should be questioned not normalized, Barton said.
“I think a lot of times we say we’re afraid of what the community reaction will be when in reality that’s just an excuse not to do something that’s just a little more challenging,” Barton said. “There’s a fundamental issue there that just because a community is a little more conservative doesn’t mean you shouldn’t bring up challenging issues.”
When White went back to Smith Elementary School on November 9 there was no discussion about the night before’s election results.
“Teachers try to not be controversial, but something very controversial just happened,” White said.
While teachers may shy away from controversy, students often learn more from unintended lessons through what researchers call the ‘hidden curriculum’, Alex Hollett, IU Doctoral student within the School of Education, said. Students pick up on social norms, values and beliefs by how issues are presented or ignored.
“The first thing I would recommend is what teachers should not do and that’s ignore the election as if it doesn’t have real consequences on the actual lives of students, their families and their communities,” she said.
Hollett said she suggests teachers take back control of the classroom and facilitate discussions for all subjects, not just social studies, with big picture questions like: What does community mean, how do we decide who belongs and who doesn’t, do we live in a society where there is freedom and justice for all?
“A comfort zone is lovely place, but nothing grows there,” Hollett said. “Education is and should be a risk.”
Although fear of what’s ahead in the Trump administration may be valid, teachers shouldn’t shy away from using this time as a teaching tool, especially in terms of media literacy, Hollett said. It’s imperative that students can identify the difference between neutrality and objectivity, as well as parsing out fake news from reliable sources, she said.
“There is an urgency to this work that I haven’t felt in a long time,” Hollett said.