Column | Education | Politics

Notes from the White Rhino

Teaching Trump, to my children and students

Javier Suárez

My head was spinning at 12:30am when I knew the unexpected would happen. The last thing I typed before I went to bed around 2am was the first thing I would say to my eleven-year-old son and my eight-year-old daughter when they awoke:

WE are not Trump. WE do not believe or do what he does. WE are good people who help others.

Simple words. Simple sentences. I hugged them tightly and whispered in their ears.

And when they went off to school, I told them what I always tell them:

Be bold and be kind.

My daughter’s flamenco teacher wrote that even though she didn’t feel like dancing yesterday, she challenged herself “to focus on one movement at a time.”

Those of us who are directly responsible for teaching or raising children and young adults need to follow this advice. We need to show the kids and teens looking to us for some insight that we might not have that…we keep going, keep doing what we’ve always done, one movement at time.

I’m disappointed but not distraught. I’m angry but not wrathful. I’m uneasy with what happens next, but I won’t become disillusioned or complacent.

I will continue to surround my children with people who do not think and act like Donald Trump.

But I’ll make sure my children know the people who do act and think like Trump exist in the world—but they are not our world.

I know children and teens who might have bigger worries about deportation or violence. All I could guarantee to my students, whose minds were certainly on this, was that here, you will always have a safe space.

That seemed to make a difference yesterday. In class, we did what we always do: think, write, converse, and listen to each other. And we joked and laughed.

With my children, I will take the same precautions I’ve always taken. And I will take them on the same car rides and trips, and we will take turns selecting music, and we will have the same conversations and disagreements.

And I will do what I’ve always done. I will help them deliver on the promise I whispered into their tiny ears minutes after they were born:

“Welcome to the world, little one. Here you will use your intellect to help lots and lots of people.”

When I left school on Election Day, my plan for the following day was to have students examine a few of the Clinton campaign political ads and Saturday Night Live political satire. I wanted them to examine the rhetorical approaches that contributed to Clinton’s win. That’s what I thought would happen. But at 12:26am, it looked like Trump would be our new president.

My lesson plan had to, unfortunately, change.

I could just ignore what happened. But my students would know I was avoiding it. Avoiding it would have made our classroom climate tense: we always examine the rhetoric of important current events.

So I established a goal: to make sure students who don’t feel validated by the outcome still feel their perspectives are valid.

Whenever something controversial happens, I ground our conversation in a primary text. That Wednesday, I decided there would be two: Trump’s victory speech and Clinton’s concession speech.

My students would decide and argue if the rhetorical approaches in each speech worked or not. Somewhere in there, they would need to use the complex sentences structures and vocabulary we’ve studied.

Whatever emotions they were feeling would naturally come through in the analysis.

But when I checked news updates minutes before the first bell rang, it was clear that Hillary Clinton would not give her concession speech until about 10am. Oh, great, I thought. I needed that speech.

So my first period that day examined Trump’s victory speech briefly. Then, if they chose to, they could continue a deeper analysis or select a classic speech by Bobby Kennedy after Martin Luther King, Jr.’s assassination, or Obama’s 2004 Democratic National Convention speech. No student chose Trump’s speech.

During my second class, students watched Clinton’s concession speech live. My senior students sat silent, mesmerized. They chose to write a reflection piece about her rhetoric. All of them found that the speech’s purpose—to accept the result and respect the presidency—was achieved.

It wasn’t until my last class of the day that we carried out the lesson like I envisioned it: students examined and evaluated Trump’s victory speech, then Clinton’s concession.

Like the long election season, that day, only two weeks ago, is a blur. My classes have moved on without any mention of the election or the consequences all over social media. If my students don’t bring it up, we stay in research-paper writing mode. We still think, and write, and laugh, and talk.

My commitment after this election is, as it always has been, to ensure that I protect the safety that I have always worked to protect in my classrooms for twenty-one years.

The racism, sexism, and xenophobia the Trump campaign promoted will never have a place in my classroom. It should not have a place in any school. That’s not being political in the classroom, that’s being a good teacher.

I have it good, though. My students generally recognize abusive, offensive language and behavior when they see it. Trump was not a popular candidate at my school.

But I will still emphasize that just because Trump won by doing what he did does not mean that his sexist, racist, xenophobic behavior is acceptable. That’s what I want my students to know.

I tell my students many times each year that it’s okay to say, “I don’t know.” I don’t know what’s going to happen with Trump as president. It’s frightening.

But I’ve learned to focus on what I can control. What I can do as a teacher is help students develop the academic skills and the self-confidence to speak up when they see injustice.

And to steer away from ignorance when it’s simply not worth it.

We’re working on our research papers now, which they will—whether they like it or not—finish in a couple of weeks. The first step is to interview someone about an issue they’ll explore at length in their essay. As all good writers do, my students will find an agent, a person, to ground their writing in as they combine facts, stats, quotes, and their own ideas. I want them to remember there is always a human element to rhetoric.

This is life in English class, with my 120 or so juniors and seniors, on Chicago’s Southwest Side.

Somehow, I hope, this writing will help my students, and me, move forward in these incredibly uncertain times.

This column was first published on Ray’s blog, The White Rhino, on November 10th.

Since 1995, Ray Salazar has been an English teacher in Chicago Public Schools and is a National Board Certified teacher. He started writing The White Rhino about education and Latino issues in 2011. Ray lives on the Southwest Side. Follow him on Twitter.

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