This past year and half of electioneering have exposed an unflattering picture of political discourse in our country. Yesterday morning, the children came in to school concerned struggling to understand the results of the election, wondering about what would happen and what it means for them, their families and the country. Parents have been reaching out for help processing this election with their children. Staff at 276 rallied to help our students begin to process this surprising turn of events.
Our kids learn a lot from watching grown ups. The thought that kept me up most of the night Tuesday is what message they take away from the election. They will have questions and we need to answer them as best we can. They may be wondering if it is okay to speak and act disrespectfully of and towards others. We need to make sure that they know it is never okay to be disrespectful, that we expect them to be kind and compassionate to themselves and others and that we continue to work to insure their physical and emotional safety.
We will continue our work at school towards creating a more just world — one where all children have the right to be safe, to be loved, to be treated respectfully — a world in which we expect our children (and ourselves) to treat others with dignity and compassion. We have units of study on this built into our planned curriculum. Currently our fourth graders are discussing a variety of social issues as they read books that explore topics such as bullying and civil rights and the larger consequences of action and inaction. Our eighth graders are studying human rights issues in collaboration with the Jewish Museum. Our kindergarteners practice the “golden rule” and discuss how we need to treat others as we wish to be treated ourselves. In myriad ways, we weave compassion, respect and responsibility for our actions into the school day and year for all our children.
I spoke to the teachers on Tuesday about the importance of making sure our curriculum helps students learn to be critical thinkers — to evaluate information depending on its source, to question our own assumptions and the assumptions of others, to engage in democratic, civic and civil discourse. Too often, I fear that schooling is a place where compliance and getting the “right” answer is valued over building deep thinking skills. The faculty and I are constantly working towards helping kids learn to think and to question. Our children and community also engage in service projects. Whether we are participating in a food drive, raising money for cancer research, or creating a chalk mural on the side walk as a forum to raise awareness about issues of justice, we are talking with our children about their lives and ways that they can help others.
We also are very proud of the inclusive nature of our school. We celebrate the diverse life experiences of our families and faculty. The world is a complicated and messy place. We need to learn to get along with all kinds of people. To do this, we need to think about the implications of our actions on others and work to be honest and kind. When kids make mistakes, and they will, we need to help them reflect on their actions and repair the harm they may have caused others.
Yesterday provided us with a powerful “teachable moment.” Teachers led conversations with the students about how democracy works. Once we vote, our work is not over. We need to be clear about our values and make sure our responses to events at home, school and the world are aligned to them. Conversations in classrooms today were around qualities of leadership, taking time to reflect on our visions for our country and our contributions in achieving that vision, and learning about the election process. Political conversations are complicated for teachers. They worked to create safe spaces for students to agree and disagree. These conversations at school and at home help children learn to be active and positive members of civic society. This, too, is an important aspect of our school curriculum.
What can we do as adults?
- First, be mindful of our own language and behaviors. Our children watch and learn. How we carry ourselves sends an important message. What we do and say matters. We don’t want to use divisive us/them language. We need to be having productive conversations with each other.
- Help our children think about issues of justice and actions they can take to make the world a safer and more just world.
- Read books with our children about difference makers — Rosa Parks, Sonia Sotomayor, Susan B Anthony, Malala. There are many picture book biographies that broach these topics in appropriate ways. Basia and the librarians at the NYPL can help you locate some of these titles.
- You may have seen this article on Huffington Post that also has some guidance.
- Talk about losing and winning with grace and show your children how it is done. This year, more than most, the graceless election season requires all of us adults to lose or win with grace. It is the path needed for our country to heal.