Last Wednesday, I stood before my English classes and told my students: “I love you. I value you. I care about you.”
One girl rushed to the front of the room and threw her arms around me. Another cried and hugged her friend. A few kids yelled out, “We love you too, Ms. Maloney!”
Wednesday was the day after the election, and in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a notoriously liberal city, my students were overwhelmingly devastated.
I woke that morning unsure how I would face the day. Would I continue our lesson in English 11, reading a story from “The Things They Carried” and engaging in close-reading strategies? Would my creative writing students do their poetry revision workshop? Could I, a bleeding heart liberal, even focus on each lesson myself? As I got ready for work, I thought with dismay, What am I going to say to them?
I told them I loved them. I shared the five stages of grief—denial, anger, bargaining, depression, and acceptance—and joked that I had gone through all of them in the last 12 hours. My students laughed and nodded. They come from every possible background: White, Black, Latinx, Asian, Middle Eastern, LGBTQ, Jewish, Muslim, Christian, atheist, immigrant and native-born, and from a variety of socio-economic backgrounds.
Many of them have taken for granted a Black president, a liberal community. They have been going through school striving to earn good grades and work their way toward prestigious colleges and rewarding careers.
As teachers, we want to get them there. We assign homework and essays, suggest AP classes, teach SAT prep, assess, and give grades, all to ensure our students become competent citizens.
We Went to Work
That morning, as I stood in front of them, I realized that none of that would matter if they lived in a divided country, driven by fear. So I told them that this is what we do next. We work.
The work we did that day was some of the most rigorous we have done this year. We interpreted the graphics of the election results posted on CNN’s website. I held an impromptu lesson on the Electoral College, midterm elections, the three branches of government, and our system of checks and balances. We analyzed the rhetoric and tone in Trump’s acceptance speech and then in Clinton’s concession speech. At the end of all of that, my classes decided that they wanted to do something more.
So we wrote a letter to the ACLU, an organization with which some of them were already familiar. We shared how our school motto—Opportunity, Diversity, and Respect—had been tarnished that morning for some of our students who were called racial epithets on their way to school. We described our confusion at analyzing the election results, namely that Clinton won the popular vote but Trump won the election. We explained that we questioned the constitutionality of the Electoral College when it seems opposed to the Fourteenth Amendment, by disenfranchising voters and inequitably weighting votes. We asked for the ACLU’s help in challenging the very system.
These were their ideas. Together, we decided upon how to structure our letter. We perseverated over words—would “verbal harassment” or “verbal assault” be more effective? How should we revise our syntax and diction to be clearer? Who was our audience, and what language should we use to be most persuasive?
In the end, this was the most successful writing lesson I will probably teach all semester. But more than that, I gave them the authentic opportunity to raise their voices to make a difference.
This is the very best of what education can be. It is not our job to indoctrinate them into liberal or conservative ways of thinking, but to make them critical thinkers ready to question, evaluate, analyze, research, and communicate. Perhaps now more than ever, we need to ensure that we are giving our students the skills that they will need to be thoughtful, reflective, and empathetic members of our communities.
At the end of class, I told them that I didn’t know if ACLU would pursue this cause, but that I was proud of them for being insightful, supportive, and engaged in the democratic process. As the bell rang, many of them hugged me again. “Thank you,” they said, “for helping us.”
Whatever our country looks like moving forward, we must keep education a priority. We must keep our standards high, support our students, fund our schools, and empower our teachers. We must make sure that current and future generations of American children, no matter who they are or where they’re from, have the chance to receive a high-quality education, so they can make our world a better and more just place.