Creating Safe Environments for Learning

The election has posed some serious challenges for educators around the country. In recent months, a variety of resources have cropped up online aiming to help teachers address students’ concerns and shut down bullying and hate speech.

The election and the presidential transition have posed some serious challenges for educators around the country. Civics teachers are struggling to explain hostile rhetoric from the campaign trail and pull out lessons about democracy and our electoral process. Teachers of undocumented or Muslim students are working to alleviate fears and ensure that their schools and classrooms stay safe spaces.

Still others are trying to quell discord, and make sure their students can participate in the free exchange of ideas in a way that’s safe for everyone’s political opinions.

In recent months, a variety of resources have cropped up online aiming to help teachers address students’ concerns and shut down bullying and hate speech.[pullquote]Teachers of undocumented students are working to keep their classrooms safe spaces.[/pullquote]

One California high school teacher published a letter first sent to colleagues, as well as a list of “anti-hate lessons.”

“Talk to our students about what has happened and how they feel,” the author writes to other educators. “Please, let them speak and be heard.”

The advice ranges from setting up ground rules for class discussions that promote respect and confidentiality, to teaching about propaganda by having students analyze campaign materials and fact-check statements. The teacher suggests that classes discuss the impact of Donald Trump’s proposed 100-day plan and draft a school action plan in response.

Another teacher made publicly available an annotated letter he wrote to his students. In it, he directly addresses groups of students who were targeted by hateful rhetoric during election season, assuring them that school is still a safe place.

“To my students with disabilities: In this classroom, you will not be mocked or judged for who you are. Your dignity and identity are important and appreciated,” he writes. “To my students who are immigrants: This country was built upon a nation of immigrants, and we will continue to appreciate and be proud of the work we put into it together. No one will move to deport you without first dealing with me and officials at this school.”[pullquote]Digital media tools can amplify and validate student voices.[/pullquote]

Elsewhere, however, educators are taking the exercise a step further by having students speak up themselves, using digital media tools to empower them and amplify their voices.

The National Writing Project and KQED launched Letters to the Next President 2.0 (L2P2.0) just as the party conventions occurred and the election went into full swing. But the project challenges young people to think beyond the candidates to the issues that affect them and their generation. Up until election day, all students could submit letters—written, filmed, recorded, or coded—voicing their concerns or desires regarding a topic of their choice, addressed to the future president. The letters are available for the public to read online.

The range of topics the thousands of letters tackle—from hot-button issues like gun control and abortion to issues relevant to teenagers like education reform, the foster care system, and the smoking age—reveal young people’s capacity for civic engagement and desire to have their voices heard. Other initiatives have created similar platforms for young voices. Teaching Tolerance, a project of the Southern Poverty Law Center, also solicited advice from young people for the next president. The hundreds of responses include letters—often in the form of colorful illustrations—from kids of all ages.

At Teaching Tolerance, teacher Lauryn Mascareñaz writes that the inauguration is a chance to teach students about the long road to the white house, about inaugural traditions, and about how “how protest and resistance have played pivotal roles in our country’s history.”

By leveraging digital media tools, educators can involve young people in a conversation that typically happens around and about them—but not often with them. A public publishing platform like L2P2.0’s tells students their opinions and feelings are valid. It connects youth with peers near and far. They can challenge each other to critically assess their own belief systems, expand their perspectives beyond their own schools and communities, and, importantly, remember they aren’t alone.



Published January 17, 2017

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