Teaching in the Time of Trump: An Action Plan

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I have the honor of teaching 12th graders this year, a group I have taken from 9th grade — jittery, loopy handwriting, matchy-matchy outfits — through 10th, 11th, and now, to their senior year, when they breathe in, and breathe out into futures of their making.

I also have the dubious honor and real responsibility of teaching this group of young adults in a world that is, in may ways, being defined and shifted by Donald Trump and his supporters. My students watched last year in horror as Trump won primaries and spoke of the ways he would, essentially, erase them and their living vision of a more inclusive, more democratic, more just America.

I have spent too much time alternately furious and depressed about this state of affaris, and now, on the eve of my students’ precious senior year, I realized I needed a plan to teach against this toxic fog of racism, xenophobia and sexism. I also realized — perhaps much later than most — that the plan needed to be like a patronus — centered around love and proactive creation than around reactive resistance.

Here is my plan so far. I know it will change, shift and expand.

1.  Ditch Neutrality

My students need to know that I, a middle class white woman who would look very natural at a Trump rally, denounce Trump’s white supremacy. I have spoken to educators who feel that they cannot declare any preferences for actual candidates, but as one of my heroes, Howard Zinn declared, you can’t be neutral on a moving train.

These are extraordinary times, and this is no time — especially for white teachers — to tiptoe around blatant racism and xenophobia. It is literally the very least we can do.

2.  Examine Complexity

I owe Project Zero’s Agency by Design  this beautiful phrase, and I cannot think of a better way to use this vital, and difficult, practice.

It is very easy for many of us to simplify Trump to a scheming billionaire whose followers are stupid and uneducated. The reality, of course, is born from and embedded in the American story, and within matrices of race, class and gender power and oppression, and, specifically, within our history of both divide and conquer politics and white nativist thought.

Instead of dehumanizing Trump’s supporters, though, I want my young adults to examine our current era in all of its complexity. We will need to learn about the strategy, born with slavery, of rich whites pitting poor whites against African Americans, Native Americans, and all racial “others” in order to quell class unity and maintain white supremacy. We will need to look at the ways, historically, that politicians have used white rage and racism to bring in white voters.  We should look at the ways in which our economic policies, limited regulations and the decline of unions have hollowed out local economies.

Most centrally, we need to place Trump and his supporters into historical and social context so that we do not lose empathy, or lose hope for creating a more humane world.

3.  Learn the System, Use the System

I have spent a great deal of time thinking about extra-governmental ways for our students to make change — working with community organizations, making art to interpret issues, using peer education to raise awareness. I will continue with this. This is important.

So is knowing the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and using the hell out of them.

We will be learning about the history and machinations of US Government this year, and keep copies of the constitution in our pockets, like Khizr Khan. We will all explore the ways that the structures of our government have and can provide for incremental, and significant, change. Students will choose how to dive into the unfamiliar world of local, state, and federal government systems: they can rewrite the voters’ guide for real audiences, like 18 year old voters, or brand new citizens (an idea I stole whole cloth from the brilliant @ericalorraine), create podcasts around constitutional dilemmas, or work to get legislation or initiatives passed.

I want students to see that the electoral circus on air is not, actually, reality television, but is a living, changing system that they are embedded within, and can use to pursue the ideals and values they want to illuminate. They will learn that working within the system isn’t easy, it isn’t fast and is most definitely not always just. But it is, sometimes, and knowing and using how our Constitution can work for true democracy is an important strategy in their quiver.

4.  Build a Fierce Community

This might be the most important. I will work my damnedest to facilitate a community that continues to uplift and support itself. Our students, our young people, will not be able to take on the hydra that is Trumpism without building and growing a strong, fierce community. My students do not all like one another. They squabble, hold grudges and get irritated with one another, like the true humans that they are, but in these four years they have shown themselves to be furiously loving, loyal and kind.

My work this year will be to stave off the social atomization that we do so well in our society; I need to make sure that students who are confident and thriving for whatever reason see their fate lying with those who are floundering. They need to see their destinies inextricably tied to one another’s as young working class Oaklanders of color, and also as courageous people designing and creating a more just and humane world.

A fierce and loving community is necessary for us as teachers, too, and I feel inspired and supported by those in my beautiful teaching community. I invite others along for this, as well, and look forward to hearing about the other profound ways of opening up creative breathing room for our students.

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