Countdown to January 20

The days leading up to the presidential inauguration hold excellent opportunities to teach about civic engagement and civility.

The 2016 presidential campaign and election was rough on many educators and students. With the inauguration just around the corner, some schools are bracing for more tension, more targeting and more conflict.

But we learned something encouraging from our post-election survey. While a staggering number of educators witnessed a spike in anxiety and biased behavior in their students, others told us their students were divided but handling it well. These educators had something in common: They teach at schools that had climate programming and protocols in place. In these schools, friendship is highly valued and children feel safe.

With that in mind, we’re encouraging schools to proactively prepare for the inauguration. Whether your students are blowing up balloons or organizing a walk-out, setting the stage early will increase the changes of a peaceful school day on January 20 and a more cohesive student body moving forward.

Talk about current events leading up to the inauguration. Make sure students are aware of what is happening, and give them space to debrief. Use Newsela to bring current events into the classroom, whatever level you teach. Combine current-events texts with a strategy like Text Talk Time (grades 3­–5 or grades 6-12) or Value Lines (grades 3­–5) to help students become new analysts, rather than just passive consumers. (Free Perspectives for a Diverse America registration required.) 

Make a 100-day plan. Explain to students that new presidents often release a plan for their first 100 days in office. Tell them you’re going to count the number of days until the end of the school year and make a plan for what your classroom or school community will accomplish during those days. Use this template to guide you. Younger kids might enjoy reading “The First 100 Days” as preparation for this activity. (It comes with a toolkit!)

Hold pre-inauguration discussion circles. Enlist the help of your school counselor, a local mediation service provider or a mental health provider. Create a structured opportunity for any student with concerns to communicate their fears. If you have a large population of immigrant or undocumented students at your school, consider hosting an event just for these students and their families. Bring in local nonprofits that work with immigrant justice issues and share “Know Your Rights” resources. (Be on the lookout for a story in our upcoming magazine issue for more on supporting undocumented students.) 

Address students in advance of the inauguration. If you are a school leader, address students honestly, either in an all-school setting or in individual classrooms. Tell them that the culture of the school is important to everyone and express what you hope to see from them on Inauguration Day. If your school will be watching the inauguration, let students know ahead of time and explain why. For students who express unhappiness about about the inauguration, give them a response activity (journaling, letter writing, drawing) to do during the broadcast if they so choose, or give them the option of opting out altogether. Some schools may choose not to show the broadcast at all. If you don’t show it, consider teaching about the traditions that surround U.S. presidential transitions instead.

Whether you choose to broadcast the inauguration or not, reinforce the school’s values and provide concrete examples of how each student can embody them in the days leading up to and on Inauguration Day—and beyond.

Introduce Speak Up for Civility—with students and adults. If you signed the Speak Up for Civility contract during the presidential campaign, resurface it now and remind those who signed it what they’ve agreed to. If not, print out a copy and bring it to a staff meeting or your classroom. Re-establish norms for communication, even if the subject matter divides the group. Consider leaning on these other “getting along” resources to help students bring the best version of themselves to any disagreements they may experience. 

Deliberate planning won’t prevent all potential conflict or discomfort, but it can go a long way toward establishing a strong foundation for productive conversations—with and among students. Articulate how you expect students to treat each other and the value of being a community of diverse ideas. This shared understanding will diminish anxiety and foster social emotional skills that will benefit students long after January 20, 2017. 

van der Valk is the deputy director of Teaching Tolerance.

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Learning for Justice in the South

When it comes to investing in racial justice in education, we believe that the South is the best place to start. If you’re an educator, parent or caregiver, or community member living and working in Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Louisiana or Mississippi, we’ll mail you a free introductory package of our resources when you join our community and subscribe to our magazine.

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