A Message From Our Director

Teaching Tolerance director Maureen Costello advises educators not to shy away from teaching this election.

Maureen Costello
Maureen Costello

This March, while most people in the country were following the “madness” of the NCAA playoffs, the basketball story that caught my eye was about a high school game in Merrillville, Indiana. One team was from a mostly white school; the other was from a school with many Latino students and players. It wasn’t the score or the shots that made the news—it was a sign that students supporting the white team made to trash talk the opposing team. The sign read, “We’re going to build a wall to keep you out.”

If that was happening at basketball games, what was going on in the rest of the school building? The Teaching Tolerance team decided to find out. We quickly sent a survey to our readers and followers asking whether and how the current presidential election was affecting their students and their schools. 

The responses—including 5,000 answers to a set of open-ended questions—painted a grim picture. We learned that this year’s campaign is having a profoundly negative impact on schools across the country. Two-thirds of the 2,000 educators who responded described an alarming level of fear and anxiety among children of color, children from immigrant families and Muslim students. They reported that the bombastic tone of the election is being echoed in the schoolyard and the classroom, resulting in an increase in harassment, bullying and taunting that mimics the language heard in the campaign. 

The worst part? Many educators fear teaching about this election at all. Fully half of elementary teachers told us they are avoiding it and focusing instead on keeping students calm and dispelling their fears. Many middle and high school teachers said they were torn between remaining nonpartisan or admitting that this year is different and taking a stand.

“There may be times when we are powerless to prevent injustice, but there must never be a time when we fail to protest.”

Elie Wiesel

Our advice? Teach the election and take advantage of students’ heightened interest and engagement—but take steps to guard against the ugliness that’s giving you pause in the first place. It’s vitally important to make sure each classroom is a civil society, even if the airwaves aren’t. And stereotypes, especially when they’re harmful to students, must be addressed and countered. We’ve started a page on the Teaching Tolerance website for Election 2016, with resources to help counter bias, create a safe space for civil discourse and help teachers address hot topics. We’ll be adding to it throughout the summer and fall.

The stakes are high. Today’s students are tomorrow’s voters. But young people are already participants in civic life. They can, and should, explore the issues, take sides, volunteer for candidates and get involved. Remind them, too, of the long history of student activism: lunch-counter sit-ins, the Children’s March in Birmingham, the student energy behind the Selma-to-Montgomery marches, fighting for freedom of expression in Tinker v. Des Moines, winning the right to have student-led clubs for Bible discussions and gay-straight alliances, and walking out in Detroit to protest poor school conditions.

Many of you have some time off to recharge and plan during the summer. I hope it’s relaxing and energizing—and that you return to school in the fall ready to build and support engaged young citizens. How you teach the presidential election now can influence how well students are prepared to shape the world they’ll inherit. In the words of one of our respondents, “I want all my students to be able to advocate for themselves and for others. The future is theirs.”

—Maureen Costello

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Learning for Justice in the South

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