The Election, One Year Later: Struggling With Critical Conversations at a Midwestern High School

In the fall of 2016, anthropologist Jia-Hui Stefanie Wong was observing students and educators at a high school when the presidential election took place. This winter, she followed up to see what had changed in the last year.

Every day in schools across the country, anthropological researchers are at work studying K-12 classrooms. Conducting interviews and observations, these researchers work, according to the American Anthropological Association (AAA), "to advance scholarship on schooling in social and cultural contexts, and on human learning both inside and outside the classroom." 


Our short article series "The Election, One Year Later" presents excerpts from the findings of four members of the AAA's Council on Anthropology and Education who were working in schools during or shortly after the 2016 presidential election. This winter, they returned to check back in. These "snapshots," drawn from their notes, provide an outside view of the election's effect on students and educators-in the days and weeks after its announcement and in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the inauguration.

November 9, 2016

… This is a racially and socioeconomically diverse high school in a mid-sized Midwestern city. More than half of the student body is low-income, and about 60 percent of the students are young people of color: About 25 percent are black, nearly 20 percent are Latinx, about 10 percent are Asian and around 10 percent are multiracial. As is the case nationwide, most teachers are white. In November 2016, I—a cisgender, middle-class, Chinese-American woman researcher—am 14 months into 16 months of ethnographic fieldwork at the school. 

… In a junior and senior English class … the students appear frustrated and sad. A few mostly white, middle-class girls come into the classroom together, loudly complaining about how a male teacher had told them that everything was going to be okay. They talk about how he doesn't know that it's going to be okay, so he shouldn't say that. …

… I sit with a small group of students of color, about half black and half Latinx. … The students talk about how they didn't think that this election result could really happen, and their uncertainty about what will happen now. About halfway through the class period, we hear some loud laughter coming from a table on the other side of the room. It's a different table of mostly white, middle class girls. The black, female student sitting next to me looks at me with tears starting to form in her eyes. "They're over there laughing, and we're worried about dying," she says, her voice shaking. 

… Another black, female student, who is normally quite talkative with me, has not said much today. In response to her classmate's statement, she turns her face slightly away and wipes her eyes with the back of her hand. A male student begins to talk about his growing fears after the election as an undocumented immigrant. He wonders whether working hard in school is worth the effort, given the increased uncertainty about his future. His eyes tear up as he talks, and several of the other students can't hold their emotion back, either. I can still hear laughter across the room.

I'm in a freshman history class. …Towards the end of the class period, a black, female student asks the [white, female] teacher what she thinks the election means for race relations. The teacher, who is standing in the middle of the circle, turns to look at me. I see a feeling of panic in her eyes as she says to me, "I don't want to scare them." I don't have time to ask what she means before she says to the class, "I think hate crimes are going to go up." When it becomes clear to me that she is not going to follow up on this statement, I raise my hand and talk about how important finding safe spaces and people has been to me as a woman of color. The bell rings shortly afterwards, and the students pack up and leave for their next class.

… [T]he U.S. Government class is talking about the election results. … A Latina student who is sitting next to me looks over and tells me that hearing and talking about the election results makes her want to throw up. … At the end of class, I talk with the white, male teacher briefly before the next period begins. We talk about how difficult it is to process what has happened, and he says it's hard to not be able to escape politics at work, as a social studies teacher. "I don't know if I can keep teaching after this," he tells me. …


January 2018

A little over a year after the 2016 election, I talked to three teachers at the school about what, if anything, has changed in their classrooms or the school. … They quickly recognized that there is now an elevated sense of fear, among both students and teachers. A social studies teacher explained, "A lot of the stuff I was fearful of a year ago, it's still there. It hasn't gone away." Teachers noted that some students seemed more vulnerable and anxious than others. 

An English teacher told me he's noticed that some of his Latinx students, especially those who are undocumented, seem more withdrawn. A Spanish teacher noted that, among undocumented seniors this year, the sense of hopelessness seemed especially high: They told her they saw fewer options for the future in college and beyond than undocumented students in previous years. 

An English teacher explained that among some students of color: "There's a feeling that I have with many of them that it's almost like, 'Why am I doing this?' You know? And that's really hard to battle as a teacher … How do you tell them to realize that studying Othello is important … when they're scared to death that they might not even be here tomorrow?"

…Teachers have made some curricular changes in response to the 2016 election. Some U.S. History classes will be restructured to focus more centrally on the civil rights movement. In response to the current administration, a social studies teacher said he wanted to include more information on women's rights, immigrant rights and LGBTQ rights in that era, to allow students to explore those pushbacks. In working with her Latinx students, the Spanish teacher prompted students to think about race and identity more often. She explained, "I can't fix la DACA, and I can't fix Trump … But what I can do as a teacher in the classroom is to try to help students have a more positive image of their identity as a Latino student and what that means, so that you come into it feeling proud to be a Latino instead of feeling down about it."

… But some also wonder if they should be doing more, or doing things differently. The social studies teacher, for example, did explain recent legislation and policy to his classes, but … he explained that he'd struggled with how to have conversations about sexual misconduct in his classroom because he feared that some students might say things that would harm others. As a result, he carefully controlled these classroom discussions, and he did not allow students to have "free rein" over the conversation. He had considered discussing the events in Charlottesville in his class, but had ended up not doing so, since they had occurred during the summer, and other topics seemed more immediate once the school year started. As he reflected on these decisions, he mused, "Maybe I've done a disservice in not talking about some of the more important issues." … 

In our conversations, the teachers I spoke with recognized that they are likely given more freedom than teachers elsewhere. They teach in a district that has published statements affirming support of students of color, immigrant students, trans students and students with disabilities in the face of educational policies that threaten the safety of these students. Yet even in this environment, they said they didn't have the opportunity to talk to each other about the challenges they were facing as educators in a shifting political environment, how they were each navigating them and what they might learn from each other. As all of the teachers thanked me for the chance to talk about these issues at the end of our conversations, I wondered how schools might make space for teachers to have these discussions with each other. 

Wong is a visiting lecturer in Educational Studies at Trinity College and a Ph.D. candidate in Curriculum and Instruction and Educational Policy Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

Teaching Tolerance collage of images

Welcome to Learning for Justice—Formerly Teaching Tolerance!

Our work has evolved in the last 30 years, from reducing prejudice to tackling systemic injustice. So we’ve chosen a new name that better reflects that evolution: Learning for Justice.

Learn More