By Kimberly Sazon
The morning after election results were announced, I made the decision to pause my morning lesson plans and adjust it to address the most horrific news: Trump was going to be the President-elect.
I can still remember driving to work and running into the arms of my colleague with tears in our eyes, trying to face the reality we were in. We kept telling ourselves, this is not happening, this is not happening. Since news that Trump had won the election, a buzz of anger, fear, and heartache filled the hallways of our elementary school. We all asked the same question: What were we going to tell the children?
Our school day started with our usual morning classroom routines and once my students were settled, I immediately gathered them into our learning gallery, a rug where we collectively meet for announcements or lessons. I announced to my students that we were going to start the day with a special community circle. In our class, we do “community circles” where we sit in a circle and have restorative dialogue as a community.
My students were chattier than usual coming to the rug. I could hear whispers from a few talking about the election and I heard Trump’s name a few times. I opened the community circle as I always do by reminding my students that this was a safe space and that in our discussions we are to be honest and respectful of each others’ opinions. I also reinforced that they could share anything they were comfortable with. I started the conversation by asking them what they knew about the election results and if they followed the polls the night prior.
Most people who already heard this story from me were surprised that I would ask such a loaded question/topic of my 3rd graders. Others will laugh, but this class of 3rd graders has some of the most informed 8-year-olds you will ever meet. They are very aware of the media, issues such as racism, and the current news––especially in their neighborhood.
A few hands raised and each student shared that they knew that Donald Trump was going to be the next president of the United States. I then opened the floor for anyone who wanted to share how they were feeling about the results. As students were sharing their feelings, I noticed one student holding her hands to her face. I sat next to her in our circle and asked if she needed to be excused. She refused to move and so I asked her if she wanted to share anything with the class. At first she shook her head, but then started to wipe her face and mumbled something inaudible. I excused her to the bathroom to wash her face and told her to take her time and speak when she was ready.
I wasn’t ready for what was about to happen after she spoke a few words. “I am so scared and sad that Donald Trump is going to be president because I don’t want to be separated from my family.” Suddenly, one by one, I noticed my students overwhelmed with tears in their eyes and raising their hands to speak. Tears streamed down my face as I listened to each of my students speak their truth. I did not expect myself to cry in front of my students, but crying with them created a special connection. This day, this very moment, reminded me that these 3rd graders aren’t just students, but they are children. They are human.
As a teacher it is important to make these connections with students. Although I am the adult in the room, I make it a priority to build relationships with each student as an equal person. I always start the first weeks of the school year with bonding activities and community building activities to get to know their personalities and interests. Additionally, I give my students a survey to fill out to see how they learn best. Not only does this serve as a way for me to get to know them, but it allows me to integrate their personal interest into my curriculum to make it more purposeful. As important as it is to build routines and classroom expectations, building relationships with your students is so crucial. In the long run, taking the time to do get-to-know-you activities builds a different level of trust between my 3rd graders and me. When students trust you they succeed, because learning becomes more meaningful to them. I noticed a huge difference in motivation in my students because of the trust we built as a team. I make it my goal to seek personal connections with my students that extend from the first weeks of school; but this day, it was on another level. In the past I felt connections with my students based on common interest such as sports or tv shows, but this common struggle and pain towards this national and very personal issue set a new precedent of trust and community in my classroom. I felt a deeper connection with my students, one that I have never felt before.
To give some context, I work in a predominantly Latino and low-income community. The parents in these communities work many hours to support their families, some undocumented. I did my best to comfort my students as they expressed their fear of losing their parents and families to deportation back to Mexico or other Latin American countries. Several students shared their anger about the wall that Trump was so adamant be built between America and Mexico. It was like a ripple effect as each student shared many similar experiences and feelings.
Entering this field of work, I thought I could learn to compartmentalize. But in moments like this, it is so difficult to leave the work at school. With such deep emotion, I still carry a heavy heart thinking about how my students felt when they first expressed their feelings of fear and anger. Will I ever come to terms with this? Honestly, I don’t know, but what I do know is that I will do everything I can make sure these students are equipped with the knowledge and skills to stand up for what they believe in. I want to encourage them to face the world with love and kindness.
After moments of trying to calm my students down, I focused on my role. I knew that as their teacher, I needed to remind them that they are safe and that there is hope. These students may be only 8 or 9 years old, but they can make a difference. I told them that they will encounter many challenging situations, but that it is up to them to take action to make a step into change. I emphasized the importance of advocating for themselves, especially in a society that elected a president who bluntly supports racism and discrimination towards people of color. I shared that I firmly believe that each of them has the ability to make change in this society, they just need to believe.
Our post-election discussion transitioned out into a personal journal reflection. Each student who did not feel comfortable speaking also had the opportunity to write or draw their thoughts or words. I felt that it is so important that each student acknowledge their feelings and thoughts, regardless of whether it is spoken, written, drawn, etc.
This activity and discussion was one of the most powerful lessons I’ve ever had in this classroom. No planned lesson could have prepared me for this moment that hit so close to home.
At the age of 8 few, perhaps none, of my students have participated in a rally. Someday? Maybe. Yet at the elementary school age, I don’t expect my students to be picketing and walking in protests. However, I definitely can expose them to ideas about the strength of communities, what they can do and are doing. As the recent events of inauguration and Trump’s transition into the presidency have unfolded I have shown my class videos, articles, and pictures of rallies that occurred in resistance to Trump and his administration’s decisions. I also showed them footage of the women’s march that happened in different parts of the nation. As a woman of color and part of a marginalized community, I find it essential to discuss how to stand up for yourself and your rights, whether you’re 8 or 25 years old.
Some of our community circle discussions focus on what we can do in different situations such as bullying, or how to be assertive for what they believe is right. At their age, it is beneficial to do role-plays to practice what they can do when they encounter an unjust situation. I hope that these discussions and skill practices in the classroom continue and expand as they get older and come across similar or even tougher situations in their future. It’s my job to give them the tools and they will have to learn how to use them. In the upcoming units, we will be discussing and concentrating on Black History Month in February, and reading literature that is culturally relevant to their Latino backgrounds. I am very fortunate to be in a progressive school that prioritizes diversity and culturally relevant learning experiences in the classroom curriculum.
Looking back at this moment, I realized how powerful the voice of youth can be. On reflection, I regained a sense of why I entered the field of education. As a Filipina-American teacher, I identify with many of same struggles as my students, and the situations of discrimination and hate they experience in this country. I knew that I wanted to be an agent of change and I am part of this movement towards a more equitable society. The encouragement of free expression in the classroom eventually leads to future generations making their own changes on a larger scale. I am dedicated to continue to work with youth and communities of color and teach them to live with love and kindness.
Kimberly Sazon is an elementary school educator at Aspire Gateway Academy. She received a bachelor's degree in sociology and film & television at UCLA. While attending UCLA, she discovered her passion for working with students of color and underrepresented communities. She went on to obtain a master’s degree in education at the University of the Pacific and looks to pursue a doctoral degree focusing on the educational and social issues of Asian/Asian American youth, specifically among Filipino youth. In between lesson plans, she is a vlogger. She can be reached at email@example.com or on Twitter @kimsteez