By Lisa Kuh, Ph.D.
"I didn't mean to vote for that bad man! I made a mistake!" (A., Age 6)
"We don't say bad words, right? Why is he saying bad words." (E., Age 4)
"I will miss my friends. My mom says we can't live here anymore." (I., Age 6)
The days immediately following the November 7, 2016, presidential election brought a range of emotions into our homes, schools, and communities—some that children could identify and others that were more complex.
In many communities, as children observed adult behavior related to the election, they felt the tension in the months and weeks before, and in the days that followed. They felt, and still feel, confusion and, often, fear. How we respond to these emotions further shapes how children feel and develop an understanding of complex issues.
I spoke to educators across the country, especially childhood educators in Somerville, Cambridge, and Boston, Massachusetts, and the stories were the same. Children were asked by peers if they were born here. Girls were called "fat pigs" and were told, "Now we can say that." Children were told, "Go back to your country!" from across the cafeteria, playground, or campus. High school students in our communities were snap chatting photos of their suitcases as a symbol of what might come.
In this essay, I discuss how educators in the Somerville Public Schools helped children to process the election. First, I discuss ways the city and school district supported its most vulnerable families, followed by how two early childhood teachers utilized one of their most important tools, the curriculum, to explore bravery and leadership with their students. Finally, I offer resources for educators to support their conversations with children.
In many cases, educators’ responses depended on what their children were asking and talking about. For example, in places like Somerville, where there are immigrant communities, children are afraid of being sent away and being separated from friends and family. In response, the Somerville Family Learning Collaborative, the family engagement arm of the Somerville Public Schools, hosted a gathering for families just after the election, with bilingual family liaisons present, to answer questions about what the results will mean for them. Over 100 families attended, demonstrating a need for information. Schools and community organizations in Somerville are continuing to address the election results with strategies often used in trauma situations. There have also been regular public forums about what it means to live in a Sanctuary City and what people’s rights are. This is an appropriate approach for many children and families who need reassurance and models what it means to be a community.
Following the election, some teachers reflected on how they might teach civics and engage children in democratic learning in the future. Many children experienced the election in school through a mock voting activity wherein teachers posted pictures of each presidential candidate and children voted by putting their own small photo under their chosen candidate. I strongly question the efficacy of this exercise, given that children might not be aware of who or what they are voting for and why. Indeed, the day after the election, many children felt guilty for making a mistake and voting for "the bad man," or were chastised for their vote by others. A more child-centered activity is to have children vote for something that is meaningful to them, like the color of the next batch of Playdoh or which story to read at meeting time. In this way, children experience developmentally appropriate disappointment and the process of group decision-making.
Being Brave In Kindergarten
Helen Schroeder, a kindergarten teacher at the East Somerville Community School in Somerville, looked for ways to address children’s fears and confusion. She noted:
The aftermath of the election required a lot of thinking, listening, and recalibrating. While the results didn't seem to register with some children, for others, it was very confusing and very real. The morning after, I had a student come up to me with panicky eyes saying, "But teacher, Donald Trump hates children!" I had some children saying some pretty confusing things that had clearly been filtered through parents, then siblings, to them. My first priority was making sure everyone understood how safe and welcome they were in the classroom and in our school, and sharing that message on our classroom door.
I found a free downloadable everyone welcome here poster and added text with the message in languages spoken by children in our classroom. We talked about how important it was for everyone to feel welcome in our school, the woman in the picture, and took turns reading it before we decorated and hung it up.
Here are some books Helen read with her students, along with her commentary on each book.
Courage helped us think about what bravery was and how you can be brave in big ways and small ways. We learned about individuals being brave, including a lot of kids.
I am trying to listen to my students and families. I know that I want to start a family unit in the next several weeks that lifts up and celebrates family knowledge, stories, and roots. My students see many examples of people who look like them doing both amazing and ordinary things through our read-alouds and projects, and along with that, there is a need to know and understand the everyday experiences of people who are very different from them. I am trying to make choices as a teacher that give my students power. For example, letting them solve problems, like who will sit next to me during morning meeting each day together, even when it would have been easier to solve on my own, produced a solution better than the one I was considering. Or, I take a child with a choice time activity request over to the choice board and let her decide which choice her idea would replace. Helping children understand that their ideas have value and that sometimes, big ideas need bravery to become reality, can make things better. This is what democracy looks like.
What is Leadership?
Emily Voigt, a first grade teacher at the Brown School in Somerville, explored with her students what it means to be a leader. She ultimately turned the text below into a visual essay, The First Grade Election Bulletin, which went home to parents and was distributed at the school.
As we began our investigation about leaders, we were lucky enough to meet with leaders in our community. We met with our own leader, Mr. Maguire, and learned that a leader has a very busy job. As principal, he is in charge of lots of people and is responsible for taking care of the whole school. We met with our local representative, Denise Provost, who taught us how important it is to never give up and that leaders never stop working and they always need to be responsible. We also met with our state representative, Mike Capuano, and learned how leaders do their job, how they need to talk to lots of people and share their ideas, and how important it is to vote. From talking with leaders, we not only learned about what their jobs entailed, but we were able to identify character traits that were similar amongst all three. We learned that leaders had to be caring, leaders needed to be responsible, leaders needed to be able to communicate, and leaders needed to be fair.
A lot of work went into each candidate’s campaign. The children first reflected on who they thought would be a better leader, Piggie or Gerald, and backed up their choice with evidence from the books. For example, some thought Piggie would be a better leader because she was inclusive, invited others to play their games, and included everyone in the Pig Day celebration. Some thought Gerald would be a better leader because he was passionate, had big feelings, and stood up for his friends, like when he went to get the ball back from the whale for Piggie. After coming up with their reasoning, the first graders came up with logos and slogans that helped share their ideas. We looked at logos and slogans from previous presidential elections to understand what they might look and sound like. After coming up with their ideas, the two first grades classes combined their Piggie parties and their Gerald parties and voted on the slogans and logos that would represent their campaigns. Piggie’s logo was a patriotic P with a star on it, and Gerald’s logo was a flag with an elephant on it. Piggie’s slogan was “Piggie can change the world,” and Gerald’s slogan was, “America needs elephants.” The first graders worked together to make signs and buttons with their logos and slogans.
As part of their campaign preparations, a speech-writing team prepared speeches to be shared with all the voters—the first graders and the kindergartners. They collaborated on their ideas and worked together to make sure that their speeches expressed the reasons they felt each candidate would be best. After lots of practice, the kindergarten and first grade gathered in the schoolyard for a campaign rally. Each group took turns cheering and sharing their speeches. Signs were waived, campaigners talked to the voters to try and convince them of the best candidate, and buttons were dispersed.
First graders learned that votes are made using a secret ballot. We looked at what a real ballot looks like in the city of Somerville, and noticed that there was a bubble to fill in next to your choice. We also noticed that there was a space to write in a different choice. We made our own ballots and, on our Election Day, everyone cast their secret vote. They fed their votes into the ballot box and awaited the election results.
Mr. Maguire announced the results later in the day to whole school: Piggie won in a landslide! 68 Piggie votes to 15 Gerald votes, with one write-in for Pigeon. First graders celebrated by singing their favorite Pig Song. Gerald supporters graciously accepted the results and joined in the singing.
What We Learned
After the election, we talked about the entire process and what we learned about being citizens, voting, leaders, and elections. First graders then wrote about something they learned. Here are some of their thoughts:
- “Leaders win elections when they have more votes.”
- “Leaders help people.”
- “You respect the winner, you do not shout ‘boo.’ Respect the person that won, you should not be mean.”
- “You don’t say, ‘boo,’ you should vote.”
- “A leader helps the country.”
- “Readers respect people, they try to help people.”
- “That there is such a thing as a slogan.”
- “I learned never give up.”
- “Leaders don’t always get their way.”
- “Leaders always have to be responsible at all times.”
In addition to Helen and Emily’s ideas on how to engage young children, other classroom resources related to anti-bias education, equity, and kindness help to support conversations that are sure to emerge in the months to come. Children are asking. Children are watching. On November 8 we asked, and continue to ask those who work with children, What will you say? What will you do?
Debbie LeeKeenan from Lesley University and John Nimmo from Portland State University have written extensively about and addressing children's issues via an anti-bias stance. Their piece about talking with children in challenging times provides some direction for teachers to use. They advise:
- Begin with self-reflection.
- Create a climate for dialogue and inquiry with children and adults.
- Unpack and be prepared for possible classroom scenarios that arise from children’s comments.
- Move beyond either/or thinking.
- Begin within: How will you prepare yourself to engage in conversations with children?
- Get back to instruction: What read-alouds make sense in the coming weeks?
- Strengthen the classroom community: How will you build connections and kindness?
A version of this essay was originally published on my blog, Somerville Early Education (somervilleearlyeducation.blogspot.com). The blog highlights practices in early childhood environments across Somerville, Massachusetts with a focus on innovation, ideas, and collaboration among early childhood educators, families, and teachers.
Lisa P. Kuh, Ph.D. has been in early education for over 30 years. A graduate of Chestnut Hill College in Philadelphia, she received an Ed.M. from the Harvard Graduate School of Education and a Ph.D. from University of Washington's College of Education. She publishes and presents about environments for young children, teacher professional development, Montessori practices, and Anti‐bias Education. She was an assistant professor at the University of New Hampshire and a lecturer at Eliot‐Pearson at Tufts University. She is currently the Director of Early Education for the city of Somerville, Massachusetts and adjunct faculty at Lesley University. Dr. Kuh can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org