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Darryl Murphy

Darryl Murphy / The Notebook

In diverse Philadelphia, teachers work to reassure students about election results

This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.

Darryl Murphy
Teachers in Philadelphia schools on Wednesday worked to help their students deal with emotions that included bewilderment, disappointment, outrage, anger, and fear as they processed the results of Tuesday’s election, a shocker in which Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton and was elected president of the United States.

In a District where most of the students are Black and Hispanic, where nearly 10 percent are English learners and many more come from immigrant families, students worried about their futures and the futures of their families, some teachers said.

Many students were terrified about Trump’s anti-immigration rhetoric about building walls and expelling Muslims. Math teacher Kelley Collings said that for her students at Feltonville Arts & Sciences Middle School, “the election turned their world upside-down and ripped the carpet out from underneath their 11-year-old Black, Brown, immigrant, non-English-speaking, Muslim, poor feet.”

At Julia R. Masterman Laboratory & Demonstration School, a magnet for some of the city’s smartest 5th through 12th graders, educators also worked to calm students’ nerves and help them understand.

Principal Jessica Brown attended classes all morning, offering reassurance to both teachers and students.

“I told them we have to pull together, we all have to work together towards a better world,” she said. “I’m hopeful, seeing their passion and their intelligence.”

Masterman’s 1,200 students – 800 in the middle school and 400 in the high school – are drawn from every neighborhood; the school is about 40 percent White, 28 percent Asian, 18 percent Black, 5 percent Latino, and 10 percent “other” or multiracial. Students and their families come from all over the world. Brown estimates that 40 to 50 languages are spoken in students’ homes.

“I had students crying in class,” said Steven Gilligan, who teaches Advanced Placement Government and 8th-grade U.S. History at Masterman. One told him that she had convinced her mother to vote for the first time. “And she proudly comes out of the voting booth with a button that says, ‘I’m With Her,’ and this happens.”

A tearful girl in Elizabeth Taylor’s 9th-grade World History class asked whether she’d be sent back to the country her family came from.

Another said, “I’m a Muslim, what’s going to happen to me?”

Early Wednesday, Superintendent William Hite sent a letter offering guidance to teachers throughout the District. “This morning,” it said, “regardless of your personal views, our collective job is to help our students process and reflect upon their own feelings (positively or negatively) about the outcome.”

He cautioned: “it is not our job to tell students what is right or wrong about the election or to tell students what they should or should not believe or feel. Our job is to help students think through the enormity of this election and its outcome in a way that helps students manage their own feelings and beliefs.”

‘Hate is not the answer’

The teachers worked to create safe spaces where students could discuss their feelings, while also using the results to teach their subjects.

Gilligan, who had planned to spend 15 minutes going over the electoral map, instead took the entire period in his 8th-grade U.S. History class to figure out where his own predictions had gone wrong. “Let’s crack this case,” he said.

He started with the blue states that Clinton was expected to win, such as Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, and turned them red with a touch of his hand.

For Pennsylvania, he showed students the vote counts in Philadelphia and several other Pennsylvania counties. Looking at how Tuesday’s totals for Clinton and Trump compared to those for President Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, they could see that almost everywhere, the Democratic vote total was slightly lower and the Republican total was slightly higher this year.

During the class, students Carmen Siftar and her friend Angelina Sali said they would have liked to see a woman elected, but shrugged off the suggestion that their own lives would change if that ultimate glass ceiling had been broken.

“It would have been good if she could have been elected, but I guess she wasn’t the right woman,” Siftar said. Fretting, she added, “Why would so many people vote for someone who doesn’t have the qualifications to run our country?”

Gilligan said that two 12th-grade girls in his AP Government class, “my top, top, top students,” were livid at the defeat of an eminently qualified woman by an unqualified man.

Fifth-grade teacher Carolyn Gray, a 30-year teaching veteran who has been at Masterman since 1992, had her students write an essay on Monday about who they wanted to win and why – an exercise in which students had to take a position and back it up. On Wednesday, they wrote how they felt about the results.

“To be honest I had a feeling he would win,” wrote a boy named Sevon. “But am I happy with the results? No way. I feel like, ‘Ahhh, we’re all going to die.’ I am not sure where my life is headed. Will there be a war? I do not know I just feel scared and in shock.”

Wrote another, named Jada: “I am not happy with the results of this year’s election because Donald Trump won. I don’t like the things that Trump has promised to do. Which is stop illegal immigration and build a wall between the US and Mexico. And I think that within the next four years he will try to take away women’s rights.

“I wonder why Trump hates immigrants,” she added. “And if he hates them so much why did he marry two of them?”

Gray said that of 32 students, 31 had been for Clinton. The outlier, a boy from the Ukraine, preferred Trump: “I want Donald Trump to win I want a safe country for my family and I. He promises to stop illegal immigration so less crime will be caused in America. He also wants more jobs. This will help people get jobs they like and have more options.”

Gray said her students were worried. “They think the future is grim because of his winning,” she said. “One boy said that when his father came into his room to tell him who won, he didn’t want to know.”

Principal Brown said, “I’m really hopeful, seeing how passionate they are and how articulate they are on the issues.”

Wednesday was not an easy teaching day for Taylor, the history teacher who was heartsick at the result. Without betraying her own feelings, she asked her students to divide up into groups and report back on their discussions of why they thought Trump won. She did not interfere when a table of five girls sparred heatedly over the issue of reproductive rights; one student said she supported Trump largely over the abortion issue, while the others sharply countered that they should have control over their own bodies.

A table of boys said that Trump should be given a chance.

“We don’t know how he’s going to be as president,” one student summarized. “They shouldn’t be too worried. People are overreacting.”

But another group said they had talked about how Trump’s election compares to the fascism that led to World War II.

“You took the historical approach,” Taylor said dispassionately. But later, in an interview, she opened up about her feelings.

“The emotional aspect, that is where my 15 minutes were today,” she said. “We are a caring community. Students care deeply for each other. This was really hard for me because I didn’t want to tell students what I think or conclude.” Here, she teared up and had trouble continuing.

“I’m deeply offended that our country would vote for somebody supported by the KKK. I think he won because of racists who were troubled by the progress of our nation and by the ascension of a woman to a position of power. I could not say those things, but I did not want to negate those things in our discussion.”

At Feltonville, a school with a large immigrant population, Collings, the math teacher, decided to devote the day to teaching her students about organizing.

She asked them to write how they felt in their journal and then had them summarize their feelings in one word on a large sheet of paper. Words such as angry, betrayal, disgusted, and even suicidal were written on the paper.

“These kids only knew Obama as their president,” Collings said. “So this is their world crumbling. They know their families are going to get deported. […] It’s like their rug got pulled out [from under them].

“The straight-up fear, that is real. No one put this in their kids’ heads. This is what they’re coming with the day after the election.”

Social studies teacher Vici Smith assisted in the exercise. She said teachers all over the school were trying to rein in students’ emotions; some students were writing vulgar anti-Trump graffiti on windowsills.

“It seems like all over the building we’re trying to de-escalate or debrief,” Smith said. “Just trying to let them get their feelings out so they don’t take it out in other ways.”

Feltonville’s 525 students are 61 percent Latino, 27 percent African American, and 5 percent Asian. Their journal entries were searing; some expressed the desire to kill Trump, while others urged calm.

“The election was important but we all shouldn’t hate each other because of it,” one wrote. “We are Americans. Yes, we have problems, but hate is not the answer.”

Students leaving Constitution High School, a citywide admission school that focuses on history, government, and citizenship, said that they discussed the election in almost all their classes.

“Basically, they were telling us to get our feelings out, how we felt about it,” said Melissa Mendez.

Citlali Castille said she cried when she learned the results. “I’ve never felt this way where every time someone sees me they think of me a certain way because of my race, and it scares me.”

She said she thought Trump won “because people kept saying he’s straightforward and doesn’t sugar-coat anything, but I don’t agree. I didn’t like the way he addressed things and … I just don’t understand how anyone could vote for him.”

Both girls said the classes discussed the virtues of the electoral college system vs. using only the popular vote, which Clinton won. “She won the popular vote. What, that doesn’t count? It should count for something.”

Their history teacher pointed out that Al Gore won the popular vote in 2000, yet George W. Bush became president.

The system “is just so flawed,” added Castille.

The students at Constitution also watched both Clinton’s and Obama’s speeches promising cooperation and a smooth transition of power. She guessed that Trump won “because most people don’t want a woman in power, and so they just assume that he would do a better job.”

But she said she liked Obama’s speech because he said “we’re all in this together. We have to remember that.”

Darryl Murphy

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