This election has been exhausting. Though I am excited about the possibilities ahead of our country, I’m also ready for a break. One of the things we’ve talked about amongst the teachers this year is whether or not to bring the election up with our fifth grade students. This is my first time teaching during a presidential election, but my colleagues have said that usually they love election years because it provides a whole slew of teachable moments–especially in fifth grade, when we learn about how the government works. But this election is different, and most of the teachers at the school won’t even touch it for a variety of reasons.
I’ve thought a lot about being a teacher during this election, and especially over the last few months. I been absolutely appalled and disheartened by so many things, whether it’s the words of a candidate or the reactions of voters. But each time I feel like it’s about to push me over the edge, I remember that I’m in a position to affect change.
One of the tools we use at our school is called THINK. It’s an acronym that leads students through a series of questions so that they can determine the appropriateness of what their saying. They ask: is it true? Is it helpful? Is it inspiring? Is it necessary? Is it kind? If the answer to the questions are no, it’s probably not the best thing to say.
I’ve thought about this acronym and how helpful it would have been to so many people this past year; the absence of truth and kindness is especially concerning. I think of my fifth grade students, and what I expect from them. They know that their opinions must be based on fact. They can’t just say whatever they want; they have to back it up with evidence. When we’re reading a book, they have to find quotes to support their ideas. When we’re looking at nonfiction articles, they have to point to the moment in the text that backs up their position. When they answer a question, we respond with, “how do you know that?” And they answer, even if the answer is as simple as, “I know this because you wrote it right there on the board.” I’m teaching my students the importance of truth based on fact–not just opinion. I teach them that it’s up to them to make their own conclusions based on the fact–but they must have those facts backing them up. I teach them that everyone is allowed to have their own opinions–as long as they’re backed up by fact.
My students are also kind. Even though I work in a middle school, we spend a lot of time schoolwide making sure our students understand kindness: what it is, why we need it, and how to live it. I’ve seen my students reach out to someone else who is struggling, or may be sitting alone. Most of my students know to use kind words, but I’ve seen my students apologize when they’ve made a mistake. They don’t blurt out whatever they’re thinking; they take a step back to take perspective, and think about how their words will affect others. I am confident that my students can go out into the world and treat others with kindness–even when a teacher isn’t checking over their shoulders.
Last week we had a discussion about the election during morning meeting. Students shared who they would vote for and why. Before we shared, we had a talk about respecting everyone’s opinions, basing our opinions on fact, and making sure we treated others with kindness. I reminded students that everyone could have their own opinion, and while we definitely do not need to agree with everyone, we do need to respect everyone. I also explained that if students wanted to keep their opinion private, that is perfectly okay too.
Students went around the circle and shared. We had students who said they would support both major party candidates, as well as students who wanted to keep their opinion private. Afterwards, we talked about the importance of basing opinions on fact, and then where we could learn these facts. Students said that they could listen to speeches, look at candidates websites, read articles, and listen to the news. We discussed how some news sources will think one candidate is great and the other is awful, and other news sources with think another candidate is great and the other is awful, and so it’s important to examine both sources and then make your decision. We discussed all of this before 8:30, and everything was fine. We finished our discussion and went on to have a great day.
Every time I think of this election, I try to think of my students. I think about the absence of kindness and truth that I’ve seen from voters across the board as well as from politicians (and one candidate in particular). And then I think of how impressed I am everyday by the kindness I see in my classroom, and by my students’ thirst for knowledge. And while I’m excited about the direction our country could possibly take over the next four years, I’m even more excited about what’s going to happen in fifteen years when these students are running things–students who value the truth, and who value kindness. That will be a nice change of pace.