Teachers Use Literature, Art, and Poetry as Platform to Discuss a Contentious Election
Success Academy – November 21, 2016
The result of the 2016 presidential election has sparked heated discussions across the country — and at Success Academy’s 41 schools. The day after the election, scholars had many questions about the future of our country. Below, three educators describe how they addressed their scholars’ concerns, using art, literature, and spoken word poetry to create opportunities for respectful and productive conversations.
Biography of Claudette Colvin, Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose
Principal, SA Harlem North Central
The day after the election, it was clear to me that staff and students had a lot on their minds. I believe it’s important that, as educators, we handle politics in the classroom delicately — teachers have the power to influence young minds, and we should never make assumptions about how children feel about any candidate.
At SA Harlem North Central, students had been reading the biography of Claudette Colvin, Twice Towards Justice by Phillip Hoose that month. Colvin was an African American civil rights leader who, as a 15-year-old girl, refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama. The day after the election, the class had arrived at the epilogue of the book and had the opportunity to reflect on its lessons. We used the book to explore student concerns about the social policies and racially charged language of the president-elect. I asked scholars to focus on the lessons they could learn from Colvin’s actions and they came up with lists of injustices in the U.S., including abuse of women and racial profiling. Scholars then brainstormed actions they could take to reduce these problems.
Colvin’s book also touches on the importance of pursuing an education, and using your own knowledge to support social justice causes. We were proud to hear many scholars echo that sentiment in the classroom last week.
When students are concerned by events outside the classroom, educators can use literature to initiate respectful conversations that give all students a voice, and make them feel like they can take productive action toward changing their country, or their world, for the better.
Art teacher, SA Bronx 1 Middle School
Some students at SA Bronx 1 Middle School were upset after last week’s election, so I initiated an open discussion. I asked students to first write an open letter to America to try and capture what they were feeling at that moment. Afterwards, they used their letter as a source of inspiration for an art exercise. I encouraged students to voice their opinions about the candidates, but I also knew it was important that I not impose any personal political feelings, so I acted as a guide for the discussion.
At the time, our school was preparing for an art show. We decided to include some pieces my students created after the election, such as their letters, an American flag painting, and a portrait of Donald Trump, pictured above. I reminded my scholars on Wednesday morning that times of political divisiveness and frustration often lead to the production of great art, music, and literature — these are the times when people want to share their voice. I encouraged students who were upset by the election result to not view themselves as victims, but rather as people who had the power to engage in productive dialogue. I want my studio to serve as a safe space for students to examine their thoughts — free of judgement.
Spoken word poetry teacher, SA Harlem West
As spoken word poetry teacher, my goal is to help scholars find their voice and express their opinions confidently. Since my class began this August, I have wanted my students to feel comfortable offering their views on social justice issues in my classroom. The day after the election was no different. My scholars have been writing and reciting spoken word poetry about this election and the candidates since the beginning of the year. On Wednesday, I used all three of my class periods to allow students to discuss the election outcome. It wasn’t my job as an educator to offer my own opinion about the election results, but as a teacher of spoken word poetry, I knew that they needed to express their feelings that day. I set the expectation that the conversation was to be respectful to all views, but I let them steer the ship, stepping in only to clarify some finer points about how our government works.
I was so proud of them that day. They were respectful to one another and offered informed, well-articulated opinions and concerns. I think it’s very important to trust your students in these moments. Through their work this year, they have demonstrated their ability to passionately and respectfully express their views on a number of topics — and their discussion last Wednesday proved this. I was happy when many of them left my classroom that day looking like a weight had been lifted from their shoulders.