As I left school the week before Thanksgiving exhausted after a long week of teaching, I wrote the first thing that came to my mind and it streamed through my fingers as if it was coming from a higher place. I hit send on e-mail that opened with this statement:
Amid all of the turmoil that is taking place in this country, there are a number of things that we can all hold onto and be grateful for. I am grateful for the opportunity that I have to build a community of learners who can navigate the difficult issues that we all deal with in the world. We must all band together so that we can show our young people how to create change in this world and see the perspectives of the people who see the world far different than we do. It is my hope that we can work to create a world that is more loving, caring and united than it was the day before. As adults, we must model the behaviors and values that we want to see show up in the world. Our young people are watching.
These thoughts came streaming out of me from an interaction that happened in my homebase just a day before. Some of you may have heard of Prince EA. He is an empowered and impassioned spoken word artist who makes commentary on many relevant issues of the day. In a commentary entitled Why I’m Happy Trump Won, Prince EA makes the bold statement: “Thank God for Donald Trump.” This hyperbolic statement was pointing to the fact that the election of Donald Trump was a form of awakening to some of the problems of this country. After watching the three minute clip with my students, we started into a discussion. The first comment of the discussion changed the trajectory of the rest of the block. One student raised his hand and said: “I don’t agree with him at all, who says thanks God for Donald Trump? I’m sorry but this guy’s an idiot.” A few of the other students in the class reacted with an divisive retort putting vitriol into the air of the classroom. The student who made the comment excused himself from the classroom.
In my earlier years of teaching, I might have panicked— not this time. This time I saw an opening for teachable moment that would bring great power to the larger message of unity in divisive times. I stopped the whole class and asked for their ears. I sent one of my students to go find the student who excused himselves. I calmed the students who were angry at the comment and explained that we could either continue to be upset and widen the divide or we could acknowledge that people aren’t always going to agree with us and create the space where each side can listen to understand the other’s truth. After speaking to both the student who excused himself and the group who were outraged, I asked the student to re-enter. What ensued was a civil discussion where each side explained their truth while the other listened to understand. I left the class with a few thoughts:
If we want to create change, we cannot do it through creating more division. We must listen to others to understand and acknowledge their truth and expect the same from them. We must acknowledge our shared humanity and come together where we can to make a world that is more kinder, empathic and loving.
To make time for this important conversation, I held the class for an additional 5 minutes— 5 minutes where the students were present for a lesson that was more important than any lesson that would do all day. That day, we may not have solved all of the world’s problems or even one, but we had a start. As adults we must actively model the qualities that we want to show up in the world. If we want the world to be more empathetic and more united, then those are the qualities that we need to model— even when it’s difficult.