Supporting Students During Election Season

Being Explicit about our Values

I am writing on November 7, 2016, the eve of Election Day. Throughout the fall, GDS teachers in all three divisions have engaged students in a range of activities and discussions to help them better understand the electoral process and to explore the salient issues in these campaigns.

In the Lower School, students in morning circle and in class discussions have shared what they know about the election and how the electoral process works. The fifth grade has studied the electoral college, voting requirements, constitutional amendments that have brought changes to the electoral process, and candidates’ platforms using Time for Kids. In the Middle School, students have written weekly current events reflections sharing their thoughts and insights on the election. The High School has engaged in a wealth of election-related activity, including a three-week summer mini course on the election taught by Sue Ikenberry; weekly lunch discussions led by Student Voices; classroom discussions of the debates, the media, and the party system; and a rich and compelling line-up of outside speakers. The anticipation of tomorrow, both within and beyond the classroom, is palpable.

As I have been following the swings in the polls and the various revelations that have defined this election cycle, I have found myself thinking more and more about what happens after this election. Journalists have reminded us repeatedly that this election has reached new lows of disrespect and dysfunction, and that our country is divided in unimaginable ways. When children hear incendiary, profoundly negative discourse modeled on the national stage, when a lack of civility becomes the norm, schools are not immune. Our students, PK-12th grade, cannot help but be affected by this election’s tone.

The best way for Georgetown Day School to stand firm against the toxicity that has marked this election is through a strong adherence to our core values. GDS is, and must be, a non-partisan institution. We do not align ourselves with individual parties or candidates.

And yet while we are a non-partisan institution, we are not a values-free institution. The first line of our mission reads, “Georgetown Day School honors the integrity and worth of each individual within a diverse school community.” Our GDS Statement of Philosophy calls us to cultivate in our students “an abhorrence of bigotry.” From the youngest ages, we teach students the value of respect for others, and we make this value visible through conversations in classrooms, assemblies, and a very intentional celebration of the richness that comes from difference. As our founding parents knew, reasoned dialogue is always preferable to empty sound and fury.

In the wake of this election, we will be called to be even more explicit about our values. This means making clear to our students that we do not name call, even if we hear adults doing it on television. We do not engage in casual stereotyping—of races, genders, religions, ability, sexual orientation or nation of origin. We embrace diversity as strength, and recognize that without it, students learn less, humans achieve less, and our lives are profoundly less rich.

Just as it is vital to model for our students an intolerance of bigotry, we must also demonstrate an openness to different perspectives. One of our core values is that, “A GDS Student Will…build networks and collaborate across difference.

A central question in the aftermath of this election will be, “How can we live together in a country where we see the world so differently, when we believe in different truths?” Answering this question begins with this year’s all-school theme, “Embracing Our Stories; Enriching Our Community.” GDS believes that we can create a more just and healed world not simply by bringing individuals from diverse backgrounds together under the same roof, but by having those individuals learn together, work together, collaborate together, and learn each other’s stories . To quote Robert Pondiscio in the blog, Education Gadfly, “If there is one theme that has emerged from the fractious state of our political and civic lives in 2016, it is not how divided we are, but rather how deeply and stubbornly obtuse we are about one another’s lives.”

As parents and educators, we are called to support our children in rejecting hateful speech and in remaining open to different perspectives. Here are some ideas for how to support our students in the aftermath of this election.

1) Review with your child the Teaching Tolerance “Speak Up for Civility” pledge. Though it is intended for adults, it is valuable for children as well. The pledge reads:

I pledge to discuss this election [and its aftermath] with civility, to treat people whose opinions differ from mine with respect, and to focus on ideas, policies, and values. I will encourage others to do the same. I will speak up when I hear name-calling, stereotypes, and slurs. I will do this because children are listening, and it’s important that adults model good citizenship.

2) Encourage your child to complete the shared identity activity on the Greater Good website. By reflecting on what they have in common with those who see the world differently, children develop empathy for other perspectives.

3) Review Harvard’s Graduate School of Education’s excellent Justice in Schools website. The resource includes case studies, essays and more.

4) Remember that as parents (and teachers), we are our children’s most important role models (even more important than those they see on television). When they see us honoring different viewpoints, speaking respectfully even in moments of tension, and appreciating different identities, they are far more likely to internalize these values.

There is no question that in the aftermath of this election, our nation will be challenged to restore civil discourse and find the common ground that forms the bedrock of democracy. Our hope is that Georgetown Day School students can be one small part of addressing this challenge, helping to build a more just, unified, and healthy nation.

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