Why Are Third-Graders Afraid of Donald Trump?
As students process the presumptive Republican presidential nominee’s fear-inducing rhetoric, educators are left to wrestle with bringing these lessons into the classroom.
A soon-to-be fourth grader in Newton, Massachusetts, Micah is the co-founder of Kids Against Trump, a group that started with a paper petition passed around the playground at Angier Elementary, a K-6 school in a bucolic suburb just west of Boston.
The idea for the petition started in February after some of Trump’s speeches. The candidate’s words troubled Micah on two levels. First of all, there were Trump’s disparaging comments about women, Muslims, and immigrants. Micah was adopted from Guatemala as an infant, and he has two moms. So it felt to Micah like Trump was attacking his family and friends.
But another thought stuck with Micah: I can understand everything he’s saying.
“He’s talking on my level—I’m 9 years old, ” Micah says. “That’s not okay.”
Micah’s friend and classmate Alexis Fridman—who started the original recess petition with him and is the other co-founder of Kids Against Trump—put it another way: “If I talked like Donald Trump, I’d get sent to the principal’s office immediately.”
It would be easy to dismiss Micah and Alexis as precocious kids with grassroots dreams. Their group isn’t very big. It’s just them and a few friends and neighbors, plus they have support from about 200 people who have so far signed theirChange.org petition. Also, close to 500 people follow the group’s Facebook page, and have offered virtual support from far-flung states.
While there are examples of college-age young people organizing against both Trump (see an an open letter started by students at the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania, his alma mater) and Clinton (her rallies have drawn student protesters), Kids Against Trump’s founders appear to be at the fore of the elementary-age set. (Requests for comment from the Trump campaign, as well as RNC chairman Reince Priebus, were not answered.)
But national civics experts, educators, and researchers say the actions of Micah and Alexis are indicative of a wider trend—and some significant issues—for public schools. A recent survey of teachers found many are struggling to reassure students, particularly those from immigrant and Muslim families, who are frightened about what a Trump victory in November might mean for them. (A new ad from Hillary Clinton’s campaign centers on kids as a particularly vulnerable audience for the presumptive Republican nominee’s rhetoric.)
At the same time, educators report they are afraid to violate school-district policies that prohibit political advocacy in the classroom. They also worry about alienating families that might hold divergent viewpoints. On the upside, there’s a chance this could spur great civic engagement by young people—but at what price?
Researchers say a key indicator of kids’ civic engagement is whether their own parents take part in related activities. And Micah’s home life certainly influences his political awareness: His mother, Shivonne St. George, teaches social studies at a middle school in a neighboring town. She and her partner, Erika Schluntz, talk regularly with their son about current events. But the idea for the petition originated with Micah and Alexis, their parents say.
Like Micah, Alexis says she has an avid interest in politics, and her concerns about Trump have a personal dimension. Her father is a computer engineer who immigrated from Mexico at age 17 to attend Boston University and later became a U.S. citizen. Because of that family heritage, Trump’s comments “don’t feel so far away” to Alexis, her mother says: “When someone starts talking about building a wall to keep out Mexicans, and your grandmother—who you call abuela—is in Mexico, it resonates.”
While the 2016 election is a regular topic of conversation in the Fridman household for both Alexis and her 13-year-old brother Jacob, their mother, Nanette Fridman, says she’s mindful not to push. Alexis decided to take a break from the petition work this spring to focus on other activities like soccer, and that was fine with her parents. When Alexis decided to ramp back up the activities with a free lemonade stand that doubled as a chance to gather more signatures in the neighborhood, that was okay, too. “You don’t want to be out ahead leading your kids on something like this,” says Nanette Fridman. They’re learning from this experience because it’s their project.”
Alexis and her brother are away—and offline—this month at overnight summer camp. They’ve both been asking in letters home for updates on the presidential campaigns.
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There are reports across the country of what’s been called “the Trump Effect,” a phenomenon blamed—legitimately or not—for a rise in reported incidents of anti-Semitism, religious intolerance, anti-immigrant hate speech, and general incivility, including among students. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a civil-rights group, recently surveyed teachers about their perceptions and experiences about the current election cycle in regard to their classroom activities.
The results, while unscientific, suggest an unsettling trend. In an analysis of over 5,000 submitted comments, “Trump” was mentioned more than 1,000 times, says Maureen Costello, the SPLC’s director of education programs. All other political candidates combined—including Hillary Clinton, Ted Cruz, and Bernie Sanders—were mentioned a total of 162 times.
The survey of 2,000 teachers was not nationally representative, and it targeted teachers already on the group’s mailing list or who had visited their website. Even so, Costello believes the findings do speak to widely held beliefs among educators.
There’s a consistency to the teachers’ comments, she added. Those working in schools with large immigrant populations say kids are actively afraid about what might happen to themselves and their families if Trump were elected. And explaining the American political system’s checks and balances isn’t much help. “A lot of immigrant kids are from countries where electing one person can make a big difference,” Costello says. “Telling them, ‘Oh, we’re a country of laws and the president alone doesn’t have that much power’ is somewhat meaningless. It doesn’t erase their fears.”
At the same time, teachers are afraid to alienate parents or other adults in the community who might be Trump supporters, Costello says. Half of the teacher respondents said they wouldn’t talk about the election in their classrooms. And the SPLC also heard about principals who warned teachers against even mentioning a candidate’s name during school hours. “We need to teach how to contend with each other, how to disagree, how to discuss public issues, and we need to do that from elementary school on,” Costello says. “That seems very obvious, and yet even educators are fearful of doing it.”
Some of the debates in the public sphere now “would have been unheard of a year ago,” says Meira Levinson, a professor at Harvard University’s Graduate School of Education—such as whether individuals should be required to register with the police based on their religious faith.
“Teachers are having to confront whether you take the public statements at some sort of face value, or … address their validity,” Levinson says. They’re having to think about “what you do when you have a major party candidate, who has the support of millions of Americans, making these kinds of claims that violate the values that are also simultaneously pretty well-embraced by people as being appropriate values to teach in the classroom.”
While classroom controversies during an election year are nothing new, teachers are “really wrestling with this,” Levinson continued. “How do they distinguish between political talk and partisan talk? How much of it should they allow? Is it right for students to try to convince each other of their views?”
During a recent conference for Massachusetts civics educators, Levinson asked a group to consider what topics qualify as “open” questions up for debate, and those that are “closed” or settled. She cited voting rights for women as an example of a settled matter. (The exercise was drawn from Controversy in the Classroom by Diana Hess, the dean of the University of Wisconsin School of Education.)
A teacher in attendance said she would prefer to leave all questions “open” in the interest of fairness to her students’ personal beliefs. But that’s an impractical approach given the required material teachers already have to cover in what’s typically a limited amount of instructional time, and it doesn’t jive with what should be an educator’s priorities, Levinson says.
“My guess is that if I were to stop the vast majority of Trump supporters on the street and say, ‘Do you think that teachers should have anti-racist classrooms and should teach kids to treat each other equally and be against bullying?’ they would say, ‘Oh, yes, yes, yes, absolutely’,” Levinson says. “We don’t have value-free classrooms. We never will, and we never should.”
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Micah and Alexis collected almost 60 signatures from fellow third-graders during recess the first day of their campaign. They later decided to mount a bigger effort beyond the playground. They were told by school staff not to pursue the petition during school hours so that it didn’t become a distraction, according to their parents—a stipulation that’s in line with Newton Public Schools’ policies. (Their third-grade teacher declined to be interviewed for this story, and school administrators were unavailable for comment.) Micah and Alexis say they’ve been careful to abide by the rules.
Newton—a tree-lined Boston suburb known for its historic homes and excellent public schools—isn’t obvious Trump Country. Last year Democrats accounted for 44 percent of the city’s registered voters, compared with about 8 percent who registered as Republicans. (Another 45 percent were unaffiliated with a political party.) The population is 80 percent white and typically more affluent than the statewide average, although there are pockets of lower-income households. The city has one of the state’s biggest Jewish communities, as well as a large number of residents of Asian descent. In 2009, Newton became the state’s first city to elect an African American mayor—Setti Warren. About 3.5 percent of Newton’s population is black, and 5 percent is Hispanic, according to the city’s database. (I grew up in Newton and attended the original Angier School, which was rebuilt last year.)
The city has found itself in the headlines in recent months for several incidents involving allegations of racist vandalism
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