ARTICLE

The Election, One Year Later: Life Goes On at an East Coast Middle School

When anthropologist Alexandra Freidus was observing students and educators at an East Coast middle school in fall 2016, she got to see how the presidential election affected them. She followed up with them a year later.

Every day in schools across the country, anthropological researchers are at work studying K–12 classrooms. Conducting interviews and observations, these researchers work, according to the American Anthropological Association (AAA), “to advance scholarship on schooling in social and cultural contexts, and on human learning both inside and outside the classroom.” 

 

Our short article series “The Election, One Year Later” presents excerpts from the findings of four members of the AAA’s Council on Anthropology and Education who were working in schools during or shortly after the 2016 presidential election. This winter, they returned to check back in. These “snapshots,” drawn from their notes, provide an outside view of the election’s effect on students and educators—in the days and weeks after its announcement and in the weeks leading up to the anniversary of the inauguration.

November 9, 2016

I’m at a middle school, talking with sixth-grade teachers about how they approach their instruction and curricular choices. This is the second day of scheduled interviews, and it happens to also be the day after the presidential election. The school identifies its mission as “social justice.” It’s located in a deep blue state, and while the majority of the students are African American, others are white, and a substantial portion are members of mixed-status immigrant families from Latin America and the Middle East. 

Teachers are processing the news. Many have red eyes and confess to me that they stayed up until 2 a.m. watching the election returns. … The Social Studies teacher is a white man in his late 20s. He’s the only one who addresses the election directly in class that day. On the board when students walk into the room that morning is the penultimate stanza from Langston Hughes’ poem “Let America Be America Again”: 

O yes,
I say it plain,
America never was America to me,
And yet I swear this oath –
America will be! 

He explains his thinking to me after class: “Obviously yesterday I had no plan to do that, but immediately when I got in, one of my students said she was going to be deported; her parents are illegal. I was very concerned. [Another] said that he’s going to go back to Puerto Rico. So a lot of them were having these—really unfortunately, mostly misinformed but—really scary ideas and feeling some fear. So I was trying to think of something that would let them reframe it, instead of just feeling really sad and scared and powerless.” 

In class, students spend about eight minutes reading and writing responses to the Langston Hughes poem. Once they’re done writing, he explains why he chose this poem for the day’s “Do Now,” saying that “these have actually been the same struggles that people have been having in this country for a long time and it’s part of the experience of being American.” And then he briskly moves the discussion on, getting the class started on a new unit about ancient Mesopotamia. 

But he saves the last 10 minutes for CNN student news, which he periodically airs in class. He says he wants to make sure “we all are informed” about what’s happening. He opens the window and Trump’s face fills the screen. There’s a round of boos from the students. He pauses the video. He says to the class (without attribution to Michelle Obama) that it’s time for them to “go high” and “be above that.” He reminds the class that many of them were upset when they watched footage of the first debate—how Trump interrupted Clinton. He tells the kids, “You don’t have to be like that. You don’t have to call names or boo. … You can listen to their words and create arguments to counter them.” Students fall quiet and start watching the news again, without further discussion. …

 

December 2017

One year into the Trump presidency, teachers here are framing everything as back to normal. Because the school is explicitly committed to social justice, the 2016 election actually prompted a spike of explicit resistance—initially. Soon after the election, a bulletin board in a central school hallway was dedicated to a trio of Shepard Fairey posters depicting a black woman in dreads, a Latina woman wearing a United Farm Workers t-shirt, and a woman with a hijab made of the American flag. Under the art, slogans proclaimed, “We the people are greater than fear,” “We the people defend dignity,” and “We the people protect each other.” The posters stayed up until the end of the school year. In January 2017, a group of teachers worked with the student council to plan a “No Ban! No Wall!” rally. In March, following an increase in deportations, the school brought a local immigration lawyer in one evening for a “Know Your Rights” workshop. Additional community events that spring included panels about police brutality and school integration. 

By the time I returned to the school in December 2017, however, both student anxieties and student-teacher activism had significantly subsided—at least from sixth-grade teachers’ perspectives. They told me that this year’s sixth-graders rarely talk about politics. A year after the election, kids talk about Trump as if he is a joke, not a threat. Last year, sixth-grade social studies spent time each week watching CNN Student News, even though one teacher felt the news was a bit “watered down … in a way that I don’t think is useful for the kids.” This year, they rarely discuss current events in social studies at all. In one class discussion, students made connections between the patriarchies of the ancient world and the outcome of the 2016 election, attributing Hillary Clinton’s loss to contemporary sexism. But that was just one lesson, and it was an outlier; teachers noted it primarily because it reminded them of the differences between last year and this year.
 
The English language arts teacher told me that she’s not sure why, but this year’s cohort is less outspoken about politics. Maybe it’s their personalities, she says. Maybe it’s because there’s much less talk of border walls or deportations in the local news than there was last spring, when a spike of February/March deportations received substantive news coverage. Or maybe it’s because there are no Muslim sixth-graders this year, she muses. Listening to her, I wonder aloud whether, one year into the new administration, students might be less comfortable sharing their anxieties, or if their families may have urged them to keep their concerns private. She nods that this might be the case. (Privately, I wonder whether exhaustion with controversy also plays a role in this year’s subdued tone.) Either way, since the sixth-graders aren’t talking about their concerns, neither are the teachers. Teachers’ commitment to social justice has returned to a focus on the well-being of their most underserved students. As they told me repeatedly over the past 18 months, “These kids are only 11,” and they don’t want to push them further than they are ready to go. The staff’s sense of emergency has dissipated; after a turbulent spring, their energetic activism has dissipated too. While they still have “social issues reading groups” in English language arts and talk about patriarchy in social studies, they are saving further protests for the next emergency. The school is back to business as usual.

Freidus is a doctoral candidate in Urban Education at New York University. Her work is informed by more than 15 years experience teaching high school social studies and leading professional development in K–12 schools.