Nearly 100 teachers gathered Tuesday in a large room at YouthBuild Philadelphia Charter School for an event called “Educating in the Time of Trump” that was organized by the Philadelphia Teacher Action Group (TAG).
“We are being called to really align ourselves and our practice with our values in order to push our society away from racism, materialism, and militarism, and towards a society really driven by equity,” said Anissa Weinraub, an organizer with TAG and a teacher in her 11th year with the District. She explicitly referenced Martin Luther King Jr.’s idea of what he called the “giant triplets:” racism, materialism, and militarism, which King said enable a society to prioritize property rights, technology, and profit motives over the rights of people.
“We know that those things don’t start in our classrooms, but they come into our classrooms,” said Hanako Franz, who is also a former teacher and a TAG organizer. She pointed out that Trump’s choice for education secretary, Betsy DeVos, supports the privatization of education.
Most of their students, the teachers said, had been feeling the effects of a fundamentally inequitable society long before Trump came on the scene. But his commitment to education privatization, among other policies, has the potential to make their lives more difficult, teachers said.
“Through things like vouchers, schools would continue to deteriorate as they lose resources,” Franz said. “We don’t know what’s going to happen to [students] or their families in our schools and our communities.”
Weinraub said that teachers, students, and community members are “going to have to get strategic and form ourselves into collective organizations. What as educators are we willing to do in our city? Are we willing to help give sanctuary to immigrants? Are we willing to help make fundamental economic changes like the Fight for $15? Are we willing to push back against the over-policing of our black and brown neighbors? That’s why we have each other.”
The event was moved to YouthBuild after more people signed up than would fit in the original venue. Franz said that about half the attendees were brand-new to the group. “Our intention is to connect with people and grow our network,” she said.
The educators split into groups of about a dozen each, based on the age of the students they taught, to discuss the challenges they face in classrooms and communities. Elementary teachers were the largest sector in attendance, then middle and high school teachers, and a handful from higher education. One small group was a mixture of teachers and staff who worked with all ages. Many were concerned because they had a difficult time getting students to talk about Trump.
“For a lot of underserved youth, it’s not their immediate concern,” said Anthony Smith, a community projects coordinator at YouthBuild and a member of the Philadelphia Coalition for Racial, Economic, and Legal (REAL) Justice
. “They have a lot of material concerns that don’t revolve around the election. Most students have police brutality stories from years ago — before Donald Trump was elected.”
Because of students' experiences and environment, he said, it is a challenge to get them to think about politics through another prism besides “the duality of good and evil.”
Chris Rogers, a young African American former teacher who founded JustMaybeCo., a curriculum startup dedicated to providing progressive educational content, said he grapples with two approaches to lessons.
“The first says that America is a country with great flaws and we’re just not living up to our ideals," he said. "The second says this country is built on white supremacy and Trump’s election is just chickens coming home to roost. Both lessons have a nugget of truth in them. I’d take 10 minutes each and do both. … How we choose to respond can’t just be a reaction to what we saw on election night.”
Leah Dirkse, who facilitates afterschool workshops for Women Against Rape, said she was talking with middle schoolers about sexual assault even before Trump was elected.
“I talk about different behaviors that qualify as sexual assault, and now I’m able to use the Trump tapes to demonstrate those behaviors,” she said, then paused. “But I’m also trying to figure out how to go deeper.”
For Smith, the community projects coordinator, the real issues transcend Trump’s election and partisan politics in general.
“I like to focus on the issues that came before Trump,” Smith said. “We’ve already been in a fight with the city [council] for funding, but we have Democrats in Philadelphia. So it’s not just a Republican thing. … Why am I worried about Trump when a student got choked by a police officer earlier this year? We’ve got to focus on the issues.”
Added Rebekah Dommel, who teaches math at YouthBuild to former high school dropouts who have returned to earn a diploma: "It’s not like this started with Trump. This is a long history. If we don’t acknowledge that this stuff happened, then we’re blind to what’s really going on now.”
Ismael Jimenez, an 11th-grade African American history teacher at Kensington CAPA, said that under President Obama, he has had difficulty getting his students to “feel the fire.”
“The people who are going to be the most affected are also the most disaffected with our mainstream dialogue,” said Jimenez. But he feels hopeful because “they don’t have an Obama illusion over their president.”
Every year, Dommel has her math class look at infographics, and she likes to use one about high school dropout rates. She said the exercise reveals how her students, most of them African American and Democrats, have internalized a self-defeating narrative about themselves that is promoted mostly by conservative elements of U.S. society.
When she shows them the graphic comparing dropout rates among different racial demographics, she asks: “'Why do you think White students drop out at a lower rate than Black students?' And almost every student says it’s because those [Black] students who dropped out don’t care or didn’t work hard enough. It’s a space for me to open the discussion and push back: 'What was your school like before you came here? What are schools like in the suburbs? Did your school have enough books for everyone? Is there something bigger going on?' It’s about more than just an individual’s choices.”
Smith said, “They don’t get that they were excluded from economic opportunities. They think in terms of ‘I’m not good enough’ or ‘I’m not smart enough.”
Jimenez, one of the more senior teachers present, assured some of the younger educators that pushing students to analyze their society and the systems within it is exactly what they should be doing.
“An educator’s role is not to be neutral,” Jimenez said. “There is no such thing as objectivity in education. I tell my students right off the bat that I’m biased and give them my opinions upfront.”
Jimenez also emphasized the importance of giving historical context. “I’ve seen a lot of teachers who seem to traumatize students with the mythology that this is all coming from Trump right now.”
Rogers, who founded the curriculum company, said he wants to figure out “where we go from here that isn’t anchored in a response to Trump as an individual, but as a response to an ideology that has been here since this country’s birth.” He said that the writer and social critic James Baldwin was a good place to start. “If they look at it even once, it can begin a conversation.”
Kristin Luebbert, a veteran educator who teaches reading and writing to 7th and 8th graders at Bache-Martin, a K-8 school in Fairmount, said her students “tend to conflate Jim Crow era laws with slavery.”
Since the election, she’s been seeing a different conflation. “We read a piece by [U.S. Rep.] John Lewis about the Freedom Riders. They knew this was in the '50s.”
But they made the connection, she said, that life under Trump for those fighting for racial justice might be a throwback to that era.
Luebbert said that since the election, she’s already had to deal with immigrant students’ fear: She heard two of her Dominican students teasing each other about who would get deported first. “I have no idea of their immigration status, but they clearly had it on their minds. I think their anxiety about it was why they were teasing each other. We had to unpack that.”
Assata, who declined to give her last name, is a staff member at YouthBuild who runs a student workshop about social change. She said that the anxiety around the threat to immigrants from the federal government didn’t start with Trump and that he has just exacerbated it. “In the circles I run in, folks joked about being surveilled long before Trump won.”
She said that the day after the election, they started school with a community meeting. “So many students came in and said ‘I don’t want to talk about this.
“I’m having to navigate these conversations with my students about what they’ve internalized about their own communities. When I ask my students what they want their leaders to look like, they can’t imagine it.”
Although some educators and others may feel compelled to navigate these conversations now, “so many students already have been,” Assata said.
“I think a lot of teachers just don’t want to talk about it,” Luebbert said, especially in elementary schools. They think it is not appropriate and are afraid of who might complain.
Assata stressed the need for better resources to teach about social movements that are often left out of history textbooks and about the uglier history of the country. She mentioned the Netflix documentary 13th about the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, as a great resource. But she added that it digs into the issue at a level that may be inaccessible to her students.
After more than an hour of group discussion, the educators reconvened to share commitments they were making for the future.
Weinraub encouraged attendees to sign up for TAG’s Inquiry Action Groups, in which teachers study an issue and plan strategies to accomplish related goals. Upcoming action groups will address issues that include immigrant justice, facilitating discussion about race with white teachers, environmental justice, and the history of grassroots movements in Philadelphia.
Within 48 hours, TAG sent out an email
containing a list of classroom resources, related articles, and relevant national education organizations. The second part of the event will be held at YouthBuild at 5:30 p.m. on Dec. 14.
TAG is also organizing its annual education conference toward the end of the school year.
Closing the event, Jimenez announced that he and several other African American history teachers in the District are holding a conference on Feb. 11 at Kensington CAPA about organizing to ensure that the curriculum in their subject doesn’t get whitewashed.
“Next year we’ll have another conference, where hopefully our final product of a post-civil rights curriculum can be revealed,” he said.
His final words echoed something he said earlier in a group discussion: “I’m trying to encourage folks: Don’t just talk about it, be about it. Words mean nothing without action, and language is not neutral.”