First Person

What my students wrote on the day after Trump won, the most intense day of my teaching career

Donald J. Trump at a Republican primary debate in Boulder (RJ Sangosti, The Denver Post).

Nathan Pai Schmitt is an English teacher at STRIVE Prep Excel high school in Denver. He is also co-founder and student mentor at HackSchool, a socially conscious makerspace that serves students from three Denver high schools.

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Wednesday was the most intense day in my teaching career. For many of our students, it was one of the worst days of their life. What did it feel like to walk into school the morning after Donald Trump was elected president? Fear.

It doesn’t matter whether you agree or disagree with our students politically. It’s easy to criticize people’s opinions. It’s harder to look a crying teenager in the eyes and say something meaningful.

By their words, I heard the American dream die twelve times before lunch. Our job is to help them put it back together.

Our students wanted to process the election results. So we did. Some of their words were optimistic, and some of their words were not. They wanted to give advice to younger students (and, I suspect, to themselves). And let me tell you: these words were hard-earned.

Enough from me. Here’s what they had to say. The quotes are from letters the students wrote. Many students wanted to write to younger students, and many just wanted to free-write their thoughts.

“I’m scared that if my dad gets deported, they’re going to kill him when he tries to come back to me.”

“Nobody deserves to fear the president. You should change this fear into action, eventually. Don’t rush your feelings! Feel the way you want and don’t let anybody tell you that you’re feeling wrong.”

“Many of you might feel that there is nothing in your will to change the outcome, but you can change yourself. Education really is the key to salvation. Being an understanding, humble person can take you so far in life. Do not let fear and hatred overcome you.”

“Do not be afraid of standing up for what you believe in. Do not let this election discourage you as a person or where you came from, but let it be a lesson to you. Educate yourself and understand the sexism and racism in this world. Today is a day to grieve, but from then on it’s a fight. It’s a fight every day so that one day there will be a pure world with no hate. We may never be alive to see that day come, but know in our hearts that we fought for it to be possible.”

“He has only proved that we were wrong when we tried to believe that as Americans, we are smart, talented, and progressive. We aren’t. We have shown the face of hate across our country. Americans can be selfish, but all of this is okay. We cannot change it. We can only continue and be proud to be so diverse.”

“Why should I keep working hard? America has turned it’s back on immigrants.”

“I know most of you guys and girls are afraid, sad, and broken, and you really don’t know what to do. I know everyone is afraid to lose your loved ones, especially if you’re a minority. I can’t lie. I’m broken too. Shit, I’m even sad, but I’ve learned that the only way things will get better is if we all stick to our dreams and what things are important to us. What happened yesterday with the presidential election is gone. Trump is the face of the country, but that shouldn’t matter. Your family, your friends, everyone you love, your dreams, and hope, even yourself is what matters.”

“I, along with the 10-11 million undocumented immigrants living in this country, now have to live in even more fear. We didn’t have a voice in the election and for the next four consecutive years, our voice will continue to remain unheard. We live in a country where injustices happen all around us. We as people have to stand up against these — and most importantly, if you have the right, vote!”

“Stay positive and don’t let this election bring you down. This election was to bring each other together and it should motivate us to want to change the world and to educate ourselves. What’s crazy is that when we think of Trump, we think of hate, but that doesn’t mean we should hate. We should keep showing love and staying positive. If we all come together, we could make a change.”

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First Person

How I stopped wishing for ‘seventh-period flu’ and came to love my first year teaching

PHOTO: Richard Delmendo
The author, Autumn Jones, in her classroom.

Ubaldo and I had a rough start.

Ubaldo is a lanky eighth-grade boy. He prides himself on baseball, basketball and disrupting classes.

He also refused to do any work in my journalism class. He ditched one day, was tardy the next two. He asked to go to the bathroom constantly. We went up the “discipline ladder” daily.

I struggled big time with Ubaldo and his entire class. We dealt with plagiarism, disruptions, and an overall lack of participation. In anything. At all. I started calling them my “dead fish” class. Actually, I think dead fish would have been better.

Every day, I walked out of that class defeated. I thought about finding a weeks-long movie and playing it for the rest of class. I desperately wanted to come down with the seventh-period flu.

One morning, Ubaldo was due in my room for a follow-up conversation about his latest blowup. He shrugged his shoulders and rolled his eyes when I asked him what was going on in class. The only thing he could land on was that he was bored and didn’t want to be a journalist. He wanted to be in gym.

At that point, I stopped. I turned the conversation to my initial stories as a writer. I pulled up the first list of obituaries I wrote for the Gonzaga Quarterly (now Gonzaga Magazine) and I showed him those short little blurbs  —  someone’s name, date of birth, date of death, location and not a whole lot else. They weren’t the most exciting thing to write, I told him, but they helped me learn the structure of storytelling and AP Style.

Next, I pulled up some feature obituaries  —  stories that told more about a person’s life, their family, their hobbies, their impact on the world  —  at which point Ubaldo said, “You only wrote stories about dead people?”

After we both laughed, I told him, “No, but this is how I got my start as a writer.”

We went on to have a conversation about how things start out  —  in sports, in academics and in life  —  and how those things, like the first obituaries, provide the structure we can later expand from. I told him that we have to know the rules before we can break them. He liked that part.

We had a much longer conversation that morning. We didn’t spend much time on his outburst in class the day before. Instead, we talked about his pending high school acceptance, his family and his fears of being deported. His sister, a senior in high school, is a part of the government’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. In the current climate, that feels like it poses a huge risk for their entire family. He is afraid. Many of his friends are, too.

At the time, Ubaldo didn’t know where he was going to high school. (Denver allows students to apply to their choice of high school.) Getting into a good high school could be the ticket to higher education and a ticket to a better life for himself and his family. At 13 years old, Ubaldo faces far more uncertainty in his daily life than many of us face in the entirety of life.

That conversation changed how I approached my classroom. Ubaldo wasn’t causing chaos out of spite. Quite the opposite actually. Ubaldo, like every other student at my school, needs someone to listen, someone to care, someone to respond to the difficulties he is facing.

I wish I could say that particular classroom dynamic got better overnight. Or that, in an instant, some of my kids decided they were going to be journalists in their future careers. That didn’t happen.

It was a struggle until the end with that class, but Ubaldo bought in. More importantly, I bought in, too.

I showed up and I continued to teach. I pumped that class full of goofy activities and relationship-building exercises, despite the eye rolls. I shared more of my life story, even when it felt like there wasn’t an ounce of empathy anywhere in those four walls.

I now have a new group of seventh and eighth graders in my journalism class, a group that is talkative, friendly, excited and enthusiastic about the material and each other. That’s given me another insight: There are students  —  maybe entire classes  —  who are not going to love the content of my classes. There are also students who are going to buy in to such an extent you can see them working in media production, coding the next great news website or becoming a future New York Times columnist.

Regardless, my classroom will regularly be a space where preteens are looking for affirmation, assurance and love. That I can give.

A few weeks ago, in front of about 200 families, teachers and kids, Ubaldo presented a sports broadcast video he created for my class. He was one of two students to select the most difficult option for a project-based learning assignment. And Ubaldo got into one of the best high schools in Denver.

I know it doesn’t always work out that way. Not everyone gets to experience such a quick turnaround in behavior, attitude or academics. But it did this time, and, whether it happens one or 100 more times, it’s what will keep me coming back to the classroom.

Autumn Jones is a teacher at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, a 1st-8th grade school in Denver Public Schools where she teaches journalism, digital media and online safety. She previously worked in marketing, public relations and journalism and volunteered with CU Boulder’s Public Achievement program.

First Person

How I learned not to be ‘that mom’ — while keeping up the good fight for my son with a learning disability

The author and her son.

Each day, I do all in my power to fight the “good fight” for my son. I was his first teacher, after all.

But it hasn’t always been easy to know the right way to fight it.

In early 2016, my son was diagnosed with dysgraphia, a learning disability similar to dyslexia. Instead of manifesting itself in his reading ability, it was identified by his inability to write. This is a difficult situation for a school, especially pre-diagnosis. When a child is able to verbally articulate content but has limited capacity to express those ideas in written form, teachers often label that child as lazy, unmotivated, volitionally unwilling to engage.

Post-diagnosis, though, there is support available for students who struggle to overcome a learning disability, from individual education plans to resource teachers and and technology assists. For my son, however, these tools did not materialize.

It was lonely, trekking to and from school with suggestions from a learning therapist and watching them go unimplemented. As a mother, more than a few other emotions colored the experience: frustration, exhaustion, confusion, anger.

These feelings were especially acute as I realized his school was not adjusting the way they taught or interacted with my son, despite the policy and legislation that said they must.

A former teacher and administrator, I know all too well how easy it is for a parent to place blame on teachers. I know, too, that it takes effort to work with a student’s learning disability — effort that was not on display in his classroom.

Why? Had I turned into “that mom,” the one whose email address or phone number’s very appearance on a screen makes a teacher want to throw their phone off a cliff? Did they not like my son? Was he really not trying? What was I doing wrong?

Anger and self-doubt were not helping my son or the situation at his school. I want to fight the good fight for him, and, to me, that means making sure the transition to understanding and meeting the needs of his dysgraphia is a positive one. For him, for his school, for me.

I was determined to cut through the fog of inaction and use it to teach my son about perseverance. It is a parent’s responsibility to be involved, to embrace the struggle, and to demonstrate how collaboration and cooperation can yield much, much more than anger, blame, or avoidance ever will.

With this understanding, I had to pivot. I had to be resourceful and strategic, and to listen to my instincts as a parent. I wouldn’t lay in wait to ambush teachers as school let out or escalate every incident to the principal’s level, but neither would I take no for an answer.

I would, however, continue to educate the staff about dysgraphia; share promising strategies for supporting students with learning disabilities; inform other parents of the school’s legal obligations and responsibilities; volunteer as often as possible to develop positive relationships with those who watched over my son’s education; and celebrate the successes and discuss the challenges with everyone involved.

We are all familiar with the proverb, “It takes a village to raise a child.” But for parents, especially, it can be helpful to acknowledge that not all villagers share their same level of commitment to their child. It can sometimes be on us to fill in knowledge gaps and help other adults adapt to new roles when a child needs support — to enlist fellow soldiers to join us in the good fight on behalf of those who are not yet able to do so.

Amy Valentine is the director of the Foundation for Blended and Online Learning, and previously served as executive director of three virtual schools in Colorado.