Bridging the divide

Red meets blue: How students can find common ground in Trump’s America

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Student leaders in Memphis talk about how to facilitate conversations at their high schools to promote honesty, respect and understanding in a divided America.

A group of Arizona students proudly unfurl a Confederate flag during the Pledge of Allegiance. Male students in Indiana are emboldened to touch girls inappropriately. In Tennessee, a student declares that Spanish classes aren’t needed because President-elect Donald Trump is “sending all the Mexicans back.”

In the wake of Trump’s election in November, reports of derogatory language, harassment and even assault have increased substantially in America’s schools, according to a national survey of more than 10,000 educators.

Now as the nation prepares for Trump’s inauguration on Friday, numerous groups are working to equip student leaders to help their classmates find common ground in an increasingly polarized climate.

Chalkbeat listened in recently in Memphis as six student leaders from different schools and diverse backgrounds talked about how to foster understanding. The discussion was organized by Facing History and Ourselves, a nonprofit organization that trains students of diverse ideologies and identities to examine prejudice together.

The student leaders came together from public and private schools in parts of Shelby County that are both red and blue. They represent ideologies that are conservative, moderate and liberal in a city where nearly one in three people live in poverty and schools have become increasingly racially segregated. Here are five themes that emerged:

Recognize that polarization exists.

Students first must acknowledge that healing is needed, said Khamilla Johnson, a 17-year-old black student at Overton High School.

“There are a lot of people who feel like there’s no need to heal because there’s nothing wrong,” she said. “So, first of all, we have to educate people on the different perspectives of what’s happened, especially coming from the different diversity of America. There are certain groups that have felt attacked during the election, post-election.”

Set a tone that honors honesty and respect.

Leodan Rodriguez, a senior at White Station High School, helped to frame the conversation at his school just two days after Election Day.

In a video of his remarks over the school’s loudspeaker, Rodriguez called on classmates to focus on their similarities in one of the most diverse schools in the city. It was important, he said, to assure students that they could speak out honestly, as long as they do so respectfully.

“From there, so many conversations were brought in different classes with so many groups of students, which I really liked,” said Rodriguez, a first-generation Mexican-American who voted in his first presidential election in November. Before that day, “I felt like there was such a lack of conversation and a lack of exposure to this type of environment where you’re able to speak out and not be necessarily judged for it.”

Among those who felt anxiety at her school was Addie Quinlen, an 18-year-old senior at St. Mary’s Episcopal School, who voted for a third-party candidate. As a white conservative, she felt under attack and ostracized for her beliefs amid the heat of the campaign rhetoric.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Amal Altareb speaks with student leaders from other schools.

“(Students and teachers were) looking at Donald Trump and saying this man is hateful. This man is intolerant. And it felt like everyone was turning around and treating his supporters in the same way,” she said of the day after the election. “Even if you don’t feel like you can’t respect their opinion, you can respect their right to their opinion. And I think my school lost that that day. But hopefully we can regain that.”

A climate of fear and anxiety can have a chilling effect on free speech, said Amal Altareb, a Muslim who attends Central High School. She said that, though most students at her school were upset by Trump’s victory, many would not speak up during class discussions.

“What I didn’t like was in every classroom that I went to, almost the whole class would agree on the same side and I felt like there were some students who disagreed but they did not have enough courage to say I disagree with you because the whole class would attack them,” she said.

Through Facing History and Ourselves, student leaders are trained to facilitate discussion, often setting up “contracts” that include showing respect, being honest, suspending judgment, and not making assumptions about others with different opinions.


Read Chalkbeat’s story on what we saw and heard in Tennessee schools on the day after Election Day.


“When everyone gets to talk, everyone talks less” from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Identify common goals.

In a divisive climate, students must be reminded that they also have things in common, which can be a starting point for conversation, said Altareb.

“I think a way that could bridge the division in America is to remind everyone that everyone wants to make America great again,” the 16-year-old junior said of Trump’s campaign slogan. “Everyone wants to live a comfortable life where they’re not discriminated against, where they have jobs, good education, just whatever. Everyone wants to have a good life and that’s our common goal.”

“I’m going to trust my president-elect” from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Watch after students who are vulnerable.

In an emotionally charged environment, it’s imperative to speak out against discrimination of vulnerable groups, the students agreed.

Ema Wagner

Rodriguez’s speech, for instance, was in response to reports that students yelled “Go Trump” in the halls of White Station High School in an effort to intimidate Hispanic students.

“On either side, we like to ignore certain groups of people because they’re small or they disagree with us, so we just want to put that out of our minds,” said Ema Wagner, a senior at White Station. “But with learning about different perspectives, we need to stop ignoring other people that are different than us because that’s just a sore that festers.”

Emphasize the value of listening to each other.

While Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton easily carried the vote in urban Memphis, Rahm Bakshi is a senior at Arlington High School in the Memphis bedroom community of Arlington, where Trump received strong support. Noting that his classmates’ political conversation happened mostly online, Bakshi observed that both conservative and liberal students became “echo chambers” of what they heard on social media, rather than seeking to listen to each other.

“In a lot of the mainstream media, I noticed a lot of fear mongering on both sides. That just divides everyone. Because, you know, fear is an emotion. It’s not rational,” Bakshi said. “And I feel like it still does happen on both sides.”

He continued: “It’s not about the side, it’s about the truth. I’d rather believe the truth than the agenda or narrative that someone is spewing for whoever.”

Quinlen hopes she and other student leaders can do a better job of promoting understanding as the nation transitions to a new president.

“I don’t think it’s possible for us to get it perfectly right, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t work on it,” she said. “And that doesn’t mean that we can’t improve where we are.”

try try again

Why this Bronx middle school believes in second — and third — chances

PHOTO: Christina Veiga
Vincent Gassetto, the principal M.S. 343, hugs a staff member after winning the Teaching Matters prize in July 2017.

Teachers at M.S. 343 in the South Bronx had a problem: Their lessons weren’t sticking.

Students initially would test well on fundamental concepts — such as multi-digit long division or calculating the rate of change. But that knowledge seemed to melt away on follow-up exams just months or even weeks later.

The solution that teachers developed, based on providing constant feedback to students and encouraging regular collaboration among staff, has helped M.S. 343 beat district averages on standardized tests. It has also landed the school a $25,000 prize.

This week, M.S. 343 won the Elizabeth Rohatyn Prize, which is awarded to public schools that foster great teaching. Presented by the nonprofit Teaching Matters, the award money will go toward building a digital platform that students and teachers can use to track their progress from anywhere, at any time.

The work at M.S. 343 starts with determining which skills teachers will emphasize and test throughout the year. Working together, teachers draw on what they already know about which concepts are most likely to trip students up, contribute to success in later grades or appear on standardized tests. A key concept could be understanding ratios in sixth grade or mastering scientific notation by eighth grade.

“It’s all in the teachers’ hands,” said Principal Vincent Gassetto.

Students are regularly tested with “learning targets.” But they’re also given three chances to prove they’ve mastered the skills. Gassetto said the approach is backed by neuroscience, which suggests the best way to learn is to use the knowledge multiple times, instead of cramming for a single test.

“That actually tells the brain: You’re being tested on this, it’s important. And that stores it in a part of the brain that’s easily retrievable,” he said.

Only the highest score will be recorded, which serves a different purpose: boosting students’ confidence in themselves as learners.

“We’re celebrating their progress, not necessarily the end result,” math teacher Lola Dupuy explained in a video the school produced. “It can be very confusing for a student to receive a failing grade and very discouraging for them if they don’t know … what they’re doing wrong and what they need to do to improve it.”

In between tests, each department comes together to analyze students’ answers. They zero in on common misconceptions and come up with a list of questions for students to ask themselves when reviewing their work.

Using the questions as a guide, it’s up to the students to figure out where they went wrong, often by working in groups with peers with varying skill levels.

“Students are more engaged in their work and the outcomes are better because they’re self-reflecting,” Dupuy said.

M.S. 343’s approach also gets at a common knock on testing: The results are rarely used to improve teaching and students often don’t have the opportunity to learn from their mistakes. At M.S. 343, teachers spend entire weeks meeting as a team to go over results and fine-tune their instruction. That time, Gassetto said, is a valuable resource.

“Most of the time, when you give a big assessment,” Gassetto said, “you’re testing, but for what purpose? We don’t do that. If we’re going to ask kids to sit down and take an assessment, we need to look at it and get it back to them right away, so it’s useful.”

promoting choice

Betsy DeVos defends vouchers and slams AFT in her speech to conservatives

U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos rallied a conservative crowd in Denver on Thursday, criticizing teachers unions and local protesters and defending private-school vouchers as a way to help disadvantaged students.

“Our opponents, the defenders of the status quo, only protest those capable of implementing real change,” DeVos told members of the American Legislative Exchange Council, an influential conservative group that helps shape legislative policy across the country. “You represent real change.”

DeVos delivered the keynote speech at the ALEC meeting, where she reiterated her support for local control of schools and school choice. Citing the conservative former British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, she said education should be about individual students and families, not school systems.

“Lady Thatcher regretted that too many seem to blame all their problems on society. But, ‘who is society?’” DeVos asked, quoting Thatcher. “‘There is no such thing!’”

The American Federation of Teachers, she said, has exactly the opposite idea.

“Parents have seen that defenders of the status quo don’t have their kids’ interests at heart,” she said.

AFT President Randi Weingarten threw punches of her own Thursday, calling private school vouchers “only slightly more polite cousins of segregation” in a Washington, D.C. speech.

DeVos highlighted states that have introduced vouchers or new school-choice programs including North Carolina, Kentucky and Arizona. Indiana — home to the nation’s largest voucher program — also won praise.

Data from existing voucher programs may have sparked the one critical question DeVos faced, during a brief sit-down after her speech. Legislators want to know how to respond to complaints that voucher programs only help wealthy families, the moderator, an Arizona lawmaker, told DeVos.

In Indiana, for instance, vouchers are increasingly popular in wealthy school districts and among families whose students had not previously attended public school.

“I just dismiss that as a patently false argument,” DeVos said. “Wealthy people already have choice. They’re making choices every day, every year, by moving somewhere where they determine the schools are right for their children or by paying tuition if they haven’t moved somewhere.”

Earlier this year, DeVos criticized Denver as not offering enough school choice because Colorado does not have private school vouchers. Still, presenters at the conference Thursday introduced Denver to ALEC members — conservative legislators, business leaders and lobbyists — as “living proof” that charter schools and competition work.

A local Denver school board candidate, Tay Anderson, and state union leaders held a protest Wednesday ahead of DeVos’s speech. Attendees said they were concerned that ALEC’s efforts, and DeVos’s focus on vouchers and school choice, would hurt public schools.

DeVos didn’t make mention of Denver or Colorado in her speech Thursday, but she briefly referenced the protest.

“I consider the excitement a badge of honor, and so should you,” she said.