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

‘I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support’: Why it matters to have teachers who look like me

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

For 10 years — the first decade I was in school — all my teachers were white women.

As a Mexican-American kid, I didn’t get the chance to have a man of color as a teacher until high school. Going into my senior year, I like how diverse my teachers are now, but I wish I’d had the same experience when I was younger.

When I think about why it matters to have a teacher I can relate to, I think back to fifth grade. A classmate said to me, “Mexicans are illegal—they cross the border every day! How about you, did you cross the border?” This bothered me. So, after class, I asked the teacher for help. But all she said was, “That’s OK, he was just playing.” From there, I had nowhere to go. She was at the top of the food chain.

In 1990, before they met, my mother and father came over the border from Mexico. My mom’s parents weren’t making enough profit from their cattle ranch, so they had little choice but to immigrate. My mom came with them to the United States and worked at a restaurant so she could send money back home. My father followed his older brother here because he wanted to start a new life. Little did he know he would one day cross paths with my mother and eventually start a family.

But my classmate was “just playing” when he insulted all of this. I wish my teacher had done something else.

If I’d been the teacher, I would’ve taken a different approach and worked to understand why we were acting and responding the way we were. Maybe the other student and I could’ve found common ground. But, unfortunately, we never had a chance to try.

Up until ninth grade, I had zero male teachers of color. I didn’t feel like I had anyone to ask for support when things like the fifth-grade incident happened. Many of us students felt that way — and that’s why I want to be a teacher, a fifth-grade teacher in particular. I want to make my culture an asset in the classroom and be a teacher students feel comfortable confiding in, no matter their background.

A teacher’s perspective: Cut from the same cloth: Why it matters that black male teachers like me aren’t alone in our schools

In middle school, I started seeing more male educators, but they were all white. Then, when it came time for me to start high school, I ended up going to school in a different neighborhood — an hour commute away—and things finally changed for me. Since starting high school, I’ve had six male teachers of color, and it’s made a huge difference.

My high school makes a big deal out of the whole “building relationships” thing. To my teachers and everyone else at the school, relationships are just as important as academics. At first, it was hard to get used to, but eventually it started making sense to me. I’m in an all-male mentorship group led by two African-American men who openly share about their struggles growing up in New York, and give us advice in any area of life — including what it means to appreciate our cultures. This is one of the things I like most about my school.

It’s hard to explain the way it feels to have a teacher who looks like you; they’re like older brothers who become a huge part of our lives, even if it’s just for four years. They make it easier to connect and socialize and help me feel more like I belong. To me, learning from someone who reflects who you are is one of the best things a student can experience.

Near the end of the school year, my mentorship group did an activity where we took turns getting asked questions by other students and staff. One of the mentors asked me, “What’s it like being Mexican American and how has your background influenced your goals?” No one had ever asked me that before, and it took a long time for me to process the question.

After a few moments, I spoke a bit about my family’s story and shared some of the stereotypes I had encountered and how they affect me today. Everyone was so supportive, and the mentors encouraged me to continue breaking stereotypes and defining myself rather than letting others define me.

It was nerve-wracking at first, telling my story in that group, but after three years of high school, we’d developed that level of trust. It was the first time I’d shared my story with that many people at once, but it felt intimate and very different from the time in fifth grade when that kid tried to tell my story for me.

Finally having teachers that look like me has made a huge difference. They don’t just mentor me and help me with my academics, they also make my goal of becoming a teacher seem more realistic.

Having men of color I can look up to and model myself after is a big part of why I have no doubt I’ll make it to college — and eventually be able to give other kids the type of help my mentors have given me. I know where I’m needed, and that’s where I’m headed.

Jose Romero is a senior at EPIC High School North in Queens, New York. This piece originally appeared on the blog of TNTP, a national nonprofit and advocacy group that trains new teachers.

First Person

A Queens teacher on Charlottesville: ‘It can’t just be teachers of color’ offering lessons on race

PHOTO: Bob Mical/Creative Commons

In a few short weeks, school will resume in New York and I’m already thinking about how we are going to address racism within the four walls of my classroom. I’m thinking about what texts, historical and current, we can read and films and documentaries we can watch to support dialogue, questioning, and solutions for combatting that ugly, pervasive thread in the fabric of our country’s patchwork quilt called racism.

Last year we read “Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass,” a former slave turned abolitionist, and juxtaposed its reading with a viewing of Ava DuVernay’s documentary “13th,” which discusses modern-day slavery in the guise of mass incarceration. Students asked questions of the documentary as they watched it and discussed those queries within their groups and with the class at large afterwards.

We do our children and ourselves a disservice when we don’t have these difficult conversations as a part of our collective curriculums. However, many teachers from various walks of life are neither well-versed nor fully comfortable discussing race on any level with their students. Not talking about racism won’t make it go away. If anything, not talking about racism in the classroom further perpetuates racist ideologies that are, at their root, born out of ignorance. Education’s goal is to dispel ignorance and replace it with truth.

With that being said, just how many teachers feel equipped to facilitate lessons that touch heavily upon race in the classroom? Not nearly enough.

According to Teaching Tolerance, “The dialogue about race should start in the classroom — the teacher-prep classroom, that is. Preservice teachers should be exploring multiculturalism and discussing ways to honor diversity in their future classrooms.”

But often, Hilton Kelly, a professor of education at Davidson College in North Carolina told the site, the coursework isn’t giving future teachers the training they need to talk about race. “Even when future teachers take courses on diversity and multiculturalism,” Kelly said, “those courses don’t take the critical approach to race that future teachers truly need.”

“Food, folklore and festivals are not the same as an analysis of race in America,” Kelly argued.

But an analysis of race in America is exactly what needs to happen. Furthermore, it can’t just be teachers of color solely facilitating such lessons in their classrooms.

I don’t want to write about the events going on in Virginia. I don’t want to think about it. I’m so tired of the hatred and I long for peace, but I can’t very well in good conscience remain silent. That would be akin to protesting with those hate-mongers in Virginia last weekend. I can’t just write about back-to-school shopping, lesson planning, and business-as-usual while my brothers and sisters in Virginia are being murdered in cold blood by white supremacist American Nazis.

Are the children of Virginia safe? Are our children anywhere safe? What can I do to make a difference within the hearts and minds of the children whom I teach? If education is our best vehicle for bringing about change — which it is— how am I going to infuse the lessons I teach with critical thinking and analysis about racism in the United States for the seventh-graders entrusted in my care? How are other educators planning to address these events with their students at every grade-level?

I pose these questions to all who are reading. Whether you are a teacher, a student, a parent, an administrator, or a community member, I plead with you to work together to create answers that work toward healthy conversations and hands-on action in the fight against racism.

Vivett Dukes is a teacher at Queens Collegiate: A College Board School. A version of this post first appeared on New York School Talk