The Bully Pulpit

Yesterday as I was doing a walk through, I stopped into an 8th grade Social Studies class. On the screen the teacher was showing the presidential debate and asking students to capture their questions and ideas through TodaysMeet, a great backchannel tool.  Because they have recently been covering the process of document analysis, he was asking them to write down claims that were being made so that they could later be checked for accuracy. The learning activity was well organized and students were very engaged. But what caught my eye was not so much what they were doing, but how they were reacting to the debate.  There was an electricity to the way that they reacted when Donald Trump was speaking, or interrupting.  They reacted with "OOOOOH" when he insulted Hillary Clinton.  For them it seemed like a more cerebral version of a UFC fight without all of the blood. When the teacher looked at the overall data from the student comments he found that students wrote 155 posts focusing on negative language or aggressive conduct. One of the students remarked in his reflection on the debate: "It's supposed to be a professional debate, but is more like a roasting match."
It got me thinking about the symbolic impact of having a presidential candidate like Trump.  We are often reminded about how important it has been for African American children to have experienced the Obama presidency.  Michelle Obama recently said: "I think when it comes to black kids, it means something for them to have spent most of their life seeing the family in the White House look like them." We can also anticipate that a Hillary presidency might have a similar impact on girls and young women.  But have we truly pondered the impact that a Trump presidency would have on children? We already have vast evidence that Trump's rhetoric has caused fear amongst many children from diverse ethnic and religious backgrounds.  The Southern Poverty Law Center's report, The Trump Effect, details multiple stories that are quite horrifying: children who fear deportation or violence, who wonder, why does my country hate me?

The impact has been as great on those children who feel emboldened to act in aggressive and discriminatory ways. Why on earth should they listen to school leaders or teachers who tell them that rude insults are unacceptable, when nearly half our country is supporting someone whose only mode of communication is bluster and intimidation.  How can we possibly tell them that sexist body shaming has no place in our society when Trump freely engages in it on a daily basis and suffers no decline in his credibility? They will most likely respond "hey, I am just acting like the president." Here is a list of behaviors that will likely become more prevalent:
  • Students threatening others with physical violence if they disagree
  • Students justifying cheating by saying: "If I get an A, I am just being smart."
  • Students blaming others whenever they fail. (the microphone was rigged! the questions weren't fair!)
  • Students ridiculing those who have disabilities. 
  • Students interrupting teachers and students while they are speaking. 
  • Students acting in openly racist and discriminatory ways. 
Hillary has recently run a series of ads that address the impact on children.  Her new Mirrors campaign shows the faces of young girls as they listen to the audio of Trump's chauvinistic taunts. Role Models came out back in July with the glazed eyes of children watching the TV as Trump spews incitements to violence and expletives.  The video called Grace is powerful in showing how Trump's ridicule of a reporter with a disability might impact the lives of children with similar impediments.

So this brings me back to some of my musings that I shared in a previous post back in March (#NotInMySchool). I fully agree with NYTimes journalist Brandon Stanton who wrote, "I've come to realize that opposing you(Trump) is no longer a political decision. It is a moral one." At our Open House next week, I will be sharing our newly developed Advisory Core Values with our parents. I plan on telling them that we may not remain silent when those values are threatened. Kevin Hicks, Head of Stevenson School recently shared on Facebook a letter that he sent out to parents at the beginning of this school year that I think captures the tone that I hope to achieve at Open House. He wrote: "Though it is generally considered inappropriate for teachers to advocate for one candidate over another in the context of their role, for a school to avoid discussing behavior that goes against its community standards is to risk confounding students who may mistake adults’ silence for either disengagement from or tacit agreement with such behavior. To be clear, the unusually intemperate rhetoric of some politicians and media figures—especially as they characterize their political opponents and address matters of difference among people—contradicts what we teach our students about empathy, civic engagement, and basic respect for others."

Over the next six weeks the tenor of the debate will likely become more fractious and ugly. The children in our schools will be watching us to see how we react. I hope that they are not met with deafening silence.


  1. Jeff, dearest, I do miss our shared reflections on the effect of adult actions/behave, on adolescent minds... Que saudades! Obrigada. Beijo

    1. Oi Gila... saudades tambem! Hoping to see you soon.

  2. I completely agree with everything stated in your post. Thank you for sharing your reflection on this difficult and increasingly ugly topic.


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