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Teachers across the country are taking unique approaches to bring students together

Calming students' fears after an increase in hateful incidents is a top priority, educators say

CNN  — 

Eric Witherspoon is superintendent of Evanston Township High School outside Chicago and when he arrived on campus the morning after the election, he knew he needed to do something.

“I was encountering students and I was realizing, ‘Oh my goodness. They’re dealing with their own personal emotions and trying to sort this out just as I, as an adult, am trying to do,’ ” said Witherspoon, now in his 11th year in his position.

So, with about 20 minutes spare between meetings, he jotted down some lines that he would deliver over the school’s PA system during the morning announcements.

“Once in a while it’s important that we pause and reflect on who we are and reaffirm our appreciation for one another,” he told the school’s roughly 3000 students. “You attend a school where we not only respect differences, we embrace our diversity.”

After mentioning diversity including race and ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation and special needs, he went on to urge students to be kind and caring to one another.

“Redouble your support to one another,” he said. “And even though we cannot always control what is going on in the larger world around us, we can define our own school, our own community.”

After his comments, students applauded and soon started coming to his office asking for a copy of his remarks, said Witherspoon. Staff members and parents emailed asking for copies too. He then began hearing from teachers within the community and eventually from educators across the state and the country, who either wanted copies or told him they were using his words with their own students.

“Within a day or two, we realized, ‘Oh my, this has gone viral,’ ” said Witherspoon, a lifelong educator who has served as superintendent for 28 years in four different districts in three different states.

Witherspoon realized how hungry people were to think about what had happened and put it all into perspective in terms of who they were and where they were in their lives. “That’s when I realized, ‘wow, this is just something that we all very much need … and on any end of the political spectrum’,” he said.

The number of hateful acts, including the posting of swastikas on school premises, has increased since Donald Trump was elected president, along with the occurrence of students across the country walking out of class in protest of Trump’s victory, leaving teachers and administrators on the front lines during a very divided time. They must try to calm students’ fears and bring school communities together.

Helping students find ways to get involved

At the Seattle Girls’ School, a grade 5-8 school where 35% of students identify themselves as non-white, eighth graders are already talking with faculty members about what they can do post-election.

Possible plans include producing a video that would offer a student-to-student message against hate crimes or hateful incidents that are happening in schools across the country, or partnering with organizations such as the Southern Poverty Law Center to help monitor hate crimes or hate incidents in schools.

The students are thinking up creative ways to give them a “more active voice and feel like this is not just something that has happened to them, but that they can be involved in what comes next,” said Barbara Frailey, assistant head of school for the Seattle Girls’ School.

Administrators say while no student that they know of has been subjected to a hateful or discriminatory act since Trump’s victory, there is a real concern on the part of many of the students.

“We have a student who wears a hijab and she spoke about being worried about wearing that publicly in society and what that might subject her to,” said Brenda Leaks, head of the school. Leaks adds that a couple of students use public transportation to get to and from school and had told her before the election that they didn’t feel scared to get on a bus by themselves, but they now worry that their president’s history and experiences may change things and “that other people might look at that and say, ‘Well, it’s OK. I’m just gonna grope someone’, ” she said.

Jennifer Frankling, a teacher at Lee M. Thurston High School in Redford, Michigan, said she sensed some fear and uncertainly on the part of her students after the election and that news stories of bullying incidents have only increased the anxiety.

While she said her husband voted for Trump and in no way can be categorized as someone who votes for hate, she knew the fear at school was real and that she needed to do something about it.

“My job as an educator is to let them know that so many people stand with them. No matter who a person voted for, bullying is never OK,” she said in an email to CNN.

Frankling asked if any of her students wanted to hear about the ‘safety pin movement’ she saw on Facebook, where people wear safety pins as a symbol that they support diversity, and eight of her juniors did. She brought out some beads and safety pins that she had bought at Walmart and the students quickly got to work.

When her journalism students – juniors and seniors – came in, they quickly wanted to help.

“Once we ran out of supplies and I promised to purchase more, I told the students to take as many pins as they would like and to share them with the others,” said Frankling, who’s also a mom of two, ages 9 and 12. “I have been bombarded with students and staff asking for a pin.”’

They made 300 pins and they’re all gone, she said adding, “I need to go to Walmart after school.”

Adjusting lessons for younger students, too

For younger children in elementary school, teachers are also doing a fair amount of listening and then adjusting of lesson plans. At an elementary AltSchool in San Francisco, part of a network of progressive schools in California and New York, students wrote down what they were feeling after the election.

“I’m sad that Donald Trump is president. I think he’s happy. I think Hillary Clinton is sad,” wrote one little girl, according to Maggie Quale, director of communications for AltSchools.

Asked why she thought Trump won, the little girl had said, “I don’t think he followed the directions. He should not have won,” said Quale. The teachers were hearing that over and over again from the kids, that Trump doesn’t follow the rules and how can somebody win who doesn’t follow the rules, she said.

At the school, teachers are now starting to do a lesson on rules, such as how do they create their own classroom rules, what happens when people don’t follow rules and what happens when the person in charge doesn’t follow them.

In Chicago, at Northside Catholic Academy, first grade teacher Raven Krupa decided to read a book to her students: “So You Want to be President,” by Judith St. George.

“I felt compelled to make sure they could learn from the election and move forward in a positive, productive manner,” said Krupa in an email to CNN. “I think that’s why I chose to read them a story about how they could become president one day.” To Krupa, it wasn’t about dwelling on the past or airing anger, but instead about thinking more productively and compelling her students to be agents of change.

She thinks reading the book helped mend a lot of wounds and get past their feelings and continues to use other moments, when they come up, to continue the discussion.

“There have been times where I’ve had my interactive projector on to pull up a math lesson and the news feed on my web browser shows a picture of Trump and I’ll hear a couple of kids sort of growl or say, ‘I don’t like him.’ ” said Krupa. “But even those moments are an opportunity to take the Catholic approach of respecting others no matter what differences we have and reminding them that they can be the change that this world needs by becoming president one day.”

‘Everything is going to be just fine’

At Lander-Grinspoon Academy, a Jewish day school in Northhampton, Massachusetts, administrators opened the library to parents the first three mornings after the election and invited some local rabbis to be on hand, said Deborah Bromberg Seltzer, the school’s principal.

Immediately after the election, teachers also spoke to students in a wide-ranging way depending on who the kids were and their ages, she said.

The entire school community of 65 students gathered at the end of the day for an assembly to sing folk songs and other “just good feeling” songs, said Bromberg Seltzer. The school also sponsored a concert on the weekend after the election by a local band, which performed for the community as a way to rally around supporting minorities and any people who felt threatened.

Even in western Massachusetts, a predominantly liberal area, there has been an upsurge in hate crimes or hateful incidents since the election. The crimes have been directed at African Americans, Muslims, Jews and Asians, said the principal.

“I think people feel disappointed but I think also feel scared,” she said. “Because we’re a school of minority students with a fairly high lesbian population, people feel scared.”

Because of that fear and uncertainty over what is to come, educators see their role in calming and guiding students, and helping them lead a respective discourse, as more important than ever.

“We have arrived at this place in our country where there’s a lack of mutual understanding and I think it is really important for us as educators to help young people develop their skills at having reasoned and substantive conversations about complicated things,” said Frailey, of Seattle Girls’ School. “Our middle schoolers, they’re just getting to that place developmentally where they can really dig in to complicated topics and we’re trying to help them do that.”

Her colleague Leaks added, “We’re trying to teach kids that we individually have a responsibility to engage so that people aren’t standing on islands by themselves be that because they have difference that’s based in their sexual identity or gender expression or their race or their religion.”

The day after Witherspoon of Evanston Township High School delivered his remarks, members of the South Asian Club at the school decided to give out free hugs.

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    Witherspoon says educators, more than ever, can play a crucial role in helping students feel less despair and more hopeful.

    “No matter how much we might get embroiled in current events and embroiled in partisan politics, I think that … we just want to be optimistic about our future, that’s what America is, that’s what democracy’s about, that’s what human beings,” are about, he said.

    “I think in the end it’s like yes, these are words of love and belonging and in a sense, everything is going to be just fine.”

    Have you heard any unique ways teachers are trying to bring students together post-election? Share your thoughts with Kelly Wallace on Twitter @kellywallacetv.