In the wake of the capital insurrection, Cragmont Elementary School teacher Jill Moniz gave her students space to discuss the realities of political extremism and, more importantly, how we can move forward and unite as a country. As a fifth grade teacher, Moniz uses the United States history curriculum and our complicated past to contextualize current political turmoil.
“It’s important that [students] know what the current events are, but it’s more important to go deeper than that and explain that we came to this point with racial inequity in our country,” Moniz explained.
As tensions rise outside the classroom, teachers navigate difficult conversations inside them, starting as early as elementary school. Although these younger students are still developing a sense of identity – both emotionally and politically – many teachers see the importance of difficult conversations about politics, regardless of age. If these students are to grow up to be responsible citizens, they need to be cognizant of the world around them.
Moniz notes the wide range of emotional limits in her classroom. Because some students have never been exposed to political extremism, Moniz is careful to avoid the more intense side of Trump-era politics and deconstruct the issues that are brought up.
To discuss the insurrection, Moniz said, “I found a video that summarizes what had happened, but was short and didn’t go into detail on the more disturbing parts.” Moniz believes that it’s her responsibility to ensure that her students have access to information and can develop a sense of personal agency in the larger political world.
Alexandra Singer, the mother of a fourth grade student at Cragmont, agreed with Moniz about the importance of informing younger students. “It’s important to balance out what kids are hearing in other places with an authoritative voice,” she said.
Moniz emphasized the importance of optimism when teaching about political extremism and other heavy topics. “I always end the lesson with something that we can be proud of. With the insurrection, I talked about how our lawmakers went straight back to the Capitol that night to make sure that the vote was certified,” Moniz said.
She also focuses on how students can engage meaningfully with the content they discuss in the classroom. “We have to let them know what’s actually happening, but also wrap up the lesson with a thought of what kind of positive change we can make as a result,” explained Moniz.
In a fourth grade classroom at Berkeley Arts Magnet (BAM) Elementary School, teacher Michele Williams sets aside time on Fridays to build a community where extremism in politics can be safely introduced. Williams dedicated one Friday to last month’s capital insurrection. Although it was optional, 17 out of 24 students showed up.
Because her students are so young, they often have a fragmented view of history, and have trouble connecting current events to a bigger timeline. “I tried to help bridge some contextual information for them, so they could see how we got here and how we can get out,” Williams explained.
Although Williams sees the importance of these discussions, she’s mindful of her students’ emotional needs. She tried to stick to her typical schedule and curriculum to maintain a sense of normalcy and comfort. “They’re growing up in a time when things can be so chaotic,” Williams said. “Keeping a balance is healthy.”
Williams also has a responsibility as a teacher to create a space for every Berkeley family, regardless of political beliefs and affiliations. The intersection between Trump-era politics and family identities is extremely difficult to navigate – even in Berkeley. “There is every viewpoint, from far right to far left, so I do have to be respectful. I have to make a space for all different political views,” said Williams.
Moniz echoed this sentiment, saying, “Every family is different and that’s the beauty of the world that we live in. As a teacher, it’s important that I respect that and [their] differences in boundaries.” Both Williams and Moniz focus on educating students, leaving interpretations and value judgments to parents.
Singer agreed that value judgments should be kept out of the classroom, but had a slightly different perspective. She explained, “I personally feel that Trump should be scrutinized and criticized in class, but it’s hard, because what if it were a conservative teacher and they were criticizing Biden, for example? I wouldn’t like that at all.”
For Singer, teaching elementary school children about modern politics is a balancing act. “Teachers should, of course, be careful to present information in a non-biased way, but there are also many things that the right disagrees with that are simply about kindness.”
Marvin Reed, a third grade teacher at Thousand Oaks Elementary School, sees the power and importance of embedding identity-based education into his curriculum. Because he centers his teaching around race, gender, and culture, he has worked to build the scaffolding for these discussions since the beginning of the year. Reed said, “If you don’t feel comfortable talking about race, you need to bring in an expert who is. You’re doing your students an injustice if you don’t.”
Reed highlighted the true importance of starting conversations early. “If these systems are good, why are they still producing sexist, racist, [and] transphobic students? There’s something happening in the system that is allowing these issues to persist, so education needs to start in elementary schools,” he said.
Kindergarten teachers face slightly different challenges when approaching political extremism, as 5-year-old and 6-year-old students tend to struggle more than their older peers with the nuance of complex issues like domestic terrorism.
Kim Beeson, a kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks Elementary School, highlighted the importance of keeping things positive. “It’s good to talk about empathy and how you apply that to the world,” she said.
Similarly to older students, kindergarteners come in with a wide range of knowledge about the political world. “They’re definitely hearing things, but because people aren’t talking to them about it, they try to interpret it their own way,” Beeson elaborated. To find and address these misinterpretations, Beeson lets her students take the reins and lead the conversations.
Lynda Arnold, another kindergarten teacher at Rosa Parks, lets students guide her teaching as well. “With topics that tend to get more emotional or volatile, I like to come from the place of what the children have heard. We’ll all sit on the rug and have a discussion about the more disturbing things they’ve seen on the television.”
Arnold sees education about political processes in the classroom as a way to counter political extremism in the US at large. She turned the 2020 presidential election into a multiple day lesson, giving students their own addressed and stamped absentee ballots. “I had a full house – everybody voted!”