Students across California react to inauguration with protests, teach-ins

January 19, 2017

Recently, students at Melrose Leadership Academy in Oakland staged a peace demonstration.

Students and teachers in many California schools plan to mark Friday’s presidential inauguration with teach-ins, walk-outs and real-time civics lessons aimed at shining a light on what one superintendent described as “these unprecedented political times.”

Based on EdSource interviews with dozens of teachers and administrators throughout the state, district officials say they’re expecting some reaction to the inauguration. In some classrooms, that might amount to a discussion about the peaceful transition of power. In others, particularly those in “sanctuary cities,” hundreds of students are expected to march out of their classrooms in protest of Donald Trump’s stances on public education, immigration and other issues.

Leaders in those districts urged students to stay in school, noting that finals are either in progress or approaching, and encouraged teachers to plan lessons about tolerance, citizenship and democracy.

In San Francisco Unified, a district memo reminded teachers not to endorse any political flyers or encourage students to walk out. Additionally, teachers should model respect for “multiple viewpoints, even when they are different than our own.”

In Oakland Unified, where protesting high school students are expected to join a larger rally downtown, Superintendent Antwan Wilson called for teachers to lead discussions about social change and the greater historical context of Friday’s inauguration.

“These are unprecedented political times … We want to again stress that we believe the best place for our students is at school,” Wilson wrote in a letter to parents Thursday.

Los Angeles Unified is calling for a “Unity Day” on Friday, with lesson plans on environmental, social and humanitarian topics, as well as restorative justice circles and other activities.

“We hope that students will take advantage of these lessons, discussions and other Unity Day activities that will allow them to participate in the civic-engagement process during the school day,” Superintendent Michelle King wrote. “We want students to feel part of their school, their community and their country.”

Some of the Bay Area walkouts are being organized by an activist group called By Any Means Necessary, which is advocating “no ‘business as usual’ until Trump is defeated,” according to organizer Yvette Felarca, a Berkeley middle school teacher.

“Trump’s inauguration day is a national and international emergency, and requires a mass emergency response,” she said.

Student walkouts, she said, have a history of effectiveness, including the Children’s Crusade, a march in Birmingham in 1963 that “set the stage for the national civil rights movement to win the Federal Civil Rights Act of 1964,” and the Latino and immigrant students walkouts in 2006 that “defeated the federal legislation that would have turned every undocumented immigrant into a felon.”

“This is a tough place we are in, and we are working to be sensitive to our families who are worried about their future while also doing our jobs of teaching history and civic engagement in a fair and unbiased way,” said Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez, who teaches 5th grade at Mather Heights Elementary.

Teachers at Long Beach Unified, the state’s third-largest district, were urged to engage students in class discussions that are “respectful, appropriate and informative,” according to district spokesman Chris Eftychiou. Teachers received guides on how to discuss controversial topics in the classroom, understanding democracy and other related subjects.

These steps are markedly different from the way many California schools marked the Barack Obama inauguration in 2009. Then, many teachers showed the event on TV as a historic, celebratory moment in U.S. history. On Friday, some teachers – particularly those with immigrant students – will decline to focus on the inauguration at all, saying it may create an unnecessarily tense atmosphere.

Sarah Kirby-Gonzalez and her co-teacher of a 5th-grade class at Mather Heights Elementary, a magnet school in Rancho Cordova, opted not to show the inauguration in class.

“Showing the presidential inauguration is something we have really grappled with,” Kirby-Gonzalez, who’s also a school board member of the Washington Unified School District in West Sacramento, wrote in an email. “I have talked to the students about the transition of power and all of the processes of gaining a new president, including the confirmation hearings. We are asking parents to ‘save’ the inauguration and watch it at home with their child if they would like.”

After Trump’s election, she wrote, a mother of a Muslim student, with tears in her eyes, thanked her “for creating a safe place for her child.”

“This is a tough place we are in, and we are working to be sensitive to our families who are worried about their future while also doing our jobs of teaching history and civic engagement in a fair and unbiased way,” she wrote.

Marciano Gutierrez, who teaches history and government at Alta Vista High, a continuation school in Mountain View, is having his students watch the inaugural address, write down their responses and share with their classmates how they want to personally ensure their own values are respected over the next four years.

“The majority of my students are students of color, some of whom are immigrants, both documented and undocumented. Many of my students are concerned about their place in this country under a Trump administration,” he wrote. “As of noon, Donald Trump will be the next president of the United States. I want to provide my students the ability to see a peaceful transition of power and hear directly from the next president. More importantly, I aim to provide my students with a structure to view the speech in which they will feel safe to ask questions, have clarity through conversation, and hopefully have a sense of empowerment due to increased understanding and engagement.”

Bakersfield High School, which was among those that showed the 2009 inauguration on a big screen, won’t be showing the inauguration on Friday – it’s a teacher development day and students have the day off.

“I told (students) they need to watch (the inauguration) – whether they love or dislike the guy coming into the office,” said AP government and history teacher Jeremy Adams. “We have a sacred tradition of transferring power.”

Adams, who has written about the challenges of teaching students about this presidential election for the Huffington Post, said he will play catch-up on Monday. “We’ll do something simple: ‘Take a moment to reflect on where the country is and lay out your own aspirational message. Did President Trump meet it (in his inaugural address)?’” he said.

Protests began on Thursday in some areas. Teachers unions in Los Angeles and the Bay Area staged rallies at about a dozen campuses for students, teachers and parents to voice their support for public education. Trump’s pick for secretary of education, Betsy DeVos, has been a longtime supporter of charter schools and school vouchers, and is opposed by California teachers unions.

Despite DeVos’ support for charters, at least a few charter organizations are urging protests as well. Caliber Schools, with campuses in Richmond and Vallejo, is sending 12 middle school students and eight teachers to the Women’s March on Saturday in Washington, D.C. The trip is funded by private donations.

“These students now have the chance to experience activism and community organizing first-hand during a pivotal moment in our nation’s history at our nation’s capital,” Caliber spokeswoman Cami Crawford said.

At least one teacher is incorporating the inauguration into a final exam. Bryan Shaw, government teacher at Mt. Diablo High School in Concord, is asking students to make correlations between the electoral college and popular vote, the 2016 election and protests, the Supreme Court and constitutionality, and other topics surrounding the current political state.

“I do not want my students to feel like powerless victims in their current world,” he wrote. “After the election, a lot of my students were upset and quite scared. Seeing their responses today will be empowering. Next week, as a class, we will go over their responses – just the questions and their arguments because I do think it will help with their fears.”

This story was written by Carolyn Jones, with additional reporting by EdSource reporters Jane Adams, John Fensterwald, Sue Frey and Theresa Harrington, Ashley Hopkinson.


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