When a teacher asks Lauren Kirkpatrick how she’s doing, she usually responds: “I’m vibing.”
On Wednesday, the Newport High School junior paused, and adjusted her response: “I’m trying to vibe.”
Why? It’s hard to focus on tests in AP Spanish and AP U.S. History when the presidency hangs in balance, when you’re learning from your bedroom, when the outcome of this election will surely shape your young life.
Kirkpatrick barreled into Wednesday with as much energy as she could muster after staying up until 2 a.m. the night before to track the election. At school, she found solace in the Black Student Union meeting, where students talked about divisions and their hopes and fears.
Four years ago, when Donald Trump was elected, teachers in Washington and across the country were first responders to students’ concerns and fears, as well as their elation — moderating real-time political debates that could suddenly become charged with racism and xenophobia.
Educators who teach in schools where there is a large concentration of immigrant students said it was an emotional time, with students seeking a sense of safety.
“I’ve never seen anything like that in my life. Students were completely traumatized,” said Andrea Gamboa, a 16-year veteran social studies teacher in Tukwila, who described how the 2016 election also activated her students. Many of her students are students of color, immigrants and refugees. “There were so many sobbing kids.”
Now, the job is even harder: Educators must teach the complicated facts of a nail-biter election, where realities are constantly changing. At the same time, due to the COVID-19 closures, they have to engage their students from a distance — often without even seeing their faces. Many teachers have fewer minutes of live instruction with students than they would in a classroom setting, giving them less time for open-ended discussions.
Students are left to make sense of the world’s vicissitudes from their own homes, separated from their classmates.
“One of the biggest things for us, juniors and seniors, this could determine whether we ever get back to school before we graduate high school because of how the pandemic’s going to be handled,” said Ritika Khanal, a junior at Mountlake Terrace High School in Edmonds. “This could determine whether we go back or not.”
Before this election, Gamboa said she tried to “prepare our students mentally and emotionally for not having a result” immediately. She also worked with them on self-care: On Monday, she gave students tips to avoid election night whiplash. Maybe turn the TV off, she suggested. Do a workout, find people you trust to text. Shut off your laptop, eat and “get enough water in your body.”
This year, Gamboa said, her preparation paid off. While the distance was challenging, students were engaged, asking questions about Florida and Arizona. On Wednesday, when there were no live classes scheduled because of parent conferences, she and her colleagues created an online space for students to discuss the election. Eleventh and 12th graders sat in a Zoom room to chew it all over. They were asking more about the facts, she said, than talking about their fears. Mostly, they just wanted to know the outcome.
Helping students — without seeing their faces
At Ingraham High School, students in Noah Zeichner’s International Baccalaureate History of the Americas class often don’t turn their cameras on during class. “A result of staring at a screen of initials all day is that you really lose the human connection,” he said. “I have about 140 students. I probably can’t picture what 100 of them look like.”
It’s a bummer, he said, because he focuses his first few weeks on building community so that students are comfortable talking openly and vulnerably about sensitive topics later on. That was much harder online. To get them engaged, he organizes them into smaller groups in the afternoons.
Leading up to the election, Zeichner, who is in his 17th year teaching in Seattle Public Schools, added a two-week unit on the election process. He conducted two interactive lectures a week. During independent work time, he had students listen to podcasts, watch short videos and participate in virtual discussions.
His students predicted the outcome, and their projections were pretty close. “My goal was for my students to understand all the possibilities,” he said, “so that there would be not too much confusion and shock.” Distance learning, he said, has made him a few weeks behind where he usually is: Typically, there’d be 235 minutes of live instruction a week; now, there are just 100.
There was no live class Wednesday, but Zeichner invited history students to an optional video conference call at 7 p.m. Tuesday night, when results from the East Coast started to roll in. About 10 showed up, he said, and they were anxious and nervous, “not just about the election results but about the country we’re in today.”
Learning from afar
Luckily for teachers, the election has absorbed the attention of high school students, many of whom are just at the cusp of voting age.
Khanal, a student journalist, processed the election by following the data. Her family is from Nepal, and while she doesn’t technically get to cast a ballot, her family turns to her for guidance because she keeps such close track of the news.
Her history classes focused on the structure of government, “allowing us to formulate our own opinions,” she said. The sophomore class ran a mock election. Social studies teachers took questions. It’s hard to break through the structure of online school, she said, when classes are only 25 minutes long.
Kirkpatrick, the Newport High junior, said her school did a good job raising awareness of the election.
“As a Black person in America, my rights are at stake,” Kirkpatrick said, reflecting on President Donald Trump’s demurring in response to a debate question that asked him to condemn white supremacy. “Our culture needs to shift.”
For Kirkpatrick, there were ups and downs of being remote. She experienced the 2020 election without the built-in support network of her classmates. “Now I have to text them, which is kind of weird,” she said.
The distance also made it hard to know what people are thinking: “Usually, you can read a room and see if students are engaged,” she said.
On the bright side, being at home sometimes feels safer. She said there have been some racist incidents at her school. “This way, I don’t have to walk in and feel like I have a target on my back,” she said. “I give speeches, I’m an equity rep, I’m very vocal. I’m glad I don’t have to walk in and face it.”
Teachers as first responders and fact-checkers
Classroom conversations about politics can get messy, but Zeichner views them as his responsibility. “If we avoid the topic, we’re doing a disservice to democracy,” he said. “We’re helping students understand the events unfolding around them, and can’t stop teaching because a topic is too difficult to talk about.”
Of course, context matters — and sometimes, the technology amplifies it. Beth McGibbon, a social studies teacher at John Rogers High School in Spokane, has found herself mediating unplanned blowups in chats that accompany video lessons.
Her school is high-poverty, with 82% of students eligible for free or reduced-price lunch, a higher rate than the overall Spokane Public Schools district rate of nearly 60%.
On Tuesday, as she mentioned communism in China, the chat blew up with proclamations of “#culpforgovernor.” The chat devolved from there — a new kind of problem.
Another time, during a discussion about the electoral college, a student left an offensive comment about Biden in the chat box. McGibbon took a screenshot and sent it to him and his mom, saying it was inappropriate. “I didn’t hear anything back,” she said.
No matter the setup, teachers can encourage future voters. McGibbon recalled a set of Latina twins who were inspired by a class speaker to register to vote. They graduated, and were old enough to vote in 2020.
But before they could cast a ballot, their father was deported. McGibbon wanted to make sure they followed through, so she reached out to their caretaker.
“I said, ‘Did they vote?’” McGibbon asked.
The answer: Yes, and for one of them, “all she does is talk about the issues.”