What’s Going On: “Partisan” Worries, and Desires to Discuss Trump-Era Events in School
by Mica Pollock & Mariko Yoshisato - 2021
Background/Context: This article explores how the classic U.S. educator effort to stay politically “nonpartisan” when teaching became particularly complicated in an era of spiking K–12 harassment, when government officials openly targeted and denigrated populations on the basis of race, national origin, gender, sexuality, and religion. We share research on a pilot (2017–2019) of #USvsHate, an “anti-hate” initiative we designed and studied with K–12 educators and students in the politically mixed region of San Diego, California.
Purpose/Objective/Research Question/Focus of Study: #USvsHate sought to respond to a national spike in bigotry, harassment, and hate crimes by inviting “anti-hate” learning and messaging in an explicitly nonpartisan manner. Analyzing educator interviews and student focus groups from the project pilot, we explore a core tension raised throughout #USvsHate participation: Some participating educators feared that such work to include “all” as equally valuable would seem partisan to critics and so be deemed off-limits. We focus on this tension in part to support educators continuing to grapple with it in a deeply divided country.
Population/Participants/Subjects: Pilot participants came from 12 diverse districts in our region, including 53 teachers and 427 students who submitted anti-hate messages to contests, with more than 3,300 students participating overall. We interviewed piloting K–12 teachers (18) and students (30) from traditional public schools and public charter schools.
Research Design: Unlike more structured interventions, #USvsHate’s core shared experience is its open-ended invitation to “anti-hate” teaching and messaging. As ethnographically trained researchers, we spent spring 2018 and the 2018–2019 school year studying experiences of #USvsHate’s lessons and messaging efforts, feeding input continually back into project design in a participatory process. Teachers and students joined interviews and focus groups voluntarily. We also talked with dozens more teachers in design sessions and recruitment gatherings.
Data Collection and Analysis: We used discourse analysis techniques piloted in studies on race talk to identify trends in participants’ responses and across individuals, coding for a key phrase found in focus group data: Across schools, students stated that #USvsHate offered a necessary chance to discuss “what’s going on.”
Conclusions/Recommendations: Students interviewed considered it obviously educators’ professional responsibility to address current incidents of denigration, harassment, bigotry, and threats targeting groups in schools, communities, and society—all of which they termed simply “what’s going on.” Educators agreed but that feared “anti-hate” work now might be deemed partisan and so off-limits to educators. We explore the deep complexity of this worry—and we explore educators’ and students’ attempting to discuss current events of harm as simply part of educators’ jobs.
In U.S. schools, is it partisan to critique harms to marginalized populations while pursuing inclusion and human rights for all? This article explores how the classic U.S. educator effort to stay politically nonpartisan when teaching became particularly complicated in an era of spiking K12 harassment, when government officials openly targeted and denigrated populations on the basis of race, national origin, gender, sexuality, religion, and more. We share research on a regional pilot (20172019) of #USvsHate, an anti-hate initiative we designed and studied with K12 educators and students in the politically mixed region of San Diego, California. #USvsHate sought to respond to a national spike in bigotry, harassment, and hate crimes by inviting anti-hate learning and messaging in an explicitly nonpartisan manner. #USvsHate defined hate as any time people denigrate, disrespect or harm an individual or group as if their identity makes them an inferior or less valuable type of person and asked students to make anti-hate messaging saying publicly that all people are equally valuable and all community members are part of US! (usvshate.org).
After the Charlottesville white supremacist rally in 2017, as described further later, we worked with educators to design and launch #USvsHate as an educator- and youth-led messaging project to counter bigotry in schools and support inclusive classrooms. In #USvsHate, educators teach anti-hate lessons of their choice, drawing from their own curriculum or selecting free lessons from national K12 partner organizations curated on the #USvsHate website. Then, students create public anti-hate messages of their choice in any media for their school communities to explicitly address, explore, and refuse racism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, sexism, or other forms of hate, bias, and injustice. Participants share messages locally and submit best products to a contest for broader sharing. After participating educators, students, and project designers vote for their favorite messages, winning messages are amplified by social media and a project website, produced as posters and stickers, and sent back to participating classrooms to shape school climates. Since our pilot began, nearly 10,000 students have participated nationally.
As self-critical researchers and critical ethnographers seeking to improve the projects ongoing design (Barab, 2006; Dede, 2005; Nelson, 2016; Penuel et al., 2011), we have, since 2017, documented students and educators real-time reception and use of #USvsHate for anti-hate teaching and learning in schools to analyze how the project supports learning and action, or fails to. We combine ethnographic fieldwork on participant gatherings and design meetings with interviews and focus groups with participating adults and youth, and with content analysis of materials submitted to #USvsHates multiple annual contests. Our data analysis then explores themes raised repeatedly by participants, including core tensions of doing anti-hate work in a range of local communities today in a deeply divided nation.
In this article, exploring educator interviews and student focus groups from the pilot years of the project in San Diego (20172019), we discuss a core tension raised throughout #USvsHate participation to dateone linked to deeper tensions plaguing U.S. schools in the Trump era and beyond. Like many education projects (see the literature section later in this article), #USvsHate framed critiquing harm to marginalized groups while pursuing inclusion and human rights for all as just the type of teaching obviously necessary in a diverse democracy. Yet, in a deeply divided country, some participating educators feared that such work to include all as equally valuable would seem partisan to critics and thus deemed off-limits. We focus on this tension in part to support educators continuing to grapple with it today. At this writing, GOP-led state legislation and localized campaigns targeting school boards are asserting that teaching about racisms harms to nonwhite Americans is leftist indoctrination (Kingkade et. al, 2021); the question of which education efforts are partisan is more nationally inflamed.
We first discuss related literature and the national context for our anti-hate initiative, then our methods for studying educators and students participation in it.
STAYING NONPARTISAN IN A HATE SPIKE ERA: A REVIEW OF RELATED LITERATURE
U.S. educators (as public employees) are typically expected to be nonpartisan. They are asked to encourage students critical thinking without encouraging students to take their side on politicians or initiatives up for a vote (Hess & McAvoy, 2014; Kahne & Bowyer, 2017; Levinson & Fay, 2019). Original proponents of U.S. public school expansion argued that schools should not be places for party politics (Rogers, in press). Yet, some have stretched the caution against nonpartisan teaching much further, suggesting that teachers must refuse to state a position about any issue debated by politicians (Levinson & Fay, 2019), or avoid mentioning any issue that local people deem political (Pollock, 2019; Rogers, in press). Often, as we discuss elsewhere, U.S. teachers remain at the mercy of local authorities, who decide what is acceptable to discuss in local schools. Unless educators arrange local backup supporting discussions locally contested, authorities might deem some locally contested issues off-limits altogether for their communitys classrooms, including even the most basic forms of inclusive teaching.
In contrast, a broader view of democracy and democratic education frames public schools as institutions explicitly charged with bringing together young people from diverse backgrounds to learn from and with one another about experiences in a shared, diverse nation, with a certain degree of regard and respect (Rogers, in press). Such work argues that educators should invite discussion about the nation, across lines of difference and divergent perspectives, to prepare students for participation in a diverse democracy (Pace, 2021). Scholars also indicate that schools should be places where students can engage questions about national identity and what holds people together now in a deeply multicultural society (Hall, 2000). An inquiry-oriented approach to teaching and learning national history, for example, would engage students critical thinking to complicate a single or simple story of one American identity, and invite students to engage diverse perspectives to make meaning of students current contexts (VanSledright, 2011).
Crucially, this more expansive view of democratic schooling also positions schools as places where students must not degrade those who are culturally different (Hall, 2000) while discussing diverse perspectives: That is, dialogue about diverse views must simultaneously involve a refusal to degrade others. Against the backdrop of rising fascism in Europe and reactionary politics in the United States in the late 1930s, Rogers (in press) noted, John Dewey, a famous proponent of democratic schooling, argued that fascism and racial and religious bigotry, fear, and hatred and antagonistic sects and factions threatened treason to the very democratic way of life and must be countered in schools with more [emphasis added] dialogue and inquiry. Thus, todays scholars of civic education who would call discussing factual events, experiences, and controversies in the world unarguably educational (Hess & McAvoy, 2014; Pace, 2021) might also call school norms asserting the equal humanity of all students unarguably ethical (Levinson & Fay, 2019). Such proponents might also deem promoting inclusion and human rights to be part of the civic duty of schools, not a singular perspective to be debated (Rogers & Kahne, 2021). Indeed, U.S. civil rights laws require educators to denounce and prevent identity-based harassment and discrimination in schools in order to protect equal access to learning opportunity (Pollock, 2008, 2019; U.S. Department of Education, 2020), and school climate literature deems refusing bullying a timeless educator responsibility (Cohen & Freiberg, 2013). Long-standing traditions of multicultural education (Nieto, 1999), culturally relevant and responsive pedagogy (Ladson-Billings, 1995), and social justice education (Chapman & Hobbel, 2010) all deem it essential, normal, and nonpartisan teacher practice to include and value all communities in school while discussing with students their true diversity of lived experiences and perspectives. In such an approach, students are invited to critically engage current events, including issues of exclusion, bias, and injustice, while insisting on equal human value and saying that treating groups as inferior is wrong. During the years studied, national organizations echoed that the simultaneous tasks of welcoming all into schools, refusing bigotry, and inviting discussion of current events targeting or denigrating marginalized groups have always been educators job (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2018)and not partisan at all.
We launched #USvsHate in 2017 to offer an explicitly nonpartisan anti-hate frame to invite proactive inclusion efforts in schools and to support educators seeking help in demanding respect and inclusion for all, in response to a sharp contemporary increase in incidents of harassment and bigotry on campuses nationwide after the 2016 election (Becerra, 2018; Hassan, 2019; Human Rights Campaign, 2017; Rogers et al., 2017, 2019; Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019). A social media survey of 50,000 teens by the Human Rights Campaign found in January 2017 that high school students described bus rides bristling with homophobic and racist epithets and attacks on student groups (Thompson, 2017, para. 7), with 70% of respondents witnessing bullying, hate messages or harassment during or since the 2016 election. A nationally representative survey found that 27% of 1,535 teachers surveyed in May 2017 reported an increase in students making derogatory remarks about other groups during class discussions. This included sexist as well as racist and anti-Muslim comments (para. 7). Hate examples nationwide included swastikas and n-words scrawled on bathroom walls, taunts to peers about deportation, and other messages like Kill the [N-word] and Fk Jews, with some students literally repeating the presidents name when taunting. Teachers described students increasingly cruel and disparaging remarks as emboldenedincluding never-before-encountered explicit statements of white supremacy (Rogers et al., 2017). By January 2019, Teaching Tolerance reported, There is no indication that hate incidents at school are slowing down (Dillard, 2019, para. 1). Teachers nationwide described a noticeable increase in incivility overall and outright hostility toward minority groups, with students more and more willing to say outrageously racist, homophobic, whatever-phobic things, believing it is their right to do so (Rogers et al., 2019, p. 10). A national Teaching Tolerance report in April 2019, based on media reports and questionnaires from 2,700 K12 teachers, found that more than two-thirds of educators responding witnessed a hate or bias incident in their school during the fall of 2018, often without administrative response (Costello & Dillard, 2019, para. 23). Rogers et al. (2017) reported that 91.6% of educators surveyed said they needed help to encourage and model civil exchange and greater understanding across lines of difference (p. vi) in increasingly polarized school climates.
To meet this moment, #USvsHate leveraged what we thought might be a timelessly ethical orientation: Material we wrote on our website stated bluntly that all people are equally valuable and called for youth to say that all community members are part of US! Building on scholarship on racism and other oppression forms (e.g., Crenshaw et al., 1995; Pollock, 2008), we treated the recent spike in explicit bigotry as the newest version of long-standing bias and injustice harming the same communities, and we tailored the projects definition of hate to prompt thinking about harm pervasive and enduring in society, including harm allowed passively or done unintentionally (usvshate.org/about). Overall, we called for students to unite against hate, not each other. The US frame attempted to unite fractured school communities around refusing cruelty to any subgroup. The vs asked students to refuse hate themselves as upstanders (Cohen & Freiberg, 2013).
Yet as a middle schooler said to a teacher we interviewed, Why cant I do it if the president can? Indeed, during the same years, the president of the United States made public statements about Mexicans as rapists and Muslims as threats; his quote about grabbing womens pussies echoed nationally. He deemed immigrants invaders, restricted and banned Muslims and refugees from entry, spoke derisively of shithole countries and sympathetically of Klan-supportive rioters, told legislators of color to go back to where they came from, spoke derisively of women, and called DACA recipients hardened criminals. He launched policies targeting transgender people and immigrants, even separating immigrant children from their families; he mocked individuals nearly daily on social media. Others in the government actively amplified and passively condoned this behavior (Southern Poverty Law Center, 2019). As we first drafted this article, his partys representatives gave a standing ovation as the president gave a national Medal of Freedom to a radio host famous for denigrating people of color and women (U.S. Office of the President, 2020; Vigdor, 2020). And throughout, U.S. educators thus faced an extreme version of a timeless dilemma of nonpartisan teaching. Because the president and supporters were themselves denigrating populations, was standing up today against harm to marginalized groups and for basic inclusion of everyone partisan, and so somehow off-limits to educators? Or was refusing the denigration of marginalized groups in society and ones school just the protective and ethical behavior required of any educator in a democratic society, at any time?
To position the project as a nonpartisan initiative possible in schools, we and fellow #USvsHate codesigners intentionally avoided naming political parties or individual political actors in describing the work. In fact, throughout our design and research, we were what Pollock called intentionally Trumpmute in all public discourse about #USvsHate: We did not mention the presidents behavior at all. We centered hate as the issue of concern and presented anti-hate as a unifying concept that all could presumably support, in the hope that such framing would allow the project initial entrée into K12 public schoolsparticularly in politically divided schools and communities (Pollock & Yoshisato, 2021). In the #USvsHate project cycle, students and educators identify issues of concern, select lessons to prompt dialogue about those issues, and then create anti-hate messages in any media that will:
explicitly address, explore, and refuse racism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, sexism, or other forms of hate, bias, and injustice in schools and society;
communicate that people across lines of difference contribute to our communities, regions, and nation, are equally valuable, and deserve access to opportunity and well-being;
bust a myth (challenge a stereotype) about a "type of" person too often misrepresented; and
ask people to treat each other kindly, fairly, and respectfully so schools stay safe for learning, and society includes us all.
To support teachers in inviting such student work, Pollock invited national education organizations to contribute their top lessons on inclusion, then curated these lessons into two lists: building an inclusive school community and countering specific forms of hate, bias, and injustice. Lessons explored empathy, rejected bullying, and invited relationship-building, per research on school climate (Cohen & Freiberg, 2013), called for valuing all identities (Cohn-Vargas & Steele, 2013), and invited discussion of history and current events (Hess & McAvoy, 2014) related to what we called specific hate forms: racism, xenophobia, homophobia, Islamophobia, antisemitism, sexism, or other forms of hate, bias, and injustice in schools and society. Pollock also sourced and curated a collection of national organizations free professional development resources as Tools for Productive Anti-Hate Dialogues. While some critics might argue that these proinclusion organizations or their chosen lessons (usvshate.org/our-lessons) highlighted differences versus similarities, lessons explored identities amid universal inclusion frames, and the overall #USvsHate frame emphasized unity repeatedly. No lessons on our resource lists asked students to take sides on government actors or actions; lessons instead attempted to support fact-based reflection about achieving inclusion for all, today and historically. The sole hint of the president on the site was a red, white, and blue image of the Statue of Liberty, reading Hate Never Made America Great; we and a diverse team of 10 San Diego educators helping with initial design decisions hoped that the image would be seen as true and American across political lines and give the project contemporary currency and a timeless feel. Over the two school years of our pilot, almost no student anti-hate messages submitted to #USvsHate contests named politicians or political parties.
Was such an anti-hate project today, partisan?
As described next, students deemed #USvsHates anti-hate invitation unarguably necessary. Indeed, they called it educators basic moral and professional responsibility to address current events of denigration, harassment, and threats to marginalized groups in schools, communities, and society, which they simply termed whats going on. #USvsHate did not, of course, discuss all current events, instead focusing pointedly on events related to basic inclusion. But students also indicated just how rare such discussions were in schools. Participating educators who agreed that hate should be countered in schools expressed fears that critics might deem anti-hate work now to be partisan and so off-limits to educators expected to remain neutral on party politics (Levinson & Fay, 2019). Our article explores the complexity of this worry in an era of deep national dividesand we explore educators and students attempting to discuss harm and promote inclusion as simply part of educators jobs.
We now discuss our methods of researching adults and youth navigating efforts to refuse hate in a nonpartisan manner in a hate era.
As ethnographically trained researchers, we spent winter 2017 to spring 2018 and the 20182019 school year studying experiences of #USvsHates lessons and messaging across San Diego County, feeding input continually back into project design in a participatory process (Barab, 2006; Penuel et al., 2011; Pollock, 2013). Pilot participants came from 12 districts in our region, including 53 teachers and 427 students who submitted anti-hate messages to contests, with more than 3,300 students participating overall in the pilot based on teacher reports. Of these, a rotating subset of 10 teachers spanning elementary, middle, and high school grades, and doctoral students (including Yoshisato) and professional development practitioners from Pollocks university center also served as project codesigners and champions of the work, while several engaged students in #USvsHate lessons and message-making themselves. As a team, we met monthly to discuss and document project design and implementation decisions based on ongoing research.
Unlike more structured interventions, #USvsHates core shared experience is its open-ended invitation to anti-hate teaching and messaging. All educators joined #USvsHate voluntarily, with individual teachers electing to engage their students in the project how they saw fit, at any point in the school year. Teachers heard about #USvsHate via informal recruitment through regional professional networks, conferences, and social media. We also invited teachers to information sessions about #USvsHate, and we presented about #USvsHate to school district officials and academic colleagues who shared the opportunity with K12 educators they knew.
By design, while the outcome of student-created public messages rejecting hate remained consistent across all #USvsHate participants, each engagement with the project looked different, ranging from a grade-level advisory team collectively teaching one #USvsHate lesson with their classes, to a single English teacher threading lessons from usvshate.org through preexisting units on the Holocaust, to a physical education teacher leading one lesson during gym class, to teachers who skipped the lesson lists and just invited students to look at the website and create anti-hate messaging as part of their own curriculum. Teachers submitted favorite messages to four contests over the pilots course.
In the research layer of the project, teachers and students joined interviews and focus groups voluntarily, after an invitation to join us in designing the project through commenting on their experience of it (Barab, 2006; Penuel et al., 2011). All teachers who submitted students work to contests received an invitation to become a research participant themselves and to extend the research invitation to their students. Therefore, like #USvsHate participation overall, interviews and focus groups tapped those motivated to join and inform the pilot, leaving us knowingly less informed about teachers who chose not to join; as designers, we made the decision to prioritize interested educators input. Similarly, focus groups engaged students who appreciated the project enough to get parent approval for focus group participation; often these were middle and high school students who won our contests, or their classmates (no elementary teachers took us up on our pilot invitation to organize student focus groups). Since #USvsHate itself was a fully voluntary project, participating teachers also tended to be motivated to teach the material even if they worried about it. As one student put it, If theyre picking it up that means they obviously care. Which is already good in my eyes, because I know that not every teacher would pick this project up. As we saw in public gatherings, educators who joined were a diverse group of K14 professionals (with several community college instructors), teaching in settings ranging from mostly Latinx schools near the border to predominantly white, Asian, and middle-class schools on the coast, to schools serving low-income students of color almost exclusively, including immigrants and more Black students.
As we studied the pilot of #USvsHate, we asked research questions, including:
How are educators and students in these various contexts currently experiencing #USvsHates dialogue and messaging?
What supports do they want and need to effectively address the hate spike in their schools and communities?
What else can we learn about implementing purposeful inclusion-oriented efforts in polarized contexts?
We took field notes to document project design meetings (Emerson et al., 1995) and taped/transcribed educator and student interviews and focus groups (Mishler, 1991) about the #USvsHate experience. Adult interviews focused on experiences of instruction, successful and difficult moments in lessons and messaging, and supports needed to discuss these issues with more people at your school. Interviews were held during teachers prep periods, after school, and on weekends, and lasted about one hour. In focus groups, students discussed experiences of hate and #USvsHate lessons and messaging. We also asked questions such as, Do you feel like there is a place for addressing these kinds of topics in school? and What do you think about the anti-hate messaging piece of the project? Focus groups were held during students advisory period, during lunch, and after school, and lasted 4060 minutes. We typically did not ask questions about politics or being partisan; as seen next, participants raised these issues themselves.
Interviews and focus groups were conducted by the authors, known to participants as #USvsHate codesigners. The first author, Pollock, is a white woman who is a university professor of education focused on K12 antiracism and equity work with educators. The second author, Yoshisato, is an Asian and white woman who is an equity-driven education researcher and former K12 public school counselor focused on student experiences. For the pilot data reported here, both of us conducted educator interviews and focus groups with 18 teachers. We did not ask adults to self-identify in these sessions, but four identified as men and 14 as women, with seven educators identifying as Black or other people of color. We talked with dozens more teachers in design sessions and recruitment gatherings, which we documented with ethnographic field notes. These participants taught at traditional public schools and public charter schools located in small and large racially and socioeconomically diverse districts throughout the region. Yoshisato conducted 10 student focus groups at several of these schools, with 30 participants across Grades 612. Many students self-identified their gender and race unprompted; we noted five young men, 23 young women, and two gender-nonconforming individuals, with 27 students who identified as Black or other people of color, and three white students.
We used discourse analysis techniques piloted in studies on race talk (Pollock, 2008; Pollock et al., 2015) to conduct a grounded analysis identifying trends in participants responses and across individuals (Boyatsis, 1998; Charmaz, 2006); we did not formally compare sites because educators joined #USvsHate individually. Insights on potential improvements to the project were discussed throughout with participants and project leaders as member checks (Richards, 2005).
In open coding of our pilot data (Lofland & Lofland, 1995), we noticed a key phrase repeated in focus groups: across schools, students stated #USvsHate offered a necessary chance to discuss whats going on. Whats going on (and the parallel phrase, whats happening) became key search terms in focused coding. We verified that we had not led the witness by planting these terms (Briggs, 1986); almost always, we had not. Students used the phrases repeatedly to reference current harms to marginalized populations, in schools and communities, ranging from slurs and daily denigration to broader experiences of threat and harmand they framed such experiences as topics that teachers obviously should discuss in school. Yet, in their own interviews, educators indicated that silence on such issues was actually the norm in their schools. Although they agreed that educators of course should address harms experienced by marginalized groups inside and outside schools as a basic moral and professional responsibility, some noted that today, critics might deem such work partisan or anti-Trumpand so off-limits. All participants indicated that often, then, most teachers refused to host discussion of whats going onpotentially muting both students and fellow Americans real experiences of harm. In indicating the rarity of the discussions that #USvsHate invited, then, participants demonstrated just how easily the fear of partisan teaching could mute discussion of actual life in a shared nationwhat some scholars might deem the antithesis of democratic education (Rogers, in press).
STUDENTS INSIST ON DISCUSSING WHATS GOING ON
Winning messages from the pilot included these examples (Figures 19). Each became a poster or sticker distributed to participating classrooms. (See usvshate.org for in-color originals and more examples, such as videos, art installations, and poems.)
Figure 1. We Are All Human
Figure 2. Everyone Belongs
Figure 3. Be Whatever Gender/Color/Sexuality/You Want to Be
Figure 4. We the Women Deserve Rights
Figure 5. Anti-Police Brutality
Figure 6. Stand Strong With Others Instead of Bringing Them Down
Figure 7. Keep Us Safe
Figure 8. Being Mexican Isnt a Crime
Figure 9. Weve Got Your Back
Messages offered timeless human rights perspectives (We Are All Human in Figure 1; Everyone Belongs in Figure 2; Be Whatever Gender/Color/Sexuality/You Want to Be in Figure 3; and We the Women Deserve Rights in Figure 4), while emphasizing present-tense topics (#BLM in Figure 5). In focus groups, students spoke of needing to bring to light current examples of what they deemed hate right now. Students referenced slurs and disparaging jokes as routine current hate at school (Stand Strong in Figure 6 shows slurs against the people pictured). Students also described harms targeting groups in their communities and society as hate, naming, for example, police brutality against Black people (Anti-Police Brutality in Figure 5), deportations and family separation in our border region (Keep Us Safe in Figure 7; Being Mexican Isnt a Crime in Figure 8), and homophobic and transphobic violence, and threats against Muslims (Weve Got Your Back in Figure 9) and Jews as current forms of whats going on. One fourth-grade class created a video of slurs children heard recently at school from peers, all of which they deemed unacceptable:
Multiple students (quoting in video): Youre fat! I dont like Mexicans. Youre poor as hell. Youre gay. Youre a piece of shit. Asians, ching chong! Youre so stupid. Youre a bitch. Youre ugly. At least Im not the Black one.
In focus groups, students also referenced national events. Regarding the Charlottesville white supremacist rally, ninth graders called for discussion of current events in classes:
Student 1: I think we should do this in classes. Just . . . have tables do a discussion that's led by someone, led by someone from #USvsHate
Student 2: Yeah, I think that always unites classes, I think.
Student 3: Just sit in a big circle and just talk about what's happening because then it brings light to everything that's going on.
Students also discussed the importance of hearing peers perspectives on what's happening and shared optimism about helping to improve on what's going on in their #USvsHate messaging work. After their advisory teacher had explored the Anti-Defamation Leagues Pyramid of Hate (a graphic that links everyday denigration to societal discrimination and even genocide), ninth graders who created messages on transphobia and homophobia emphasized that classrooms should shed some light on the specific kinds of hate that is happening:
Of course you could be saying, Let's not hate, but then kids are like, Okay, but what exactly does that mean? . . . If you're giving examples. . . . It sheds some light on the specific kinds of hate that is happening, and makes kids more aware, and then they're like, Oh, I didn't know that that was hate. I thought this was a normal thing. Wait, that's also part of it? Okay.
Students said #USvsHate allowed them the rare chance in school to discuss the hate that is happening to individuals and groups in their school, region, and society and to deem such events unacceptable, not normal. Messages circulated across the region also helped peers recognize harms happening locally, if not to themselves personally, hitting home, and raising awareness. As one student put it, I feel like if its towards your community . . . or happening in your community, it hits home more than examples that dont relate to you that much. An example was this ninth graders message in Figure 10, about a recent true event in my life, depicting the local harm from ICE experienced by children.
Figure 10. He Wasnt a Criminal, but They Treated Him Like One
In our border region, youth expressed the need to discuss events and facts of immigration and animosity toward immigrants right now, in part to counter ignorance about such crises:
(10th grader): People just need to know whats going on. . . . I just heard this girl that sits near mewe are having a border crisis right nowand she was asking, Where are the caravans coming from? She doesnt even know what country theyre coming from. . . . It kind of irritated me . . . thats why I think these kinds of things are important, especially when you do have the chances in your English classes, in order to be able to talk about it and analyze it, because when people just know nothing, its really frustrating.
Students also said classes must discuss whats happening around you, and that silence left people hurting without support from anyone who cared:
(Ninth grader): You need to know what's happening around you because it's not going to affect you if it's not. You won't care. That's just the reality of it. You're not going to care if it's not affecting you in any way.
Across identity lines, students called it problematic if people were not being educated, not knowing, not discussing, and, accordingly, not caring about pain experienced by others. As one student summed up, It's really easy to avoid when it doesn't seem like it's an issue.
Students called to discuss topics ranging from current events of targeted harm or violence in society to school-based bullying. Seventh graders who did an ally or bystander lesson in advisory (which asked how they would intervene if peers were denigrated) argued that teachers also helped by explicitly taking the time to address hate as things that can go on in school:
Student 1: Because we did this, we are learning about hate and things that can go on in school. . . . So it really shows if the bully does this, what you can do to help and support the person being bullied.
Student 2: Its really useful to be able to use the skills that we learned like this early on.
Youth also critiqued teachers for not inviting such learning. One noted, Teachers can do a big part of [the dialogue] because I feel like a lot of hate just stems from not being educated on the topic.
Students praised knowledgeable teachers efforts to support discussion of school-based or societal harms in more depth. In a classroom where an English teacher embedded #USvsHate in an extended unit on the Holocaust and speaking up against human suffering today, a 10th grader noted, [In other classes, too,] I think it would be really helpful to have a lot more resources . . . like . . . historical backup, to help people understand why something might be a problem or try to fix it. Yet students also indicated that all teachers could help by staying aware of whats going on with those experiencing bigotry (here, versus LGBTQ+ people), and spread[ing] the love:
(Ninth grader 1): There was no hate [at our previous school].
(Ninth grader 2): Because Ms. J was very aware of it, right?
(Ninth grader 3): Right. We had a great teacher figure who was very aware of what was going onbecause I think she had a kid who was transbut who sort of spread the love in a sense.
Students thus critiqued educators who were silent about or not aware of whats going on for a basic ethical failure to spread the love. One student wished adults kind of took responsibility to address hate incidents in both schools and society: Like parents, they said, all teachers can do a big part in how they raise kids.
Some students also acknowledged that addressing harms to marginalized populations took educator courage. One student said they hoped that student anti-hate messages could empower adults too for such conversations. And in discussing the conversations necessary, students also noted that discussing current experiences would include discussing some politics. The 10th-grade creator of Being Mexican Isnt a Crime (Figure 1) explained that the invitation to make an anti-hate message had her thinking about all the stuff happening in the government, including the governments targeting of her own community of Mexicans for disparagement:
I created a piece that was specific to the Mexican culture and what's going on. So I created a poster that was like a presidency poster when people are running [for office] . . . I did a cultural Mexican woman with the colors of the American flag, to say that we can be American as well, and all the stuff happening in the government and against Mexican people.
Although no lessons on the website invited direct analysis of the presidency or asked students to directly critique all the stuff happening in the government, the presidents government was in fact disproportionately targeting Mexican people and nonwhite immigrants for denigration, deportation, and exclusion. A ninth grader from another district said the Being Mexican poster on her classroom wall inspired her own message about the political situation thats happening with Trump and whats really going on:
In my project, I did the political situation thats happening with Trump against Mexicans or people who are immigrants . . . cause Im Mexican and I saw the Being Mexican Isnt a Crime poster, and it hit me because thats whats really going on right now. Like, hes trying to take out a lot of people from the U.S. who were actually not doing anything bad but hes labeling them thinking theyre drug dealers.
Some #USvsHate messages thus spurred students to think about the current political situation and events that people experienced as threats from politicians. But students argued that a failure to discuss any politics in schools meant allowing students to avoid current events altogether:
(10th grader): I personally know a couple of people who say, Oh, I'm not really interested in politics, or they're not really aware of a lot of the things going on . . . I think that having it in classrooms makes it kind of unavoidable, and it really does educate people on current events, and I think that's really important.
Students thus argued that as a basic professional and ethical task of educating, educators should help students understand current events, the news, and politics, including events where groups were being denigrated, disparaged, or hurt. One student insisted that educators should tell kids whats going on in society to help students form their own opinions:
(10th grader): I think #USvsHate is such a good way to open up and tell kids what's going on in society. That way, instead of just kind of listening to what your parents always tell you, You should believe this or this, it kind of allows them to form their own opinions and find their own beliefs.
Yet it was precisely this vision of #USvsHateone allowing teachers to tell kids whats going on in society in order to find their own beliefs regarding current experiences of marginalized populationsthat spiked educators fears that critics might deem discussions of harms today to be a political agenda off-limits to discussion.
EDUCATORS FEAR DISCUSSING WHATS GOING ON
Educators admitted that long before #USvsHate or the Trump era, they worried about parent pushback if they openly expressed empathy for marginalized populations in class discussions. Teachers called such work difficult topics and used phrases such as its scary and teaching beyond the comfort zone to describe the need to have brave conversations with students even while being underprepared (What do I say?). Yet current events of human pain felt particularly dangerous to discuss today: At a training held by a partner organization opposing hate for decades, a presenter made clear that teaching the Holocaust was easier than tackling contemporary immigration, explaining, teachers are scared. In a school where the principal had invited teachers to join #USvsHate, one teacher said he was so worried about making class discussions political that he feared even teaching myths and facts about immigration and poetry written by an immigrant.
Educators we talked with said they joined #USvsHate precisely because refusing hate and saying all were part of US seemed unarguably worth doing, at any time, and especially when incidents of harassment were spiking across campuses and society. Yet teachers often imagined critics would resist an anti-hate initiative right now because of politics. Asked about any reservations, one teacher serving low-income and immigrant families explained,
I think a lot about the politics. It's in a way kind of homogenous when you have low-income kids, mostly minorities, a lot of immigrants. So there are a lot of topics [on] which our students are going to probably agree, but I could imagine other places where that could be the opposite. There would be a lot of difficulty in trying to implement something like this; even the teachers might resist it.
This teacher accordingly suggested finding more neutral language for the project, explaining that critics might dismiss an anti-hate project as somebodys agenda, given our current political climate, even while an anti-hate program was clearly a program for everybody:
I would want to find some very neutral language to introduce the whole project. . . . It should be a program for everybody, but with our current political climate, I'm afraid that some people . . . will read it a certain way and believe it's part of somebody's agenda.
One elementary teacher from a mostly white, upper-middle-class community she called sheltered muted the projects name preemptively so she wouldnt get into partisanship about todays perceived politics:
Teacher: To be honest, I havent called it USvsHate with my students, I called it anti-hate messaging or welcome messaging.
Pollock: Why is that?
Teacher: Its less political, and it gets at what Im trying to get at with my students, and part of it is appropriate for kids of this age, and a lot of them dont know about whats going on in the world..
Pollock: Do you feel like anti-hate messaging is different from #USvsHate?
Teacher: To me its not, but its that whole perceived politics, and I dont want to get into partisanship, so I dont invite it. I dont know that it will be problematic, but I havent treaded there.
While we had crafted the projects anti-hate frame explicitly to invite nonpartisan activity uniting any school community of any politics against hate, teachers sometimes expressed anticipatory anxiety that critics in their communities might perceive partisanship in the projects very rejection of hate. In a focus group, one educator reported that a peer in a predominantly white military community was proceeding haltingly with trying #USvsHate because she heard echoes of Trump on the website and feared community response. As the teacher indicated earlier, the fear of perceived politics had educators avoiding discussion of whats going on in the world.
While the military-community teacher feared critics would deem a rejection of hate a rejection of Trump, educators found other communities easily responsive to a project countering hate precisely because experiences of personal and community harm were going on. In a Grades 612 school serving a largely immigrant, low-income population where many families feared deportation and family separation, a teacher said students were quite ready to discuss the current political climate, because whats happening has direct effects on them and their lives:
It makes them more ready to have these conversations, because they are processing everything else going on in the world. In a school like [ours], so much of whats happening has direct effects on them and their lives, so the current political climate makes it more appropriate to have these kinds of conversations.
Not all teachers serving similar populations felt as appropriate about helping students to process whats happening. One elementary teacher from another predominantly Latinx school noted that she and a couple of colleagues doing #USvsHate were the few at their school willing to broach the hard conversations. A K8 teacher in a predominantly white and Latinx school said that she just let students silently appreciate the artwork from #USvsHate without discussing the deeper politics of whats happening. Students didn't understand the Being Mexican Isn't a Crime poster on her classroom wall, she said, adding that she purposefully did not engage further discussion about it: I said, I think it's the political climate right now with what's going on with our administration, and I left it at that, she explained.
Other teachers argued it was essential to openly discuss the news, as did one teacher at a socioeconomically diverse high school where 75% of students were Latinx: I think schools are a microcosm of the nation, and anything that you might see on the news is happening at our school in some form or another. Overall, educators participating in #USvsHate pressed ahead with some version of discussing what was happening, deeming it a basic responsibility to allow discussion of the nation, schools, and groups current experiences in both.
EDUCATORS INSIST ON DISCUSSING WHATS GOING ON
In interviews, educators sometimes indicated that the term political was too easily used to muzzle any teaching about current events related to diversity and inclusion. One history teacher critiqued anyone saying that anti-hate work was too political for school, particularly at a historical moment when people shockingly were treating Nazi salutes as acceptable. Were in a situation where obviously things are very skewed if being anti-hate and pro-compassion is considered political, he said. And I think that is something that teachers always need to come back to. This teacher also argued that critiquing #USvsHate as political falsely framed being a nice person and protecting peoples rights as partisan issues instead of basic ethics:
I think a group like #USvsHate needs to put the pendulum in its right place, which is that being anti-hate is not political. Being a nice person is not political. Protecting peoples rights is not political. I mean it can become political, but it should not be seen as being anti-administration or anti-Republican, unless they are fully embracing that being hate. . . I think, like, we cant let our standards get eroded to that.
He added that allowing parents to call anti-xenophobic teaching anti-Trump (and so presumably off-limits to teachers) would mean failing to address xenophobia itself, and thus compromising with hate and letting hate guide what you teach:
If youre in [a white, wealthy neighboring community], and parents dont like that youre being anti-Trump because you are being anti-xenophobic, then I dont think there needs to be an apology. And I understand teachers arent in the same situation I am. I understand that I am Black, and Im teaching in a school where it is majority immigrant minority. But I think if someone is against being anti-hate, then they are being hate. And if you cower or you compromise with hate, then youre letting hate guide what you teach.
Most participating educators decided that being anti-hate and pro-compassion meant not staying silent about marginalized groups experiences of harm. A kindergarten teacher in a socioeconomically diverse bilingual elementary school described a principal who initially deemed #USvsHate messages too mature for display on school walls. To her, the decision censored discussion of current life experiences:
The day after receiving all the posters and stickers, we [her kindergarten students] had all these grand ideas of sending them to the office and posting them everywhere. And the next day, the principal said I had to take them down. And the one that really bothered me was [taking down] Being Mexican Isnt a Crime. And this is a school where kids are seeing their parents being deported. So we have to have these conversations.
After watching the teachers own students bilingual #USvsHate video against bullying, this principal eventually invited her to share #USvsHate with colleagues and some became excited about the project. This outcome left the teacher grateful that students could voice concerns of what theyve actually witnessedconversations all too rare at her school. Shaking her head, she mused that #USvsHate was just about addressing whats going on in the world.
EDUCATORS AND STUDENTS PUSH FORWARD TO DISCUSS WHATS GOING ON
All participants in #USvsHate ultimately decided that in school, discussing whats going on and refusing hate denigrating anyone on the basis of identity was a standard ethical and professional responsibility for educators, as well as a particular responsibility now. Indeed, most participating teachers, schools, and districts proudly amplified students anti-hate perspectives. The district whose student made Being Mexican Isnt a Crime, for example, retweeted the students message as a statement of fact.
It was sporadic critics who framed anti-hate work as anti-Trump, ironically equating Trump with hate themselves. One critic argued on Pollocks Facebook group that Being Mexican Isnt a Crime indicated that students were force-fed ideology instead of being taught both sides. Another heard a ninth graders message in Figure 11, There is No Right Way to Love, as yelling at President Trump.
Figure 11. There Is No Right Way to Love
Ironically, the viewers own critique positioned Trump as anti-Mexican and anti-LGBTQ+. Pollocks Facebook response was resolutely to repeat, This is an anti-hate project.
Educators steeled themselves for potential critics by preparing arguments that anti-hate work was simply their job. One 10th-grade teacher dismissed the notion of potential pushback, saying, God, imagine that bad press, if you got fired for doing anti-hate lessons, and, Show me where in the Constitution I'm violating your students rights by telling them not to be racist. I think it's a really easy argument to deflate. Because she imagined potential pushback from a student on her mind, however, her next comment at first seemed unabashedly anti-Trump:
Day one, last year, a student walks out with a Trump-Pence shirt on. We definitely have students who are either, their religiousness contributes to . . . ideas of hate, or their politics do, their parents politics do. . . . I have definitely seen a divide there.
Yet this teacher explained that she heard in the campaign shirt the Trump campaigns explicit denigration of undocumented people, including people in her school:
That campaign was built on hate, and fear, and inciting violence. So it's accurate, I guess, reasonable, for someone to feel threatened by seeing this shirt. I worked with an individual who's undocumented, so she felt threatened by that shirt.
To dispute that the Trump campaign was anti-undocumented-immigrant would be to dispute realityyet to censor students political candidate choices would be the definition of partisan. Responsible under federal law to support undocumented immigrants too, this educatorherself a government teacherwas thus left trying to discuss the facts of the governments anti-immigrant acts and policies in a nonpartisan manner as her professional responsibility. Her solution was to invite varying perspectives on the governments policies, while drawing a line at accepting the denigration of groups. She said, We're going to agree on the same set of facts . . . [how we] interpret what they mean, that's what's different. She called her goal accurate disagreement, adding that a teacher couldnt ignore the facts of current events even if they exacerbated a social divide. To delete discussion of government altogether, she said, was to refuse to discuss actual life in her school and across the nation: Everything. They're yelling about it in Congress, or on Fox News, its manifesting in some way on our campus.
Yet educators and students participating in #USvsHate indicated that most classrooms they knew did not navigate complex conversations about whats going on. A high school teacher noted that without #USvsHates invitation to discuss current experiences, I'm not sure those same comments would have been shared out loud otherwise. As a simple call for students to share what theyve been living and to say firmly that denigrating any group was wrong, #USvsHate in the Trump era felt both deeply political and not political at all. One high school advisory teacher simply called #USvsHate a breath of fresh air.
Only in one pilot case was #USvsHate halted altogether as too political. A white family employed in the Border Patrol brought a lawyer to their childs charter school to censor a teachers art projects exploring the border, calling them too political and incredibly inappropriate. The administrator and the principal literally removed images across the school related to the border, including the student-made #USvsHate messages in Figures 12 and 13.
Figure 12. Build Bridges Not Walls
Figure 13. Humanity Is Bigger Than Borders
Build Bridges Not Walls, made by a local high schooler, was indeed a current protest slogan in local rallies against family separations and bans on refugees. The other message, also by a local high schooler, articulated a perspective unarguable in some ways: Humanity is bigger than borders. Yet in a nation debating immigration and the denigration of immigrants, educators refusal to post messaging empathizing with immigrants experiences actually prioritized anti-immigrant voices because of politicsand, in that sense, was partisan.
In a Trump era, educators participating in #USvsHate thus sought a deeper democratic balance: to support students through critical discussion of complex social issues and actual pain experienced by other human beings, while not prioritizing any party. As Rogers argued (in press), key shapers of U.S. education have argued for such a balance for centuries, positing that to ready students for a diverse democracy, social issues must be discussed across divergent opinions even as educators avoid party politicsand as students are taught to avoid denigrating types of people. #USvsHate thus purposefully took sides not against particular presidents or parties, but against hate and harm to people and communities, historically and today. But in an era when government officials themselves were overtly denigrating populations and targeting groups for harm, anti-hate work felt somehow both nonpartisan and partisanand teachers indicated that their colleagues most often stayed on the side of silence. A high school teacher noted that today, any talk of hate would inherently raise some red flags for people protecting Trump, saying, Hate has been used so much against Trump, and the love versus hate and love trumps hate and so on. So that might immediately raise some red flags in certain parts of the country.
Yet whenever educators avoided mentioning current events of harm in the quest to be nonpartisan, they actually made a partisan decision: They kept government actors particularly off-limits for discussion by youth and teachers because of their party, and so purposefully beyond any accountability for their part in whats going on. In our own Trumpmuteness as project designers, we too protected one president particularly from critique for his own acts of denigrating populations. What was actually made off-limits in this quest to not be partisan was discussing this president and his party at alland real experiences under his administration.
Indeed, some participants pointed out that refusing to discuss current harmful events (including government policies targeting groups) seemed more partisan than discussing those events. For educators who taught youth targeted most directly by the administration and by epithets or violence in school hallways or on local streets, a refusal to discuss such experiences of harm sanctioned the harm. Further, students indicated that ignoring current harm was perhaps tolerable only for those not targeted. As one student said, I think if you can actively avoid it, youre privileged to do so, because politics affects everyone. . . . So it helps to know what's going on . . . [to] keep yourself updated.
Educators also noted that deleting mention of hate events in the effort to not take sides would actually validate harm to groups targeted, not be neutral. One teacher said as much in spring 2019, two months before the president himself told several congresswomen of color to go back to where they came from:
I'm over this idea of being a neutral educator. It's not a thing. . . . If you want to discuss finer details of macro-economics, that maybe has a more conservative [perspective], okay, we'll talk about that. But when we're talking about anything regarding [basic rights of] race or gender identity or religion . . . there's not two sides. . . . So it's like this fine balance . . . you can be who you are, but [denigrating] language cant exist in my classroom.
Another middle school teacher noted that ignoring harm to communities in an effort to be neutral let harm reign unchecked: I know that as educators, were asked to be kind of neutral and not impress our ideology on our students. But Im of the belief that this is unprecedented.
As teachers attempted to hang on to basic ethics of human rights and inclusion while nurturing differing perspectives on the nations government and direction, participants indicated that classrooms typically stayed silent about harm to marginalized populations in a quixotic quest to stay neutral. And in deleting current experiences of harm altogether from discussion in schools, educators in essence let those being harmed suffer in silence.
#USvsHate participants ultimately decided that public anti-hate dialogue, teaching, and messaging upheld basic educator responsibilities and basic ethicsin this administration as in any other. Once her image was chosen for a public art show, the 10th-grade creator of Being Mexican Isnt a Crime, the pilots most virally circulated anti-hate image, ultimately explained her intentions to broadcast a more universal morality, including during the administration of Donald Trump. Her statement indicated a type of experience otherwise silenced altogether in school for its seemingly partisan tone:
Since the candidacy and election of Donald Trump, many lies and stereotypes have been spread about my culture and race . . . we have been called criminals, drug dealers, and rapists. Seeing first-hand how people in my community really are, I decided to rise above this hate, and create my piece titled Being Mexican Isnt a Crime . . . In this diverse nation of so many races, colors, languages, and cultures, immigrants learning, working, and raising their families to the best of their abilities alongside their neighbors is what makes this country great!
Some might argue that the quest to refuse harm to marginalized groups and to insist on rights and inclusion for all in our diverse nation (and, as debated furiously today, to teach the facts about inequality and injustice in our society, past and present) is fundamentally democratic and even anti-partisan. Yet the era studied put classic struggles over avoiding partisan teaching into overdrive. In an increasingly divided country, countless topics felt infused by politics and partisanship. Nationwide after the 2016 election, educators reported accusations of being partisan even for hanging signs generically welcoming diversity or saying science is real; in 2017, Pollock met teachers afraid of teaching entire subject areas debated in the current administration, such as environmental science. Some educators inviting critical thinking about the presidents rhetoric or policies were literally censured (Anderson & Zyhowski, 2018). National 20162019 studies (Rogers, in press) found that educators anxious about avoiding politics were even deleting the word democracy from public school goals as the president stoked partisan divisions while denigrating individuals and groups. In a divisive climate since 2016 leading to a heightened sense of fear and suspicion of others (Rogers et al., 2019), educators reported division among students as young as kindergartenand many teachers responded by avoiding classroom discussions of current events of harm (Costello & Dillard, 2019). At this writing, educators face legislation attempting to censor such teaching about harm to marginalized groups, present or past; such legislation is, ironically, pushed by one party (Kingkade et al., 2021).
In these years, we designed #USvsHate to protect educators and students ability to refuse hate, harassment, bias, and harm in schools and society in an explicitly nonpartisan manner. #USvsHate took a public stance against hate itself, insisting that all communities be valued as part of US while inviting analysis of actual events experienced by people as harmfuleven if this meant critiquing the moments when the president himself fueled and modeled such harm. In our pilot of #USvsHate across the politically mixed San Diego region, students repeatedly described #USvsHate as an obviously necessary school-based invitation to discuss and address whats going onclearly an educators job. Participating educators framed anti-hate effort as educators timeless and current responsibility, even as some worried that such work might appear partisan to others. As one teacher summarized, #USvsHate was simply an opportunity for students to speak out about whats happening to them, their family, their community, and their country. In this, educators shouldered a basic responsibility of democratic schooling: talking about real life in a shared nation, and making sure all students felt included in that nations schools.
The educators and students of #USvsHate thus kept current events and experiences of harm audible and visible, as if doing so was a basic responsibility of schooling in a diverse democracy. A student poster portraying immigrants sheltering behind the border fence, with the words Keep Us Safe, overtly kept this human experience in the room and in the mind. Statements like Stand Up for Others Instead of Bringing Them Down, or a third graders message, Everyone Belongs, seemed both timelessly true and packed with current urgency. Student voices carried in videos, poems, op-eds, songs, and art installations prompted ongoing awareness and caring for anyone being harmed as if less valuable, today and at any time. And from teachers, students demanded both a moral stance countering hate and the democratic chance to hear peers perspectives, beliefs, and views, framing such work as both obviously necessary and strangely unusual in schools. Because other than #USvsHate, students and teachers noted, schools often did not invite discussion of whats happeningleaving many suffering in silence. In the end, participants concluded that standing up against hate was a basic and timeless requirement of U.S. educators workand that standing up for all of US actually should be the domain of every party.
Our project implementation and related design research were supported by seed funding from Teaching Tolerance. Our formal research work was also supplemented by a small grant from the Spencer Foundation.
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