I would give my right arm to be in a history classroom today. Of course, that raises the question of what we as history educators should do to help our students understand last night’s election results and Donald Trump’s victory. What follows is not in any way intended as a lesson plan. Those will certainly be forthcoming in the near future. For now I want to share a few thoughts about how you should approach your students and what you may want to avoid.
The first and most important thing to remember is that what we do today, tomorrow, and over the next few weeks is not about us. This is not about trying to make ourselves feel better or use our students to help justify or explain away what happened last night. It’s about our students.
That may seem obvious, but I painfully remember how difficult it was having to work with my students in the days following the 9-11 attacks having lost a relative in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. I fear that this election will be even more difficult to teach given that we will not enjoy the comfort of a brief period of national unity and non-partisanship. In fact, the current divisions that define the American political and cultural landscape will likely deepen.
How each of us engages our students – regardless of whether we are thrilled or horrified by the results – will shape the depth and scope of their understanding of the historical context of the 2016 election and its connection to different points in our history.
Keep in mind that their lived history is drastically different from our own. Our high school students have no memories of 9-11 and those of college undergraduates are vague at best. Each of us has already tried to place Donald Trump’s victory within our own lived personal histories. Many of you are beginning to craft a narrative that places Trump’s victory within a broader historical narrative.
None of your students has access to these narratives. They are starting from scratch.
My fear is that teachers will cobble together primary sources, media, and a narrative that reflects how they view this election within the broad sweep of American history. Please resist this urge. At some point you may want to raise Andrew Jackson’s 1828 victory; the rise of Populist Movements at the end of the 19th century; moments in the history of race and gender; and relevant demographic shifts. All of this is the stuff of American history, but your choices will reflect your perspective and how you are responding to last night’s results.
Again, it’s not about you.
Begin by inviting your students to try to explain what happened and why. You may want to hand out election results, including who voted, who didn’t vote, and where. Ask them to think about the last two years and have them work together on producing a list of important facts, including milestones or turning points in the election process itself plus events and larger themes throughout the country over the past two years that helped to shape its trajectory. From there you can have your students work back as far as they can within their lived past to help to begin to frame a historical narrative. In other words, have students reflect on how do they see this election in the context of their own lives.
From here your students can work on formulating connections with the history currently or previously under discussion in your class. It really doesn’t matter where you are in the syllabus. And this is where your expertise as a history teacher comes into play. Pay attention to how your students direct the conversation, especially in the beginning. Feel free to remind them of events, individuals, themes that have already been discussed that are relevant to the points being made.
It is going to take some time to fully understand the 2016 election. No one has all the answers. It is an ideal opportunity to leverage students’ personal understanding of the past two years, the analytical skills that they are hopefully practicing on a daily basis, and their limited understanding of history to begin to piece together what will certainly go down as an important moment in their lives.