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Trump’s victory offers teachers a challenge and an opportunity

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As the Grade 2 students filed into Jaime Demsey's classroom on Wednesday morning, one boy could not hold back his feelings on what happened overnight. "Did you hear the bad news?" he asked his teacher and classmates.

That "bad news" was Donald Trump's stunning defeat over Hillary Clinton for the U.S. presidency. The seven- and eight-year-olds were afraid and angry about what it could mean. One Indian girl told Ms. Demsey that the president-elect doesn't like people who don't look like him. Others seemed confounded by his win. The students all believe he is a bully.

For educators like Ms. Demsey, who teaches at Jean Steckle Public School in Kitchener, Ont., the events playing out in the United States have inadvertently allowed for classroom lessons on tolerance, bullying and the way political systems work.

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Leah McLaren: How to talk to your children about Donald Trump

"Today every teacher is struggling to explain how the 'world's greatest democracy' chose a misogynist, tax-evading bigot as their leader," tweeted the Toronto chapter of the Ontario Secondary School Teachers' Federation.

Ms. Demsey led her class in a 10-minute discussion on the U.S. election and Mr. Trump's victory. She wanted to reassure her young students that they are safe. The class spoke about how Mr. Trump has been disrespectful to certain groups, and brainstormed on how they would handle someone who is impolite. They agreed on not necessarily turning their back, but giving that person a chance and looking for the best in a difficult situation. They also spoke about living in Canada, and the gratitude they felt to be citizens.

Ms. Demsey said that before she left for school, she hugged her own daughters tighter.

"I felt extreme disappointment," she said. "They have voted for a racist, and a bigot, and a misogynist, and someone who is so unqualified to lead the country."

In her classroom, the political events south of the border provide a "learning stepping stone," she said.

"It's going to provide a bit of framework to talk about life here in Canada," Ms. Demsey added.

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In Nova Scotia, political science teacher Colin MacEachern and his Grade 12 students have been watching biographies of the two presidential candidates. On Wednesday morning, the class at Lockview High School spent an hour discussing Mr. Trump's win and the cult of celebrity that gave him the presidential post.

"They can't believe the results," Mr. MacEachern said. "The other thing the kids notice is they're used to [Prime Minister] Justin Trudeau speaking of himself as a feminist and talking about progressive ideas. And then we have an American president that says things that are the complete opposite."

At a time when Canadian schools are focused on raising test scores in math and literacy, Mr. MacEachern said, the U.S. election has allowed classrooms to discuss political science, a subject that often takes a back seat.

"It shows our kids that what we're learning in textbooks has real-world applications," he said.

Andrew Campbell, an elementary-school teacher in Brantford, Ont., said he had to close off the morning discussion on Mr. Trump after 20 minutes so that other schoolwork could be completed.

But he was sure that it would resurface again later in the day.

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"I was surprised that students wanted to talk about it. I thought it wouldn't have a lot of meaning to Grade 5 and 6 students, but I think they got caught up in the media storm and were reacting to that," he said.

For teachers like Mr. Campbell, having students engaged in current events allows for wider discussions around Canada's political system, how it compares to that of the United States, and how politicians are elected.

But mostly, Mr. Campbell said, he spent the 20 minutes trying to reassure his students. Many had heard rumours and were misinformed, giving him an opportunity to teach them about critical thinking.

"They were afraid and uncertain about what's happening," Mr. Campbell said. "They were scared and wondered how this will affect their lives."

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About the Author
Education Reporter

Caroline Alphonso is an education reporter for The Globe and Mail. More

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