In The Media

The 'Trump Effect' on Canada's Classrooms

by Emily Richmond (feat. Andrea Charron)

The Atlantic
August 7, 2017

Standing at the front of her classroom this past February, the public high-school English teacher Jana Rohrer wrote the words “American Flag” on the board and asked her ninth-grade students to tell her what came to their minds.

Over the past six years Rohrer has used the exercise as part of a lesson to help explain symbolism in Harper Lee’s classic To Kill a Mockingbird. And over the past six years, the students’ answers had become routine: Freedom. Independence. Patriotism.

This time, there were new words mixed among the more familiar responses: Hate. Racism. Danger.

“It was like when you hear a record scratch and the music stops,” said Rohrer, recalling the moment from the classroom exercise. “I was just floored.”

Plenty has been written about the shifting relationship between the U.S. and its allies, including Canada, Great Britain, and Germany, since Donald Trump’s presidential election. But it’s not just playing out during geopolitical summits and trade negotiations. Trump’s influence is also a focus in schools, including Rohrer’s classroom in this modest border town on the Canadian shores of the Detroit River.

Multiple definitions of a so-called “Trump Effect” have emerged over the past 18 months or so, attributed to everything from stock-market gains to reports of increases in bullying and incidents of racial and religious-based hate crimes. More than 10,000 educators participated in a non-scientific online survey conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center shortly after the presidential election, with over 90 percent of respondents saying the results of the election had negatively affected their students’ mood and behavior. And 80 percent described “heightened anxiety and concern on the part of students worried about the impact of the election on themselves and their families.” More recently, an investigation by BuzzFeed found examples from dozens of school districts nationwide of students using Trump’s own words to bully their classmates.

Evaluating these sorts of perceptions, especially in a divided political environment, is notoriously tricky. There are strong arguments to be made, for example, that there is simply a brighter spotlight on bad behavior and tensions that pre-date the contentious presidential election cycle and its aftermath. Besides, the impact of Trump’s presidency on Canada might actually be a good thing. A few opinion writers have suggested that the country might benefit from a Trump administration, particularly on trade deals. In a February piece, Andrea Charron, an assistant professor and deputy-director of the Centre for Defence and Security Studies at the University of Manitoba in Winnipeg, argued that demonizing Trump is easy, but it may be shortsighted, too. Trump’s surprise victory should be a wake-up call for apathetic Canadian voters who oppose him, and the subsequent policy developments are boosting student interest in current events, she said. Charron also wrote that some university students who are conservative or Trump supporters have told her they feel “vilified by their professors.” That runs counter to the idea of colleges as places where debate should be welcomed, Charron said.

But those perspectives aren’t particularly visible. If the volatile political climate in the U.S. is indeed contributing to an increase in incivility and even outright harassment, those developments, in turn, appear to be fueling another kind of “Trump Effect”—a diminished view of how America is perceived by other countries, including longtime allies. And there’s evidence that the fallout has breached what’s widely been considered the U.S.’s most consistently friendly border. In a recent survey by the Environics Institute for Survey Research, just 44 percent of Canadians held a favorable view of the U.S.—a 35-year low.

“I see [the ‘Trump Effect’], absolutely, every single day. Not equally among every population, but in any group, even young groups, there's always some people who are quite actively impacted,” said Kathy Bickmore, an education professor at the University of Toronto. “Either they're afraid, or they're more angry and worried.”

As Rohrer’s experience demonstrates, attitudes are shifting in classrooms, too. Given that American politics often score front-page headlines in the country next door, it’s not unusual that Canadian students’ views on the U.S. are being influenced by what they read, see, and hear, Bickmore said. However, there’s a perception that something is different in the Trump era compared with prior years. “It feels unprecedented in scale and speed, but there's a joke around here that when the United States gets a cold, Canada gets pneumonia,” Bickmore said. “The ‘Trump Effect’ has hit us hard.”

For some schools, that pneumonia has translated into policy. The Greater Essex County District School Board—a district of about 75 schools serving roughly 36,000 students in Essex County and the city of Windsor, including at Sandwich Secondary—announced earlier this year that all student field trips to the U.S. were indefinitely suspended.*

Many students in the Windsor-Essex area have foreign or dual citizenship, local educators say. The risk of them being barred from entering the U.S. with their classmates because of Trump’s then-proposed travel ban for individuals holding passports from seven Muslim-majority countries was too great, explained Scott Scantlebury, the school system’s spokesman. “The decision was, ‘if all can’t go, none can go,’” Scantlebury told me.

Echoing concerns about the impact of Trump’s ban on its pupils, Toronto, Canada’s largest and most diverse school district with over 300,000 students, followed Essex’s lead in March, as did the Girl Guides, the Canadian equivalent to the U.S.’s Girl Scouts. (More recently, a school district near Seattle, Washington, canceled its field trips into Canada, fearing students might not be allowed to return.)

Windsor’s Herman Academy was one of the first schools in the Greater Essex system to see its field trips to the United States canceled. Jason Pfaff, a world-studies teacher at Herman, had been planning to take his students to the Holocaust Memorial Center in Farmington Hills, Michigan, typically an hour or less in travel time. Pfaff says he supported and is proud of the board’s decision to cancel the field trips even though it would mean his students—who include recent immigrants from seven Middle Eastern countries—missed out on a learning opportunity that’s difficult to replicate.*

The Herman Academy sophomore and Windsor-area native Jamiel Nasser laments the field-trip policy, as it meant the school’s band—in which he plays percussion and is learning the saxophone—wasn’t able to attend a competition in Washington, D.C., in April. Nasser was so eager for the trip that he sold boxes of chocolate bars to help his school raise the $800 needed to offset the cost of travel. “Everyone was disappointed because we had this great opportunity taken away from us,” Nasser said. “I feel worse for the [school’s] seniors; this was their last trip.”

But Nasser, who is Muslim and of Palestinian Hungarian descent, said he ultimately supports the district’s decision. “I’m not necessarily blaming anyone,” Nasser said. “But ever since the election, my family has been reluctant to go [to the U.S.].”

Border crossings are not expected to get any easier. In late June, the U.S. Supreme Court allowed substantial portions of the president’s travel ban to be implemented, pending an additional review. As a result, Essex’s principals have already been told the field trip suspensions will remain in place when classes resume this fall, Scantlebury, the school-system spokesman, told me.

Canceling the field trips wasn’t intended to be a “message” to the U.S., or aimed at a specific elected official or political office, Scantlebury said. “That question has certainly been asked but it wasn’t based on that at all—we’re a diverse community, and this [U.S. travel] ban may affect some unfairly. This was an operational decision.”

Andy Smarick, a scholar at the conservative American Enterprise Institute in Washington, D.C., said he could understand why some might draw the conclusion that the canceled field trips were at best an overreaction, and at worst an attempt at using students for political messaging. “Of course we want to protect kids, but if there is no real worry and they’re being robbed the opportunity to come to places like D.C. or Philadelphia, that’s a shame,” said Smarick, who has served in numerous state and federal education-policy positions.

At the same time, “schools always exist in a political context,” Smarick said. Given the level of vitriol being aimed at Trump by politicians and others, it would “be surprising if we didn’t see schools reacting to these developments,” he said.

The ban on field trips doesn’t mean Canadian students are any less plugged into political developments in the U.S. For Hadia Malik, who was in Rohrer’s class ninth-grade class, her English teacher’s symbolism lesson was an eye-opener, especially when she learned that some of her classmates’ responses to the exercise were similar to hers. She’s been paying closer attention to U.S. politics than she ever had previously.

A Muslim of Pakistani heritage who was born and raised in Windsor, Malik said she was saddened that the American flag brought newly negative associations to mind: “Maybe before I did think of ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty.’ But now, definitely, my opinion has changed.”

Malik, who wears a neatly tucked hijab, said in the past year it’s become more common for her peers to ask her why she covers her head or inquire more generally about her faith. But their questions are always polite, and Malik emphasized that she hasn’t experienced any bullying or harassment and that her school “is a very caring community.”

Her classmate Kirsten Gibson agreed. A fifth-generation Canadian, Gibson said much of the rhetoric of Trump and his supporters seems to run counter to what she believes are the core principles of her own country—to stand up when you believe someone is being bullied, to push back against discrimination, and to embrace people’s differences. “For someone to be in power who sounds like he’s against those things … [that] is very scary,” Gibson said. “It’s not ‘Oh, they’re across the Pacific Ocean or the Atlantic Ocean.’ We’re 10 minutes away. So, we care. It matters to us.”

Ayman Khatib, who is also in Rohrer’s ninth-grade English class, said Trump’s election has complicated his feelings about the United States. His parents, who are originally from Lebanon, relocated the family to Canada from California about six years ago, believing it would offer their family more opportunity. Under President Barack Obama, “the United States seemed like a pretty nice place,” Khatib said. But while he’s unhappy with some of Trump’s actions and policy positions, he also believes social media and news reports are influencing how Canadians view the new American president. Gibson echoed that perspective: “We’ve been told not to like [Trump] and to fear him.”

When Rohrer discussed the results of the classroom exercises with her husband Josh Canty, he wasn’t surprised. In addition to being principal of Herman Academy, the first school to see its field trips canceled, he coordinates an after-school boxing program where both the U.S. and Canadian flags fly outside of the gymnasium. “One of my Lebanese Canadian students said to me, ‘You’ve got to take down that Trump flag,’” Canty told me.

What’s happening with Canadian schools in places like Windsor is worth watching, said the American Enterprise Institute’s Smarick. There have always been ups and downs to how other nations view the U.S., and the American president is a key driver of that, he added.

“We have a bias that this moment is unlike any other, but is today really different from other fraught times?” Smarick asked. “Is the ‘Trump Effect’ going to last longer? Will we view this in hindsight as a blip on the screen or will it create new less-friendly relationships between us and other countries?”

Researchers like Joel Westheimer, an education professor at the University of Ottawa, are also asking these kinds of questions, though Westheimer expects the current political climate to have ripple effects far beyond field-trip schedules. The author of a book on the impact of 9/11 on how U.S. schools taught patriotism, Westheimer, an American, has teamed up with the UCLA education professor John Rogers to study the impact of the “Trump Effect” on Canadian and American school communities.

Westheimer pointed to Canada’s rich history of civic-minded education practices that encourage educators to connect current events, even controversial ones, to the required lessons. Teachers in turn often discuss with their students the many political tensions Canada itself struggles with: marginalization of its indigenous populations, a recent influx of immigrants, and an extension of the Black Lives Matter movement. Now, they’re embracing the Trump presidency “as a brilliant teachable moment,” he said. One recent example: Westheimer visited a classroom where a teacher had students compare coverage of “one of the many Trump controversies” from newspapers around the world.

Indeed, for Canadian educators like the high-school English teacher Rohrer, recent events have forced her to rethink her instructional approach. Rather than continue with the next pre-planned lesson back in February, Rohrer set aside time after the symbolism lesson for a follow-up conversation with her students. What did they think was shaping their perceptions of the U.S.? Had their feelings changed at all recently? Where were they getting their information about current events? And what would they use as evidence to back up their individual points of view? Rohrer’s revised lesson plan was in line with Greater Essex’s curriculum requirements, which among other things stipulate that media literacy be incorporated into various subjects. The purpose wasn’t to change students’ feelings about the U.S. but rather to explore what was shaping their points of view and to encourage them to think critically about those sources of information, Rohrer said.

It was also an opportunity to encourage a deeper discussion—something school officials encourage. “We try to create opportunities and having students sharpen their critical thinking skills from when they enter school to right until they graduate,” said Superintendent of Education Clara Howitt, who can see the U.S. border from her office window. “It helps to develop well-rounded individuals who, by the time they graduate from our system, are responsive, locally and nationally and internationally.”

Several parents, including Erin Gibson, the mother of the ninth-grader Kirsten, told me they welcomed the follow-up conversations Rohrer held with students. “We need to have them equipped to handle the real world—we can’t shelter a child their entire life and send them out,” Gibson said.

This isn’t easy work—but it can pay long-term benefits to students, schools, and wider communities, said the University of Toronto’s Bickmore: “Lots of people, even people who are absolutely devoted to education [on the grounds that it can promote] democracy and peace, are uncomfortable with conflict. But if we don’t approach it in a learning environment where information and listening matter—well, who else is going to do it?”

For the ninth-grader and Windsor native Ethan Fields, the American flag exercise in Rohrer’s class stirred up some unexpected emotions. He’s followed Trump’s rise to power via the news and social media, and said he’s troubled by Trump’s comments about women and immigrants, his pledge to build a wall on the Mexican border, and conflicting details about his relationship with Russian President Vladimir Putin.

But it’s the class discussion that followed that’s stuck with Fields most.

“To get your feelings out there and tell your friends and classmates about it, definitely helped,” Fields said. “Thinking that I'm not the only one who's worried about this and who thinks this is a problem, it's kind of comforting.”

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