If you had driven 17 miles from Colorado Springs to my hometown of Woodland Park during the 2020 presidential election, the first thing you’d see would be a large Confederate flag. During the election, our county, Teller, was pronounced “Trump County” on a banner prominently displayed on private land and a truck would drive up and down each Saturday showing the owner’s allegiances to Donald Trump.
I have lived in this town for 15 years; with nearly half the population registered as Republican, I can’t remember a time when a Democrat was a choice on the local ballot. Teller County is also known for its high gun ownership; it’s been ranked eighth in the nation for the highest percentage of the population with guns in homes.
Even so, I was stunned by the show of support by many in my community circle of friends — on social media, on community pages and in conversations —for the Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
As a kindergarten teacher, I reflected on my reaction: The fear, the dissonance, the judgment. But I know that as a white educator in a rural town such as mine, it will not be emotional reactions that will shift the dial for social justice.
How do I embrace the politics of our world and translate them as opportunities for learning and engagement for my students? I choose purpose and intention.
Kindergarten is a place for elevating thought and relationships. Children are just starting to realize the existence of others as they move beyond their egocentric nature. They are curious and honest. When the world is amiss, I rely on this knowledge and nurture their capacity for empathy, understanding and competence to directly build skills that will combat ignorance, propaganda and conspiracy.
Throughout the year, I extend my kindergartners’ experience through the power of diverse books. The week following the insurrection, we explored “The Snowy Day” by Ezra Jack Keats. We made personal connections with our experiences in mountain snows. We talked about Peter, the main character, as he makes snowballs and snow angels and has snow plop on his head.
We have read many books with characters from many cultures, but Peter is special. Peter, in my experience, was the first person of color represented in a picture book. My kindergartners consistently expressed awe at this detail and responded with curiosity.
This year especially, hybrid learning allowed parents to share this experience, and some have joined us as we read and explored together. Knowledge is inspiring.
I nurture emotional connections. For over 20 years, a small group in our community has hosted a Martin Luther King Jr. Unity Festival. In the past, anonymous threats have been made to organizers and volunteers.
This year, I volunteered to read story books with my teaching partner. We invited our families to join the event. Sadly, no one showed up, so we brought our lesson to our classrooms and talked about the Black Lives Matter movement and the meaning of equity and of segregation, even when it’s not obvious.
We are an inclusive classroom, and while we may not have much racial diversity, we are empathetic active listeners only as strong as our whole. We all felt these connections.
I highlight opportunities for choice. Back in November, I placed an “Election Day” label on our class calendar. “Trump is the best!” exclaimed Bobby. “Trump is an idiot” said Sally.
“Today, we celebrate our right to vote for our president and many others who will help guide our country. This is a great privilege in America,” I said. I spoke briefly about how this was not always the case for some and still not the case for all.
My kindergartners got an opportunity to see the results of Election Day and participate in one of our country’s great traditions. They saw choice in action.
On the night of Jan. 6, I took a deep breath and developed a more direct plan to address the continued issues highlighted by the day’s events. I know that a more immediate impact will come from building adults, and so I am integrating current events more courageously with families, advocating for social justice practices inside my district, and intentionally inviting adults into uncomfortable spaces showing grace for our journeys.
Just recently, a man in my town was arrested for his alleged participation in the insurrection. I know that we have a lot of work to do to combat the ignorance and hate that has roots here and I will keep inviting the discomfort.
Meanwhile, I will begin each day building a new generation with empathy and understanding, and with purpose and intention.
Peggy Wallace teaches inclusive kindergarten at Columbine Elementary School in Woodland Park. She is a 2020-2021 policy fellow at Teach Plus Colorado, a nonprofit that seeks to empower teachers to take leadership over key policy and practice issues that advance equity, opportunity and student success.
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