What do you think?

Story

For this lesson, I was prepared for misunderstanding. I made a list of questions the students would likely pose. I had clear and simple answers ready for those questions. And, I highlighted vocabulary which I knew would be unfamiliar. I laid out these unfamiliar terms like a roadmap of traffic patterns. We established the known before broaching the unknown. The itinerary was a good one, and the route was manageable.

Until Donald Trump hijacked the car.

“You know, he says things–these things against immigrants and Arabs and Mexicans–he says these things; and then, people vote for him. Sir, does it mean Americans agree? In school, we are taught racism was part of history. But–but are we seeing racism is today a part of America? Sir, what do you think?”

A few weeks ago, I made American politics the theme of my ESL lesson. I expected there to be some misunderstanding. Most Americans themselves don’t attempt to understand the motley and confusing process that is a primary election. Thus, I was prepared with my lists and highlighted terms.

First, we established the known and listened to each other’s stories. The police in Thailand issue daylong curfews. The president of Brazil is undergoing impeachment. Jordanian leaders say nice things about the king, whether or not they mean it. Concerning stories like these are bountiful. But, mundane tales are also typical. According to my students, what happens on Voting Day is pretty similar whether you’re in Turkmenistan or Vietnam. Riots are unusual. Violence is rare. It’s boring stuff.

Next, we turned to the local process. I explained primary elections, and the way that each state differs. This was news to most of the students, and a flood of questions ensued.

“Are there only two parties?”

“They are voting for what party now? Who is voting Illinois?”

“Who won where?”

To resolve the confusion, we examined some maps courtesy of Wikipedia. We saw a color-coded display of when each state votes. Students were impressed with the complexity of American democracy. But, the maps clearly displayed something else: Donald Trump was winning.

Whoever edits the Wikipedia page for the Republican primary elections of 2016 has chosen navy blue to represent Trump. The imposing blue stretches from Massachusetts to Louisiana, overshadowing Cruz’s funky mustard and Rubio’s sickly pastel red. A student from Brazil noted this, and smiled, saying, “But he’s not serious. He won’t actually win?”

In response, I looked at the map; and I reminded her that it depended on the results. At that point, many states had not voted yet.

“I don’t understand,” she replied.

Normally, when a student says this a red flag goes off in my head. As a teacher, I don’t understand is like the sound of a flat tire on a car. You don’t continue on a flat tire. You stop, and you fix the flat tire. And, it’s usually not so difficult to fix. But, if you neglect it and keep going things will get much worse very quickly. Therefore, when my student said this and silence followed, you can imagine the way that my stomach shifted. I had nothing.

Then, my eloquent Jordanian dentist–always eager to speak–asked the question.

“You know, he says things–these things against immigrants and Arabs and Mexicans–he says these things; and then, people vote for him. Sir, does it mean Americans agree? In school, we are taught racism was part of history. But–but are we seeing racism is today a part of America? Sir, what do you think?”

This was not one of my anticipated questions. Needless to say, I did not have a clear and simple answer.

What do you think?

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