Teaching Under the Trump Administration: Fayerweather Street School

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Janelle Anderson's picture

Fayerweather Street School in Cambridge, MA

After school, Jennifer Kay.Goodman can be found behind her desk surrounded by canvas totes bags, stacks of stackable chairs, and piles of student papers. Next to the pile of papers are her knitting needles wrapped around a current project of colorful yarn shaped into kitten ears.

“I’ve been knitting pussy hats” said Kay.Goodman sporting a magenta and orange hat she recently finished.“I can bust one out in 1-2 hours. I’ve been making them more since the election.”   

Carolyn Bloomberg-O'Brien expressed her political beliefs just as publicly. She arrived to work in a white tee shirt with “Women’s Place is in Resistance” written in red glitter letters across her chest and a silhouette of Princess Leia off to the side.

Pussy hats and graphic tees were just some ways Kay.Goodman and Bloomberg-O’Brien were politically engaging in the workplace. They’re both humanities teachers at Fayerweather Street School, a pre-kindergarten through 8th grade private school located at 765 Concord Ave. in Cambridge. For the past academic school year they’ve been implementing  a new kind of political engagement class.

Once a week, students take part in a social action class called, Take-Action Thursdays where they engage in and learn about political and social issues.

Last year there was no kind of class dedicated to political engagement. Instead there was a school-wide mission was to incorporate discussions of diversity and social justice issues into their classrooms.

This year, Kay.Goodman and Bloomberg-O’Brien’s social action class is studying national and personal identity. Classroom discussions varied subjects on immigration, illegal immigration, worker’s rights, farm workers’ rights, and other topics.

“[Take-Action Thursday] came directly out of the Trump election,” said Kay.Goodman.   

At the start of the Trump presidential campaign, before the launch of Take-Action Thursdays, students were able to draw connections between their classes and the current events around them. When Trump made comments about Mexican immigration, the students were learning about Mexico, Mexican Americans, and their culture.

“ The kids were devastated.” said Kay. Goodman.

When election night came Kay.Goodman told her students to write in their journals about what it felt like to have the first female president. “ I didn't want to be the adult to tell them that everything was going to be okay because at that point I didn't believe it,” said Kay.Goodman.

“ The following day was like trauma care. We were all disappointed.” said Bloomberg-O'Brien. “It’s a happy and unfortunate confidence that we were learning about things that played out on the political stage.”

Kay.Goodman and Bloomberg-O’Brien can make room and time for political discourse in the classes.

Parents have been supportive of the pair’s teaching methods. Bloomberg-O’Brien and Kay.Goodman has not received any pushback.

“We have have the freedom to teach what we want, but we can also make it much more applicable to the kids lives and what’s happening in the world,” said Kay. Goodman.

This is Kay.Goodman’s seventeenth year teaching at Fayerweather and this is Bloomberg-O’Brien’s first. Both have taught in public schools before for their student-teaching. At Fayerweather, they are free from public schools’ cookie-cutter mold.

“It really adds depth to the way I teach and we are not behooved to the common core.  We don't have to teach to a test. We don't have MCAS,” said Kay.Goodman. “The fact that we went ‘this Trump thing is really hard, let’s create a class’ is great.”

Take-Action Thursdays gave students the time and space to discuss the issues and ideas they’re  learning and observing in the world around them. Bloomberg-O'Brien and Kay.Goodman realized, however, that students wanted to do more.

Politics and Projects

Kay. Goodman and Bloomberg O’brien assigned students make their own projects. Both sections of the class formed groups and chose issues to work on throughout part of the school year.

“We wanted our kids to know the difference between direct action and advocacy.” said Kay.Goodman. The projects provided an new perspective for students and an alternative to classes dedicated to writing letters and calling their representatives, something they’ve done in the past.

One women's rights group raised funds to get feminist products for women in Kenya. They sold marshmallow ‘tampon cupcakes’ and other treats at a bake sale. One group served as a green team and focused on starting a garden for the school to use in the spring. In the garden they plan to grow plants and produce while supporting causes like Save the Bees and Plant a Row. Save the Bees supports the needed presence for bees by planting bee-friendly flowers and Plant a Row encourages communities to plant rows of vegetables for homeless shelters.One food security group organized a community viewing of A Place at the Table, a documentary on hunger.  

Food security was also a class-wide interest. In addition to individual group project, on selected Thursdays out of they year, students cooked and prepared food for local homeless shelters and churches in Cambridge.

The social action class, split into two separate 50 minute sessions between all 46 students, prepared different kinds of food for different places around Cambridge.  Bagels paired with cream cheese and homemade granola were prepared in plastic baggies for Friday Cafes at First Church Cambridge. Vegetable and meat lasagnas were made for local homeless shelters.

“I needed to buy no-boil noodles [for the lasagna],” said Kay.Goodman. “When you first search noodles, Barilla comes up. I didn’t want to buy anti-gay noodles.”  Last year, the chairman of noodle company was publicly criticized  for anti-gay remarks. The humanities teacher opted to order for a different noodle choice--Ronzoni.

“ Who knew? Everything is political.” said 8th grader, Ayla Wellnitz while layering lasagna noodles.

While some students opted to help prepare and cook food, others wrote reflections about their project and thank-you letters.

“I didn’t know shelters didn’t have enough food”, said 7th grader, Sophie Schadel. She, along with a classmate, wrote a letter to Iggy’s Bread of the World, a local bakery that donated ingredients to the classroom.  Sophie and a pair of friends plan to walk over to Iggy’s—a short walk from Fayerweather—and hand-deliver the thank-you note.

Politics Outside of the Classroom

Avi Cohen, an 8th grader takes his political engagement efforts outside of class. He helped organized class events during his winter break, making calls and ‘getting the go-aheads’ for the them. Earlier this year his performed an original spoken word piece about the importance love at City Hall.

This past Valentine’s Day, the social action class created their own children’s march for Fayerweather and the Cambridge community to show what love meant to them. The march started at at the Harvard Square T Station and finished at the steps of Cambridge City Hall.

“It’s about a bunch a different things,” said Avi. “You fight for what you believe in or there’s no point in believing in it.”  

The march was organized to promote positivity in the Cambridge community during the period of President Trump’s multiple executive orders.

“ The kids did the initial work—call for permits and made posters. I made the calls for follow-ups and press releases,” said Kay. Goodman. The march came out of the students’ interest in going to the travel ban marches during the school day.

“All of the administrators were out of the school that day and one parent was taking their child and some other kids out of school to go the march. Soon all the kids were texting their parents asking if they could go,” said Kay.Goodman. Out of concern for the students’ safety, she and Bloomberg O'Brien presented an idea to have their own march.

The students of Fayerweather’s  Take-Action Thursday class make a difference in their community. They recently wrapped up their social justice projects. Posters and reflection boards of their assignments hang near the entrance of Fayerweather on a bulletin board. Headings ranging from ‘Helping the Homeless’ to ‘ No more Animal Testing’ written in marker and bubble font take up an entire wall.

Whatever they plan on doing for the remainder of the school year, students will continue to draw connections between the issues discussed in the classroom and the world around them.

“We’re not just watching people do things,”said 7th grader, Lily Thompson. “It’s more than writing with pencils and papers and watching documentaries. We’re doing things ourselves.”