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Achievement Gap

Here's What Trump's Words Actually Mean to My Students

As a Chicago public high school English teacher and teacher-librarian for the past 14 years, I often give my students famous speeches to analyze. As I listened to President Donald Trump’s first State of the Union address, I couldn’t help but think of the many students that his speech left out and even acted against. I teach at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, a school that sits in a nearly 100-year-old building in Englewood, one of the most impoverished neighborhoods in Chicago. Ninety-five percent of our student body is either African-American or Latino(a), and 60 percent of our students qualify for free and reduced-price lunch. In listening to the State of the Union, it was consistently clear to me that students like mine, who are in every major city across America, are not on President Trump’s agenda. He began his speech by lauding his party’s accomplishments on jobs, the economy and the tax cuts. He referenced the American Dream as an effect of these accomplishments: “No matter where you have been, or where you come from, this is your time. If you work hard, if you believe in yourself, if you believe in America, then you can dream anything, you can be anything, and together, we can achieve anything.”

Immigration

This may sound like standard-issue presidential rhetoric, except for Trump’s recent remarks that people from  "sh-thole countries" shouldn’t immigrate to the United States. For our Brown and Black students who sit in front of me daily and across the land, the words “no matter where you come from” serve not as an apology for that statement but as a blatant cover-up. Trump chose to alienate African-Americans and other groups who have protested the national anthem by calling it Americans’ civic duty to stand for the national anthem. In October,  I wrote about my students who protested the national anthem at their homecoming pep rally. Even at our most recent pep rally, fewer than 25 percent of students stood for the national anthem. They live in a very different America than the one Trump depicted on television.

Gun Safety

In Trump’s America, “defending our Second Amendment” takes prominence over school shootings. None were mentioned in this State of the Union although  11 school shootings happened in January alone, according to The New York Times. My students walk through metal detectors each morning, as do many students across our nation, but they are proving to be no match for weak gun-control laws.

Infrastructure

When Trump moved onto the topic of infrastructure, he painted America as “a nation of builders” and pronounced that “we can reclaim our building heritage.” However, he failed to mention the building of new schools in his infrastructure package. A few weeks ago, The Washington Post reported that students in Baltimore sat in classrooms without heat for days at a time. Students in our most vulnerable areas desperately need schools to be part of any new infrastructure package.

School Funding

Despite the fact that both of his predecessors, President Barack Obama and President George W. Bush, touted education plans in their State of the Union speeches, Trump mentioned education just once, to champion vocational education. (Vocational schools were a theme on the night, as Rep. Joe Kennedy spoke from a vocational school in his Democratic response to the speech.) But the statement came without details of how to do this in a nation that has abandoned vocational education for college preparedness. It also came without a guarantee of funding; in fact, Trump’s last proposal on education funding was a 14 percent cut (that's $9.2 billion) which was, thankfully, voted down.

DACA and DREAMers

Perhaps the most divisive statement of the night, but one that showcases Trump’s true feelings of nativism, came near the end. In talking about helping every American out of poverty, Trump drew a direct connection to securing our borders: “My duty, and the sacred duty of every elected official in this chamber is to defend Americans…Because Americans are dreamers too.” I have taught many  Dreamers (also known as DACA recipients), and I know they will take that statement for what it is—a direct negation of their identities in this country. As a teacher, I worry deeply about so many of my students whose cultures and identities were slighted ever so slyly. But make no mistake, they can read between the lines. And when they do, it is my hope that they come to the solutions that this country greatly needs.
Gina Caneva
Gina Caneva is a 14-year Chicago Public Schools veteran who works as a teacher-librarian and Writing Center Director at Lindblom Math and Science Academy. She is a National Board Certified teacher and Teach Plus Teaching Policy Fellowship alum. She has her M.Ed in Literacy, Language, and Culture from the University of Illinois at Chicago and writes extensively on education topics.

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