Witnessing history: Teachers and students left reeling, looking for lessons in an insurrection

Students physically distance as they walk to their classroom

Students physically distance as they walk to their classroom at Oak Terrace Elementary School in Highwood, Ill. on Thursday, Sept. 3, 2020. (AP Photo/Nam Y. Huh)

This story originally appeared on Chalkbeat.

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Graham Kwiatkowski, a social studies teacher at Curie High School on Chicago’s Southwest Side, stayed up past midnight to watch coverage of the U.S. Capitol takeover and its aftermath. Then, he woke up at 4 a.m. to prepare for his virtual first-period psychology class.

After asking students how they were feeling, Kwiatkowski showed six news photos without captions: three from unchecked rioting on Capitol Hill Wednesday and three of tense standoffs between Black Lives Matter protesters and police officers last summer.

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Students knew right away what Kwiatkowski was getting at — and readily launched into a discussion about the difference in law enforcement response.

“Students are so in tune with what’s going on in their city and around the country,” he said. “They knew if this had been a group of 5,000 or 10,000 people of color at the Capitol, the response would not have been the same.”

Teachers once again found themselves Thursday trying to explain a tumultuous turning point in our nation’s history, just as they did following the initial uncertainty of November’s election, the unrest after George Floyd’s killing, and at the start of the pandemic. Many accepted the challenge, viewing this as a moment to interrogate what the mob that stormed the U.S. Capitol Wednesday at President Trump’s urging says about race, violence, and the future of democracy.

Educators turned to news articles and artwork, social media posts and Zoom chats to help their conversations. Scrapping lesson plans, they saw themselves as both facilitators and sources for correcting misinformation. All the while, they were mindful of the confusion, the trauma, and the emotional fatigue many children have already endured.

People shelter in the House gallery as pro-Trump rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
People shelter in the House gallery as pro-Trump rioters try to break into the House Chamber at the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

As an art teacher at a West Tennessee elementary school, Kathryn Vaughn says current events often “find their way” into her classroom. That was true Wednesday, when fifth graders trickling into her class saw Vaughn watching live video coverage of the Capitol siege and asked what was going on.

“I told them history was happening today,” she said.

Vaughn showed her students art from the American Revolution and the War of 1812. The students talked about the Capitol going into a lockdown, a concept familiar to them because of active shooter drills at school. “My students were very curious,” she said. “We should as educators share these teachable historical moments with our students.”

‘They are so young and have already seen so much’

Young students may not completely understand what happened Wednesday. But after 16 years teaching 5- and 6-year-olds, Meredith Schechter of CW Henry Elementary School in Philadelphia knows that “even first graders feel the stress around them. Many may not know why everyone is stressed, and that only increases their anxiety.”

So how do you explain such violence to youngsters? Schechter, whose school is diverse, gave her students some basic facts and let them ask questions. She worked to relate the moment in history back to the children’s lives, discussing “big feelings” and “the need to make good choices.”

“We talked about what are healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with disappointment,” she said. “If you are disappointed and don’t get your way, there are healthy and unhealthy ways of dealing with it.”

For some teachers, Thursday’s lessons were part of an ongoing conversation. Taelor Garrett’s fifth graders at KIPP Indy Unite Elementary in Indianapolis have discussed the national unrest as well as turmoil closer to home, such as the May killing by police of Dreasjon Reed, a 21-year-old Black man.

“They are so young and have already seen so much,” Garrett said of her students, who are mostly Black and brown.

For other teachers, there was uneasiness. Social studies teacher Mariah Pol knew she would need to talk about the siege in her eighth grade U.S. history class, which began studying the Constitution this week. As a teacher in the racially, economically, and politically diverse northwest Indiana community of Michigan City, Pol worried about some parents thinking she was brainwashing students. But she didn’t want to present multiple perspectives.

“Yesterday was just wrong and disgraceful. And I can’t stay silent in this matter,” she said.

Pol, who is in her sixth year teaching, started Thursday’s classes by showing students a PBS Newshour video about the riot, then she asked questions to gauge how students felt. Most students were shocked by the violence. Even those who had vocally supported President Trump in the past said it was unacceptable. When one student said the assault seemed fun, others were quick to disagree.

Ismael Jimenez led a similar discussion during his 11th grade history class at Kensington Creative and Performing Arts High School in Philadelphia. One student suggested Trump was being a sore loser: “He needs to learn to take an L.” Another was surprised at the lack of security and law enforcement response to the insurgents storming the Capitol, saying it was “treated like a small attack.”

Student Joseph Calloway pointed to an internet meme that gets at the way the media, law enforcement, and society treats unrest differently depending on the race of who is involved.

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“Hey Mr. Jimenez, it kind of reminds me of this thing I saw on the Internet,” Calloway said. “It says ‘protest’ for Caucasian or lighter, and says ‘riot’ for Black or darker.”

Pro-Trump insurrectionists storm the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington.
Pro-Trump insurrectionists storm the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, in Washington. (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

‘Teachers, don’t shy away from talking about today’s events!’

Not all students had time at school for those discussions, though. Nashville high school senior Ommay Farah consumed Wednesday’s news over the radio and on TikTok. In a group chat with friends, she noted the hypocrisy of the mob’s defenders criticizing Black Lives Matter protests at the Capitol, yet finding justification in storming the building.

But on Thursday during her online classes at Hume-Fogg Academic Magnet High School, it was more or less business as usual, with no discussion of what had transpired in D.C.

Farah would have welcomed one — “like maybe as a bell ringer” — but has found that freewheeling talks about current events are a casualty of virtual learning.

“I feel like being virtual puts another screen people have to go through before saying something, so less people say what they would have said in person,” she said. “If we were in person, I feel like it would be one of the only things we would be talking about all day.”

Some district leaders signaled to educators that it was important to lean into this historic moment. “Teachers, don’t shy away from talking about today’s events! Our students know what is going on—let them talk,” Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti tweeted early Thursday morning, recalling his own time as a teacher following the 9/11 attacks.

Sharon Contreras, the superintendent of Guilford County schools in North Carolina, said her district’s leaders spent much of Wednesday evening and Thursday putting together resources to help teachers create safe spaces for students to share how they were feeling.

“So often when there are difficult conversations to be had, what we do is we run,” Contreras said. “We’re telling teachers that schools are appropriate places to have these conversations.”

For Contreras, it was also important that educators were prepared to help students process the racism that was on display at the U.S. Capitol building, and to understand “the difference between an armed insurrection and the right to protest.”

“We made sure that we shared with principals and teachers that we have to acknowledge the differences in the response when Black Lives Matter protested the death of George Floyd and so many others, and the difference to the response with what seems to be encouragement and license given to the insurgents yesterday,” she said. “The difference is stunning, and it’s not lost on our students, staff, and community.”

Pro-Trump insurrectionists are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber
Pro-Trump insurrectionists are confronted by Capitol Police officers outside the Senate Chamber inside the Capitol, Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021 in Washington. (AP Photo/Manuel Balce Ceneta)

In the Aldine Independent School District just north of Houston, superintendent LaTonya Goffney was able to call on the district’s team of social and emotional learning specialists to lead restorative circles on Thursday morning. That group has expanded as students’ needs have grown during the pandemic.

But Goffney said their work felt different this week. Teaching students about the protests over the murder of George Floyd, who grew up in Houston, “was something close to home,” Goffney said, because “we’ve grown accustomed to seeing Black unarmed men killed in the street.”

“Being raised in the South, in a rural area, I’m very familiar with the Confederate flag, but I never imagined it at our U.S. Capitol. It triggered all kinds of emotions,” she said. “While I would like to say all that all the craziness of 2020 prepared us for this crazy in 2021 … I think it’s unreal. I’m still pretty shocked.”

Some educators tapped outside resources to help teach the week’s events. Ira Abrams, an English teacher at Williams Preparatory School of Medicine-DuSable Campus on Chicago’s South side, relied on an emergency lesson plan from Mikva Challenge — a youth civic engagement organization in Chicago — to help guide classroom discussion.

In one exercise, Abrams placed two quotes on a Google chalkboard and asked his juniors to place sticky notes on a continuum of agreement. One quote from President-Elect Joe Biden said, “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect a true America, do not represent who we are.” The other quote from activists on Twitter said, “This is exactly what America is and has always been.” Students aligned themselves with the activists.

‘My mind was on their emotional fatigue’

Sabrina Anfossi Kareem, an 11th grade English teacher at Instituto Health Sciences Career Academy in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood, was conscious of the difficulty of this moment for students.

She started her virtual classes Thursday with a question: How do you feel about what happened at the Capitol? But she also offered an alternative: to list a goal they want to achieve over the weekend. About a third in each class chose that question.

“We had a student from our school killed earlier in the year, our students have had house fires, family members die [in the pandemic], some families are at the intersection of immigration issues and COVID — my mind was on their emotional fatigue,” Kareem said.

Kareem’s plans evolved as many students showed a particular interest in talking about the way that uniformed officers responded and how that response differed from what they’d witnessed during Black Lives Matter protests — the rubber bullets, tear gas, and arrests. By her second class of the day, a follow-up question had emerged: How would you handle this situation if you were in charge of officers on the ground? And what if the protesters support something you don’t?

“It was more of a seed planting question,” said Anfossi Kareem, who plans to follow up with a discussion of the book “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas — that is, if she can source enough copies quickly.

The scenes of a mostly white mob ransacking the Capitol building then leaving freely did not shock Bashir Muhammad Akinyele’s students at Weequahic High School in Newark. He had taught them about America’s racist legacy, from slavery to the destruction of “Black Wall Street” in 1921 to last year’s police killing of George Floyd. Yet, with help from essays in the 1619 Project, he had also taught his students about Black Americans’ long struggle for full citizenship.

“Throughout the history of this country, we’ve been fighting to make America live up to its democratic ideals,” he said.

When his students on Thursday discussed this latest attack on democracy, they were angry — but also worried about the country’s future, Akinyele said. “They asked, ‘Will we ever really practice democracy?” he said. “I said, ‘If we don’t destroy white supremacy and systematic racism, we will never get to true democracy.’”

Like many teachers, Hayley Breden put lessons for her Advanced Placement U.S. History classes on hold and instead used Thursday to make sure her students had accurate information. She provided links to five news stories, including an Associated Press report chronicling Wednesday’s events and an explainer on the 25th Amendment governing the removal of the president.

She gave her students at Denver’s South High School 15 minutes to read them and then share what they’d learned with each other.

“That way, they’re seeing information on their own,” she said. “I want them to feel that sense of empowerment to inform themselves rather than relying on me to tell them everything.”

But when a student in one of her classes began typing in the Google Meet chat box that the presidential election had been stolen, that Wednesday’s events were peaceful, and that racism wasn’t playing a role in any of it, Breden stepped in.

“As the adult, it’s my job to be like, ‘You’re making inaccurate statements,’” she said. “I reiterated that the election results are the results. Being upset about results is totally different than denying reality. For the other students, it’s important for them to see that difference.”

This story was reported by Melanie Asmar, Caroline Bauman, Kalyn Belsha, Johann Calhoun, Mila Koumpilova, Dylan Peers McCoy, Dale Mezzacappa, Samantha Smylie, Cassie Walker Burke, Patrick Wall, and Aaricka Washington.

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