What happened today at the Capitol in D.C. cannot, and should not, be avoided by teachers
This evening, a teacher friend of mine texted me about the situation that exploded in Washington, D.C. today. She said, “Really struggling to think through how to talk with students about what happened in D.C. today. How does one even begin to talk about such a thing?”
I used to be an Early U.S. History teacher for 8th graders at a middle school just down the street from my home. I took a leave of absence this year and saw many of the questions I posed and topics we explored in my classes come to life over the summer. In class, we had talked about slavery, racism in the United States then and now, the KKK as a terrorist group, white supremacists, the utter failures of Reconstruction, the Civil Rights movement. We talked about Jefferson’s hypocrisy, Westward Expansion, genocide of Native Americans, the Indian Removal Act, the Trail of Tears, reservations, massacres. We talked about the Civil War, secession, and monuments that at that time — in early March of 2020 — still stood. So much has changed in America this year. The statues are coming down. The Land ‘O Lakes girl is gone from the butter package. And white supremacists took off their hoods and instead picked up flags. The history I taught and that we discussed as a class came back to life like Frankenstein’s monster.
And now, there’s what happened today. Today, in Washington, D.C., an angry, armed mob of white people (mostly men) forced their way into the Capitol Building, the People’s House, brandishing weapons, destroying property, and making threats against our government and elected officials. And who is to blame for inciting the mob? We all know that answer. But how does a teacher begin to discuss such a hotbed topic, which must be discussed, without being vilified by parents who defend such a president’s vile actions?
Last year, when I was in the classroom, I did not shy away from sensitive topics. Maybe it’s my age. I’m 41 now, and I care a hell of a lot less what any administrator or parent is going to tell me about complaints. Maybe it’s that I don’t care if they fire me. Maybe it’s that I’m just tired of not talking about the things we should absolutely be talking about. Forget the boring crap and memorizing facts — let’s discuss the why and think about the past in a way that helps us consider where we want to take the future.
I have always believed in questions — it is not my right, as teacher, to tell students what to think. But it is my job to help them reason and draw conclusions based on evidence and valid sources. I do this by providing open-ended questions and and thought-provoking texts (usually primary sources from the past and news articles from sources shown to be less biased). Once we’ve prepared our thinking and gathered evidence, we are ready to begin.
If I were in the classroom tomorrow, here is what I would do. First, I would reiterate my standard rules for a discussion: We remain civil. We use evidence to support our thinking. We attack ideas, not people. And we consider other points of view. We allow everyone to be heard. We listen and respond.
Then, we’d get down to business.
I would begin by posing our primary focus question: Where is the line between protest/freedom of speech and insurrection? (I would define insurrection for my 8th graders, just in case they don’t know the meaning of the word.)
I would follow this by providing the “texts” for us to examine:
- The First Amendment
- Video clips and images of what happened at the Capitol and at the President’s rally nearby
- Video of the President’s speech on Twitter
- Video of Biden’s speech
- Excerpts of an article from The New York Times or The Washington Post
After several minutes of examining sources, we would begin. I usually have a set of questions in hand to help guide any discussion, and this would be no exception. I might ask:
- What happened yesterday?
- What words were used to describe it, in the sources?
- What did you notice about the President’s words? Did they have a positive or negative connotation?
- What do the President’s words suggest to you?
- What is a patriot?
- What is a terrorist? How do we define terrorism?
- Who should be held accountable, and what should the punishment be?
And finally, I would ask: If it had been Black people who had stormed the Capitol, what might have happened, and what makes you think so?
But then, maybe I am looking to get fired. It seems as though we have turned into a society that can’t engage in critical, civil discourse. Many of us certainly don’t seem to value facts. And history classes usually take the safe road of talking about dead, old, white men who were deeply flawed individuals, yet we only sing their praises. It’s time to draw the curtain, America, and expose the wizard. Only then can true healing begin, and only then will we actually make forward strides towards those ideals we hold so high and yet fall so short of living up to.