“One of the most important days as a teacher”: Schools help students fight violence on the United States Capitol


A teacher from Alabama presented photographs of the insurgency to the U.S. Capitol without commentary and asked students to write poems in reflection. An instructor from Minnesota compared the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder. And a Connecticut civics educator urged her shocked students to work to improve the country.

Social science teachers across the country have set aside lesson plans this week to help young people understand the scenes of the violent siege on Washington by supporters of President Donald Trump.

Approaches varied, with some teachers deliberately retaining historical comparisons with such recent events. Many walked cautiously in light of varying political views in their classrooms and communities.

But educators have universally described the efforts to hear students’ fears and concerns and instill a sense of history and even hope into a school year shaped by the nation’s reckoning on racial injustice, the pandemic. of coronavirus and the constraints of distance learning.

“In almost every one of my classes, the students tackled it before I could even do it,” said Karley Reising, a social science teacher at Robert E. Fitch High School in Groton, Connecticut. “And especially my elders were really struggling with what this meant for the future of our country in a pretty heartbreaking way.”

She and others said they tried to focus on the importance of engagement and push back the creeping feeling that violence is the inevitable end of political division.

“It was one of the most important days as a teacher, not even just a history teacher,” said Michael Neagle after concluding with his students at Lowell High School in Massachusetts the day after the siege. “We don’t want kids to lose interest and just say, ‘Well, that’s the way it is. Nobody gets along. Politics.’ This voter apathy is so dangerous.

After watching events unfold on television, the world history and civics teacher stayed awake most of the night exchanging emails with his department head, planning lessons on what was going on. .

“I don’t have a lot of nights I’m up until 3 am with the program,” Neagle said, “but we have to take advantage of it.”

South St. Paul, Minnesota teacher Mark Westpfahl put aside his planned lesson on state treaties and instead grabbed the morning papers with their “Insurgency” headlines to use as visual aids to teach his students about sixth grade, who learn at a distance. A few miles from the fiery clashes sparked by Floyd’s death, his students asked about the police response which will continue into lessons next week.

“This is the link that we will establish on Monday, how are these two events correlated? What was the response? How was the media presence? he said.

While he was teaching his 10 and 11 year old students via video, three or four parents appeared on his screen but did not interrupt him.

In such a charged political climate, Westpfahl said, “You ask yourself, are you listening because you find it fascinating and interesting, or are you listening because you want to question everything I say or do? “

In deeply conservative Alabama, grade 10 teacher Blake Busbin said he also reflected on how his presentation and language might be viewed by students and the community and said he was ” very determined with the language I use, choosing the words to use “.

Busbin, a teacher at Auburn High School, made a point of letting students watch the chaos unfold on television. He was a high school student on September 11 and the school principal ordered a media blackout, which cost him the opportunity to watch history being made.

The day after the Capitol siege, he got up before dawn and gathered 25 photographs which he showed for 10 to 15 seconds each without saying anything, then asked the students to write poems. He wanted it to be a day of reflection.

“My strategy, as I told my students, I like to think of myself as a master of the grill,” he said. “Before putting the meat on the grill, it has to marinate for a while. “

The students submitted the poems anonymously and they were not read in class. Busbin said they helped him understand the students’ state of mind and would help guide future teaching.

The poems, he said, show a desire for a more harmonious government, a more bipartisan approach and a belief that things can improve.

“It’s been a year of suffering. Certainly family members of students who have passed away, students who were sick, ”he said. “My fear is that we have almost become numb to the pain we have felt throughout this year.”

The poems, Busbin said, show the desire for a more harmonious government, a bipartisan approach, and the belief that things can get better.

In David McMullen’s class at Great Path Academy in Manchester, Connecticut, politics emerged when a student responded to unfounded claims it was a false flag operation. Another student stepped in and said that even if that was the case, the president and his supporters had nonetheless cheered on the crowd.

“Today was just to soak up the events, talk about them and write some stuff, because, as I tell my students, they are the main sources of the future,” he said. .

McMullen and other teachers also heard from students who were deeply affected by the photographs of Confederate flags carried through the halls of the Capitol and who saw a double standard in the heavier police response to the Black Lives Matter protests.

Reising said the conversation between her students was strained by their blended learning model, and because some haven’t even met face to face. But she tried to end the discussion on a hopeful note.

“I just turn it into, ‘I hope for you and maybe for others in our country, this will be the thing that ignites the fire on what it means to be an active and engaged citizen. And if you didn’t like what you saw, then what steps can you take to make sure it doesn’t happen again? ‘ “

New York professor Conor Murphy thought back to 9/11, when he was in American history class and saw the second plane hit the World Trade Center.

“One of the challenges is to appropriately signify gravity,” said Murphy, recalling a similar challenge a year ago while teaching government involvement at Camille’s West Genesee High School during of Trump’s impeachment trial.

“But,” he said, “I’ve never really had to teach anything this deep, in my opinion.”

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