6 Ways to Help Students Make Sense of the Capitol Siege

By Sarah Schwartz & Madeline Will — January 13, 2021 | Corrected: January 15, 2021 15 min read
Image of the Capitol building shown in a rearview mirror.
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Corrected: This story has been updated to accurately reflect electives teacher Jessica Rucker’s quote.

In the days immediately following the assault on the U.S. Capitol, teachers were in crisis mode, scrambling to respond to students’ fears, answer their questions, and help classes get the facts straight about what happened. A far-right mob had assaulted a beacon of American democracy in the name of President Donald Trump—an unparalleled event in modern American history. Five people died.

Now, with a few more days of distance from the events of Jan. 6, and with the House poised to impeach Trump for a second time and threats of armed protests the week of President-elect Joe Biden’s inauguration looming, teachers are faced with the next daunting challenge: Helping students analyze how the country got to this point, and what it means about how we tell the American story.

“Teachers have to teach this, whether they’re social studies teachers, math teachers, English teachers,” said Amanda E. Vickery, an assistant professor of social studies education and race in education at the University of North Texas. “Kids are seeing these images. They’re violent. They’re disturbing.”

The insurrection has implications for teachers across subjects and grade levels, who are connecting it to current and historical events, analyzing it through art and literature, and examining it as a consequence of our current information landscape.

Here are six ways teachers are teaching the Capitol riots and their implications in class.

Combating Misinformation in Class

Media literacy has been a key component of these class discussions, since rampant misinformation both helped spur and has come out of the riot. Teaching students how to do reverse image searches, check the author’s credentials, and read different articles on the same subject is critical, teachers say—especially because many students had initially only heard about the Capitol riots on TikTok.

Mary Kate Lonergan, an 8th grade social studies teacher at Eagle Hill Middle School in Manlius, N.Y., showed her students different media messages. They discussed: Who created this message? How might people interpret it differently, depending on their beliefs?

For example, they analyzed one Associated Press photo of a man in a QAnon sweatshirt, with a crowd of Trump supporters behind him, aggressively confronting a single police officer. Lonergan asked students to think about how this image might be different if it was taken by a police officer or a Trump supporter. Would the scene in the image change if the photographer’s physical location changed? And does this fluidity mean that photographs are fact, opinion, or a little bit of both?

Class time has been spent “getting into that gray area where I think it’s important for young people to wade,” Lonergan said. “That’s the heart of media literacy that we have to understand—there is no completely unbiased piece of information.”

Teachers can also look at what different news outlets choose to call the events of Jan. 6, said Renee Hobbs, a professor of communication studies and the director of the Media Education Lab at the University of Rhode Island. Is it a protest, a riot, a siege, an insurrection?

“It turns out that any choice you make has an ideological nuance to it,” Hobbs said. “This is a great moment to talk about how public opinion is shaped by things as simple as language choice.”

In addition to teaching students how to fact-check information, John Silva, the senior director of education and training at the News Literacy Project, a nonpartisan national education nonprofit, said teachers need to show students how to “logic-check,” since some misinformation includes “leaps of logic or logical fallacies that are being used to share beliefs that do have factual information at their core.”

For example, Silva said, a conspiracy theorist might present two maps: one of COVID-19 cases in an area and one of 5G towers. Both maps might be factual, but trying to connect the two maps to argue that 5G towers cause the coronavirus is a logical breakdown.

Students have to learn what it means to be critical thinkers, which is more important than ever, Silva said: “Those people at the Capitol, they were once upon a time taught to be a critical thinker. … How many of them have been manipulated into believing things that aren’t true?”

Breaking Down Traumatic Events for Young Learners

In Jami Witherell’s virtual 2nd grade class at the Newton School in Greenfield, Mass., students began the day after the riots singing “If I Had a Hammer,” one of the anthems of the Civil Rights movement. That was already the class song for January as students are learning about Martin Luther King, Jr. and civil rights, but it was especially poignant the day after the assault on the U.S. Capitol.

“I think it’s really important that even as a 7- or 8-year-old, you understand that [fighting for] justice is a part of our nation’s history, and … why justice for all matters, and why freedom for all matters,” Witherell said. “You use your voice for good.”

Witherell said she didn’t want to spend too much time talking about the details of the Capitol riots in class, especially given that the discussion would be broadcast into 24 different homes. She didn’t know what parents wanted to share with their children and was cognizant of the fact that younger siblings could be listening nearby.

But not addressing what happened at all didn’t feel right, Witherell said. She talked to students about how Jan. 6 was a scary day for a lot of people in the country, and that some people have said and done unkind things to those they don’t agree with. That led to conversations about good behavior and bad behavior, and how people can make the choice to be kind to others, even if they don’t agree with them, she said.

“As an educator, what I can give you is tools to share kindness, and a willingness to listen to each other, and a willingness to hear each other, even if you don’t like each other,” Witherell said. “I want to continue to empower them to see themselves as little people [capable] of actionable change, and not cower in fear with the anger and violence that has set in throughout the country.”

It’s important for teachers of young learners to have these tough conversations and be honest about what’s going on, said Akiea Gross, a former kindergarten teacher and instructional coach who founded Woke Kindergarten, a learning community that focuses on anti-racist early education. Anchoring the conversation in some form of art—like music or pictures—can help.

Gross created a short instructional video called “Spot the Difference,” which puts photos taken at Black Lives Matter protests next to photos taken during the Capitol riots. Some of the photos of the Black Lives Matter protests featured police officers arresting or pointing weapons at protesters, while some of the photos taken Jan. 6 showed officers stepping aside for the rioters.

“One thing I don’t do is sugarcoat the truth from children,” Gross said, adding that the racism depicted in those pictures is the reality for students of color. However, such a lesson could be upsetting for children of color, so Gross said it’s critical for a teacher to check in with students beforehand and make sure they’re feeling up for a tough conversation—and then give students a break afterwards.

See also

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.
Pro-Trump rioters try to break through a police barrier at the U.S. Capitol.
John Minchillo/AP
Student Well-Being Caring for Students in the Wake of a Traumatic News Event
Evie Blad, January 6, 2021
5 min read

It’s essential for teachers to give children space to heal, Gross said, and to remind them that they have power, too, and they can imagine a better world. The lesson should end with talking about solutions.

“It’s our job to challenge children to think beyond the confines of this,” Gross said. “We need to make sure that despite all of the violence, we still prioritize the joy, and affirm children in who they are, and make them feel protected in whatever ways we can.”

Analyzing the Symbols of the Riot

The day after the attack on the Capitol, Adina Goldstein, a 7th grade teacher at Vare-Washington Elementary School in Philadelphia, dedicated her entire 90-minute English block to covering the riot. There was so much engagement from students that she continued the lesson the following day in her 45-minute social studies block.

After all, she said, she was able to make connections to both subjects. Students were evaluating sources and claims, but also citing arguments in their discussions and analyzing imagery.

Goldstein started her lesson by sharing the facts of what happened at the Capitol. She explained to them what voter fraud is, and why Trump and his supporters believe he won the election. Then, she had students read a New York Times article debunking false voter fraud claims, and showed students pictures of the riot.

Goldstein then broke up students into small groups so they could analyze different symbols present during the riot—like a Confederate flag, a noose, and the OK hand sign that has been co-opted as a white power symbol—and watch videos or do readings that explained those histories.

When the class came back together, Goldstein asked, “After looking at the symbols that were present and understanding their history, do you think this riot was really about voter fraud?”

Students mostly agreed that no, it was meant to intimidate people of color or immigrants. Some said that even if it was about voter fraud, the messages they were using had deeper meanings.

Then, Goldstein showed her students Childish Gambino’s “This Is America” music video, which is full of metaphors about race and gun violence. The class discussed the imagery present in the video, and students were asked to write their own poems about the America they see, and the America they want to see.

Student Poems

This is America,

where people get stereotyped because of how light or dark you are.

This is a state where everyone want to come to,

Because we are free here,

But for black people and other race we don’t feel free,

We still are not equal.
This is America,

A place where people can have their own opinion,

This is also a place where it can be a shooting at any moment,

But this is my place,

My home,

This is American.
—Mercedes Bowie, 7th grade

This is America

They try to find opportunities

They take anything we can get

It doesn’t matter how much work for how little a get paid

And then...they just take it away.
This is America

They want to send us back

They don’t understand how little opportunities there are

They don’t know or care what is left back in Mexico

They crossed the border risking their lives

Our parents left their parents and haven’t seen them since just for a better life for us.
—Oscar Perez Rojas, 7th grade
(This is an excerpt, read the full poem.)

This is America

The place where people aren’t happy and feel hurt, betrayed and upset

The place where people think one section of population is greater than the other sections
This is America

Stop judging people

Stop talking

Stop making assumptions

Stop making excuses

Stop and listen

Stop and observe

Stop, just stop
This is America

It’s our turn to feel appreciated

It’s our turn to talk

It’s our turn to be listened to

It’s our turn to stop this nonsense

It’s our turn to have a chance

It’s our turn to step up and take control

It’s our turn to fix our world
—Eliyanah Flores, 7th grade
(This is an excerpt, read the full poem.)

“We need to provide spaces to heal in our classroom,” Goldstein said. “How can we find hope? How can we look forward to the future? Poems were able to do that.”

Putting the Riots Into Historical Context

For Noah Zeichner, a high school social studies and Spanish teacher in Seattle public schools, having already taught about the history of white supremacy and anti-democratic movements in the United States helped his students put last week’s events in context.

“I don’t know what could have fully prepared me or them for Wednesday,” Zeichner said. “But what we’ve learned this year, and the discussions we’ve had, I think allowed them to access what was happening in the news.”

Zeichner, who is teaching online, situated the Jan. 6 riots within the long history of white backlash to Black political enfranchisement in his virtual classes on Friday.

He brought up the election of 1876, during which three states put forth competing slates of electors, one from each political party. Both sides claimed election fraud, but there was also widespread voter intimidation, as Democrats tried to prevent newly enfranchised African Americans from casting ballots.

“There’s this narrative that what happened on Wednesday [Jan. 6] was episodic, when it’s not. It’s thematic.”

A Congressional election commission was called to review the vote, and two parties brokered the Compromise of 1877: The Democrats wouldn’t contest the Republican, Rutherford B. Hayes, becoming president in exchange for an end to Reconstruction.

“I explained to them that … the compromise ended Reconstruction and established 90 years of single-party rule and white supremacist government and Jim Crow laws in the South, but really all over this country, until the Civil Rights Act in the 1960s,” Zeichner said.

“People are shocked, and students are shocked, when they see people with KKK tattoos and anti-Semitic messages on their clothing, touting ‘Camp Auschwitz’ and ‘6 million wasn’t enough,’” he said. “All of these racist and terrible messages, people are surprised. But they’ve always been here.”

And it’s not just history that’s relevant, teachers say. It’s also important to discuss Jan. 6 as part of our current political moment. “There’s this narrative that what happened on Wednesday was episodic, when it’s not,” said Jessica Rucker, an electives teacher at E.L. Haynes Public Charter School in Washington, D.C. “It’s thematic.”

She and a colleague, Tyler Jackson, explained to students that the riots were a response to the Georgia recount, and discussed who was falsely claiming that the vote was “stolen” and why. They also talked about claims that President Trump had incited violence before.

Teachers can only bring this kind of historical and political context to bear if they know it themselves, said Peta Lindsay, a U.S. history and African American studies teacher at Venice High School in Los Angeles, and the executive director of the Ida B. Wells Education Project, an organization that advocates for anti-racist education and creates Black-centered curricula. “A lot of teachers who want to teach in a more anti-racist way or center voices of color, they’re missing the content.”

Students and teachers also need the language to talk about these events, Lindsay said. In her class, “‘white supremacy’ is a Unit 1 term,” she said. It’s impossible to talk about lynching, mob violence, and Black codes without it.

“If you didn’t introduce it before, you can introduce it now,” Lindsay said.

Understanding Free Speech and Censorship

The next question that many teachers are addressing: What constitutes free speech?

Twitter permanently suspended Trump’s account, and Facebook banned him indefinitely. Parler, a social media site popular with conservatives and far-right extremists, went offline after it was dropped by Apple, Google, and Amazon.

These developments can open up a conversation about media regulation, said Hobbs, the communication studies professor. “On Fox News, they’re using the word ‘censorship.’ And they’re using it in a very cavalier way to talk about the platform companies’ decision to restrict harmful speech.”

Teachers, librarians, and media specialists can use this moment to explain what the law allows and doesn’t, she said: That freedom of speech as outlined in the First Amendment prevents the government from censoring speech, but not private companies. That Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act prevents social media platforms from being held responsible as the publisher of content on their sites, but also gives these sites permission to moderate content as they see fit.

Looking forward, teachers can use these events as a jumping off point to teach about the movements to break up big tech and minimize the influence of Silicon Valley, Hobbs said, discussing “both the law and the institutional power relationships.”

Jenifer Hitchcock, an Advanced Placement Government teacher at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va., said she overheard students discussing free speech and Trump during a weekend swim meet. “I have work to do,” she thought. Luckily, her next unit is on civil rights and civil liberties.

She plans to teach students the overview of what the First Amendment protects and related key court cases, like New York Times Co. v. United States and Tinker v. Des Moines. That will provide her class a baseline for more in-depth conversations. Hitchcock will also discuss the rights of the accused, which will open the door for interesting discussions about how law enforcement uses artificial intelligence to identify suspects.

“I know there’s going to be a ton of questions coming out of the events of Jan. 6 that can spiral through the content,” Hitchcock said. “I do worry that … at some point, there’s saturation of a topic. [But] I don’t like teaching my content in a vacuum. I want them to apply it, I want them to think critically.”

Preparing for What’s Ahead

Soon, though, putting last week’s events in context may be eclipsed by the need to respond to more violence. Reuters has reported that the FBI is warning there may be more armed protests, in Washington, D.C., and all 50 state capitols, during inauguration week.

“It’s important that people recognize how much we celebrate free speech and free expression in this country, but we also clearly draw the line and denounce when that speech and expression becomes violent,” said Christopher R. Riano, the executive director of the Center for Civic Education.

Teachers, he said, can “give students the tools and understanding to make judgments and have the ability to understand where those lines are.”

Typically, Hitchcock’s students would be attending the presidential inauguration. But between the coronavirus pandemic and the fear of violence, “it breaks my heart I have to tell them it’s not in their best interest,” she said.

Even so, Hitchcock said she is encouraging students to “recommit to” democracy by participating in community organizations and staying civically engaged beyond just voting. “I want to impress upon them that [democracy] only works if they’re involved,” she said.

“It is through understanding the strengths of American democracy, the weaknesses of American democracy, and the ways to address those weaknesses, that we all ... can better grapple with difficult moments in our history like this one.”

Teaching about resistance movements can also encourage students, said Lindsay, the Los Angeles teacher : “Students are going to be like, ‘What is the solution?’ [Make] sure that you’re plugged into what, historically, has been the solution.”

In her history courses, for example, Lindsay teaches about lynching in connection with the activists and journalists who fought against it—like Walter White and Ida B. Wells—and the mass organizing, protests, and legislation that helped end it. The knowledge empowers her students with the understanding that they could fight injustices, too, she said.

Zeichner, the Seattle high school teacher, plans to keep drawing connections to 19th-century politics in the coming weeks: His class is starting on their Reconstruction unit. “I’m going to embrace the dive deep into what was accomplished in Reconstruction then how it was torn apart,” he said. “I think there will be many opportunities to connect our current moment to the 1870s.”

Honestly examining the darkest times in our nation’s history can prepare students to face a civic crisis, Riano said. “It is through understanding the strengths of American democracy, the weaknesses of American democracy, and the ways to address those weaknesses, that we all—students and others alike—can better grapple with difficult moments in our history like this one.”

Zeichner knows that there are students at his school who support Trump, but he said that he had to talk about the events on Jan. 6, and clearly explain that the actions of those who stormed the Capitol were wrong. “That can’t stop me from my responsibility in guiding my students in understanding what’s happening around them,” he said. “There’s no room for being neutral” in situations like this one.

Zeichner doesn’t think that the deep political divisions in this country are going away any time soon. But he wonders whether some communities may eventually feel more comfortable drawing a line here—taking a strong stance against the siege of the Capitol. “Topics in history become not so controversial. We don’t teach both sides of Japanese internment today, for example,” he said.

Hobbs also thinks last week’s events might lessen the “fear factor” associated with analyzing news media in a politically polarized climate. “I wonder if this is a tipping-point moment for educations who now can clearly see the relationship between speech and social action, and the devastating consequences of irresponsible public expression,” she said. “I hope it’s a tipping-point moment.”


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