Teaching & Learning

How to Teach the U.S. Capitol Attack: Dozens of Resources to Get You Started

By Education Week Staff — January 07, 2021 6 min read
Illustration of young person connecting dots.

The dramatic events of Jan. 6 and their continuing fallout demand sustained and careful classroom attention from teachers. But there is no complete roadmap available to them yet.

What makes teaching about the insurrection on Capitol Hill especially complicated is that it’s not a spontaneous event, but rather the product of multiple factors and trends: political polarization, a disintegrating news infrastructure and the rise of social media, a backlash to recent discourse about criminal justice, and racism, among many things.

Nor were the day’s events entirely without historical precedent. Disputed elections have occurred at several points in American history, and there has been at least one other attempted insurgency.

It’s OK not to have everything all figured out immediately, said Emma Humphries, the chief education officer at iCivics, the civics curriculum provider and advocacy group. At least in the beginning, teachers should trust their instincts and take steps to make sure students feel safe. But longer term?

“You absolutely have to talk about this. We tend to treat civics education very seasonally—there’s a primary season, and an election, and a Census every 10 years,” she said. “This [insurrection] was years in the making, and it will be years in the making to get us to a far better place. So, one day at a time—but every day—would be my message.”

Teacher-educators said K-12 teachers will need to address the topic thoughtfully by integrating multiple avenues—historical underpinnings, media literacy, and the racial subtexts of the event, among other things.

“You have to talk about it through these multiple lenses,” said Amanda E. Vickery, an assistant professor of social studies education and race in education at the University of North Texas. “It’s a complex issue, and I think teachers have to show that it’s so complex, and not just teach it as, ‘These people were angry, and when you’re angry you protest, and that’s what happened.’ No,” she said. “You have to get at power, and structural racism, and the disregard of truth, and respect for the democratic process.”

To help educators as they begin to craft new teaching materials, Education Week has gathered a beginning list of resources from experts, practicing educators, and national organizations. It is not, by any means, a comprehensive list, nor a soup-to-nuts lesson plan.

Rather, we intend for it to generate dialogue and ideas as you work with your grade-level teams, administrators, student services personnel, and curriculum staff to develop comprehensive teaching units. Education Week does not endorse any of the ideas or lessons below.

We have grouped them into several core areas or themes.

Social-emotional learning / processing difficult events

For young children, students in the District of Columbia, and students grappling with the implications of a rise in white nationalism and discussions about policing and racism, the Jan. 6 events may have been traumatic. Teachers should work with school psychologists and support staff to ensure social-emotional touchstones are considered as they develop lessons.

Media literacy

The proliferation of partisan news sources peddling deeply skewed or even inaccurate information has helped fuel conspiracy theories and other harmful perceptions of the integrity of U.S. elections. Teachers will need to help students flex their media literacy muscles as they analyze different sources’ depictions of recent news.

The language teachers use while discussing these events is important, too, Vickery said. For example, she would call those who forced entry into the Capitol rioters, not protestors, because of their acts and aims. Teachers can interrogate what the different terms applied to this group mean, she said, and why different news sources might choose one over the other.

Dialogue and classroom conversations

Classroom conversations are at the very heart of the civics and government classroom, but they depend on teachers’ ability to skillfully set norms for those discussions, create supportive, open, and respectful places for dialogue, and develop thoughtful prompts.

Some sample ‘first day’ teaching plans from teachers

Watching events unfold on Jan. 6, some teachers and organizations quickly put together plans for addressing the news in class the next day. These resources could serve as an introduction to discussing the insurrection by helping students get the facts straight, creating space for reflection and questions, and defining terms that students might be hearing in the news.

Core themes/historical touchstones

The peaceful transition of power is a longstanding norm in the United States, but it remains a fragile one, and there are historical parallels to earlier U.S. elections and events. There’s also an enduring history in the United States of white backlash to elections that empower Black communities and Black politicians, said Vickery of the University of North Texas, citing the book White Rage by Carol Anderson. “If you’re going to talk about the democratic process, you have to talk about who it works for and who it doesn’t work for,” she said. “For a lot of Black activists, and activists of color, what we saw yesterday? We weren’t surprised. Because we look at history.”

Congress is still debating what constitutional remedies and sanctions, if any, they may take against President Trump for his role in inciting the riots.

Other curated collections

Major school districts, professional associations for teachers, and curriculum and content providers are beginning to compile their own lists of teaching resources, some of which will evolve in the weeks to come.

Stephen Sawchuk, Associate Editor; Sarah Schwartz, Staff Writer; and Mark Lieberman, Reporter contributed to this article.

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