Social Studies

Insurgency at the U.S. Capitol: A Dreaded, Real-Life Lesson Facing Teachers

By Madeline Will & Stephen Sawchuk — January 06, 2021 9 min read
Police hold back Trump supporters who tried to break through a police barrier on Jan. 6, 2021, at the U.S. Capitol.
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As social studies teachers watched a violent, far-right mob breach the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to stop the formal certification of the election of President-elect Joe Biden, a daunting question loomed: How would they address this with their students tomorrow?

Thousands of supporters of President Donald Trump stormed Washington, D.C., on Wednesday, with some forcing their way into the Capitol building and interrupting the certification of the Electoral College votes, a key part of the nation’s presidential elections process. Lawmakers were barricaded in their offices and told to wear gas masks, several staffers told Education Week. A woman was shot inside the Capitol and later died.

Teachers watching the unprecedented events unfolding on their TV screens met them with the same emotions as many other Americans—bewilderment, exhaustion, horror—but also a desire to do right by their students and a determination to address what happened on Capitol Hill in their classes this week.

“Students across America are watching & tomorrow teachers will have to address what is happening in DC today,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted. “Good luck to every educator, whether in person or remote.”

Teachers are always, in a sense, the nation’s first responders to world historical developments.

This time, social studies teachers from coast to coast are confronting the task of helping their students make sense of what happened at the Capitol—in many cases, through a computer screen—even as the implications and progress of the riots remained unclear.

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
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Among the difficult subtexts: the unsubtle implication of scenes of a violent, mostly white crowd rampaging through the Capitol practically unchecked, compared with often forceful put downs of last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests.

“It’s that fine line whenever we’re in these situations of teachable moments—we always want to be informative and not just reactionary,” said Adam Dyche, the social studies department chair at Waubonsie Valley High School in Aurora, Ill. 

 Ideally, he said, teachers would have a few days to process the events themselves and put together a structured lesson. But at the same time, “not giving it any recognition is dismissive of the magnitude of what we’re seeing right now,” Dyche said. “This is an emotional event—more than anything I’ve been a part of since probably 9/11.”

Congress planned to resume the electoral college certification on Wednesday evening. In a statement, Education Secretary Betsy DeVos condemned those who impeded the electoral vote, saying that the law must be upheld.

“The eyes of America’s children and students—the rising generation who will inherit the republic we leave them—are watching what is unfolding in Washington today,” she said. “We must set a better example for them, and we must teach them the solemn obligations and duties that come with the title ‘American.’”

A Challenging Few Years in Civics Classrooms

The events of the past few years and the political polarization that’s divided the nation have made what’s always been the difficult, delicate job of the civics teacher infinitely more challenging. From Trump’s impeachment in late 2019 to the civil unrest of this summer, social studies teachers have had to tear up their lesson plans and start from scratch, with few resources to support them, and all under the shadow of potential blowback from parents and their communities for discussing “divisive” issues.

This has been overwhelming, tiring work—but it has also accustomed teachers to navigating difficult conversations with students, in which there are no clear answers. Dyche plans to start class on Thursday by asking students if they have any questions or thoughts about what happened at the Capitol. He realizes he might not be able to answer all of their questions.

 “Our responsibility is both to inform but also to admit when we don’t have the answer,” he said. “I need to process this as a teacher, as an American, as a citizen, as a voter, in the same way a student would.”

Dyche said he will reach out to the social studies teachers in his school and encourage them to make space for students to discuss Wednesday’s events—but to make sure they don’t make claims they don’t know to be true and not to feed misinformation. Still, he doesn’t want teachers to feel “paralyzed by being unbiased” and avoid the conversation altogether. 

 “An armed occupation of our Capitol, that’s wrong,” Dyche said. But he’s not sure yet whether he will call it an attempted coup to his students. “It’s a careful phrase to use,” he said.

That’s a conversation, he said, that will likely continue in his text chain with other area social studies teachers throughout Wednesday evening. There was also a Twitter chat that evening for social studies teachers across the country to process the events and share ideas for how to discuss it in class.

Trump supporters gather outside the Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

Many teachers agreed with Dyche that it will be imperative to begin class by allowing students to ask questions, in part to gauge how students are processing the events emotionally.

In the District of Columbia, just a few miles from the Capitol, teacher Rob Geremia said he plans to use the first portion of Thursday’s classes to allow his AP U.S. History and AP Comparative Government students simply to write their feelings and reactions down.

“There is a race component here, and we are going to raise it. No way would protesters of Black Lives Matter be anywhere near allowed to go into the Capitol, so what does that say about our police systems and our system at large that white nationalists were allowed to go in?” said Geremia, who teaches at the diverse Woodrow Wilson High School. “There will be a lot of discussion about race tomorrow, I have a feeling.”

Karen Lee, a U.S. Government teacher at Thurgood Marshall Academy in D.C., said she knows her students might be experiencing “emotional fatigue” and might not want to discuss Wednesday’s events in depth.

“I teach all Black children, so this is not new news to them that white people are treated differently than Black people,” she said.

The contrast in the images from the Capitol, where police at least initially appeared to use a light touch with the rioters, and from the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, where police in riot gear often sprayed tear gas and pepper bullets into the crowds, is jarring, she said. Some of her students participated in the Black Lives Matter protests, so this is personal to them.

She will let students lead the conversation and decide how they want to spend their class time, she said. Either way, she’s scrapping a test she had scheduled for Thursday.

“Providing space for discussion and conversation in a classroom rooted in civics skills and dispositions provides them with a sense of empowerment, so their own emotions and lived experiences are being centered in their own education,” Lee said.

A Teaching Moment Unfolds in Real Time

Some teachers experienced the news breaking while they were in class, forcing them to make sense of the stunning events unfolding in real time. In rural Kalona, Iowa, Marcus Miller had turned on C-SPAN for his 12th grade government students to watch some of the election certification hearings. As students watched, the proceedings stopped, and Miller’s principal received a news alert that a mob had stormed the Capitol.

Miller turned the station to ABC, and students watched the live coverage of the Capitol for the remaining 25 minutes of class. He occasionally muted the coverage to answer students’ questions. The school’s student body is politically divided, with roughly half of students’ families supporting Trump and the other half supporting Biden.

His students who follow politics were anxious watching the coverage, Miller said. One student asked if anything like this had ever happened before.

“I said, ‘Certainly not in recent memory. We’ve always had a peaceful transition of power up until now—that’s one of the things our country prides itself on, and this is not that,’” Miller said.

He’s expecting students to bring up what happened at the Capitol in all of his classes on Thursday—even in world history, where students are currently discussing the French Revolution. Miller said he’s still working to make sense of the implications.

“I think with all the chaos and the anxiety around the election, one of the things I tried to concentrate on [the past couple months] is trying to be as calm and rational as I can be and try not to let my anxieties and worries show to the students,” he said. “We do have these documents in place, and I try to trust that people will follow them as best as possible. [But] this is so out of the ordinary.”

From America to the World Beyond—and the Civics Classrooms of the Future

While extraordinary for the United States, riots that accompany changes in government aren’t uncommon worldwide, Geremia noted, and a comparative government approach could be a fruitful avenue for teachers looking for avenues to discuss the events, he said.

His course has examined political legitimization, political participation, and political culture and socialization in the nations of China, Iran, Mexico, Nigeria, Russia, and the United Kingdom and has encouraged many students to consider deeper questions about the role of individuals in functioning democracies and how institutions like the media shape perceptions of government.

“My students at the beginning of the year thought the chief characteristic of democracy was a [free and fair] election. They’ve quickly realized that’s not the only part of it, and I think they’re seeing in person right now,” he said.

Thanks to their prior learning, Geremia’s students will have other touch points to draw from. Nigeria, in 2015, established an important new norm as it made a peaceful transition to a new president. That’s contrasted with an accelerating slide towards autocracy in Russia, where President Vladimir Putin recently spearheaded the abolition of term limits, he noted.

And civics educators watching from other countries offered a wry welcome for American teachers just now struggling with how and what to teach about a dysfunctional transition of power.

“Every social studies teacher in Latin America: aaawww ternurito, bienvenido,” Ecuadorian educator Luiza Daniela Miño tweeted, using a phrase that loosely translated means: “Welcome, sweetie pie.”

A Challenge to the Curriculum?

In the end, the events may also have lasting implications for the civics curriculum. Many Americans have been resistant to recent national conversations about poverty and racism, let alone to newly emerging challenges to America’s system of democratic representation.

But young people today, at least in some corners, are learning about redlining, the Tulsa massacre, and the legacy of anti-Black racism through sources like the New York Times’ 1619 Project. And that will ultimately mean discarding a longstanding theme in U.S. civics education, Geremia said.

“We’re taught American exceptionalism, and that’s the problem … it is pretty much drilled into us. What it means to be American is to be exceptional, and it goes back to John Winthrop’s ‘City on a Hill.’

“I don’t think we are doing a service to the kids when we [continue to portray that],” he said. “When you and I were in school, we’d be shocked by this. But I don’t think our students are today.”

Andrew Ujifusa, Assistant Editor contributed to this article.
A version of this article appeared in the January 13, 2021 edition of Education Week as Insurgency at the U.S. Capitol: A Dreaded, Real-Life Lesson Facing Teachers

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