Social Studies Opinion

My Students Still Have Questions About the Capitol Riot. They Deserve Honest Answers

Jan. 6, 2021, is a modern lesson plan for the history left out of textbooks
By Chris Dier — January 05, 2022 4 min read
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On Jan. 6, 2021, I was teaching a class when I received a news alert notifying me that Vice President Mike Pence was evacuated from the U.S. Capitol because of an attack on the building. As a history teacher, I recognized the severity of the situation, and I also knew that it was vital to address this troubling saga with my students as it unraveled.

This was the most intense attack on the Capitol since the British burned Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812. The classroom discussions that day were tough; students had many pressing questions while they witnessed in real time the storming of the Capitol. As my teacher colleagues and I revisit that anniversary, the conversations are as challenging as they were in 2021—and perhaps even more necessary today.

I work to incorporate events in my curriculum that are commonly excluded from history textbooks, many of which resemble the attack on the Capitol. For my students in New Orleans, these events aren’t too far from home. In 1874, more than 5,000 members of the White League, a white supremacist paramilitary organization, mobilized to overthrow the Louisiana state government. Under the guidance of John McEnery, an ex-Confederate officer who firmly believed he had won the most recent election for governor, the radical supremacist group stormed New Orleans’ Canal Street to initiate a coup. There, its members clashed with the Metropolitan Police, a majority Black American force, and the state militia, both of which were tasked to protect Louisiana’s state government against McEnery and the White League.

Canal Street morphed into an urban battlefield as the White League relentlessly charged at the police and militia. The so-called “Battle of Liberty Place” resulted in more than a hundred casualties. Lifeless bodies of Black men were left untouched to crush any budding resistance. The violent coup was a decisive victory for McEnery until federal troops arrived to instill order and oust the White League. Nonetheless, these events weakened Reconstruction efforts to advance civil rights and paved the way for white supremacy to engulf the South without federal intervention.

Similar events of extremists staging coups occurred throughout the South, some with more devastating success. In 1898, white supremacists violently overthrew the local biracial government in Wilmington, N.C., killing at least 60 people and displacing thousands of Black Americans.

There is one stark difference between teaching about these historic events and last year’s attack on the Capitol: My students now have a contemporary reference point. Historical images of men storming government offices in previous centuries now conjure more-recent scenes of a mob who, in our lifetime, attacked the Capitol. As teachers, we must reach students where they are and use their existing knowledge and frame of reference to connect the content with their lives. If the attack on the Capitol is a newfound frame of reference, then it is one we must not shy away from to preserve comfort at the expense of a dangerous status quo.

A year later, students still have questions about the images of people waving American flags and attacking Capitol police, smashing windows, and occupying the offices of legislators. They are bombarded with information from various social-media platforms and are tasked with sifting through it all to form their own analysis. As teachers, it is our moral imperative to help them navigate and understand the social and cultural forces at play. Being able to have these discussions is crucial to their educational and social journeys.

See Also

U.S. Capitol Police try to hold back protesters outside the east doors of the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6, 2021.
U.S. Capitol Police try to hold back rioters outside the east doors of the U.S. Capitol on Jan 6, 2021.
Andrew Harnik/AP
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We also have an obligation to be transparent about these attacks, both past and present. This may be a challenge for some where debates over critical race theory and chaotic school board meetings have focused on limiting (if not entirely quashing) honest conversations about the history of our country; however, teachers must always strive to be honest and rise above these efforts for the sake of their students’ education.

Students deserve history teachers who denounce coups to overthrow a democratically elected president, who approach their subject matter authentically and honestly. As teachers, we must employ appropriate and consistent terminology when discussing contemporary crises, like the attack on the Capitol. It wasn’t simply a “protest.” The FBI labels the attack as “domestic terrorism,” a term corroborated by the Congressional Research Service. Various organizations, including the Cline Center’s Coup D'état Project, label it a “coup d'état.” Members of the Proud Boys, Oath Keepers, and other extremist groups heavily participated in this event. Our students deserve to know the truth about these heinous acts.

The attack on the Capitol should not be taught as “history.” We are still feeling the repercussions today and will likely for years to come. What happens after the congressional and federal investigations conclude? How will our country respond? These are the questions we should be asking our students—who represent our nation’s future.

Jan. 6, 2021 was confusing and upsetting for all of us, including our students. They are taught from a young age to believe and trust in a robust U.S. democracy. The Capitol attack has rightfully seeded doubt in that narrative. Students across the country (and others from around the world) watched the attack on the U.S. Capitol live, as it unfolded; now, they are watching how our country chooses to respond.

Students deserve teachers who can empower them to learn from such a profound national crisis, who can help process the reality before us. I, for one, will not shy away from this conversation. My students and I will have these tough conversations today, tomorrow, and the next day after that.


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