Education

A scaffold and noose stands with the Capitol in the distance. A crowd holds various flags in support of President Trump.
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Teachers Share How They Talked To Students About The Capitol Riot

"I did not want to ignore. "

The attack on the Capitol by a pro-Trump mob on Wednesday shocked the world. Many Americans, who had never seen such events transpire in their own country, were at a loss about how to comprehend let alone talk about what happened. And, in such a politically divided nation, how would teachers talk about the events at the Capitol with students?

While the raid on the Capitol, as Congress convened to certify the election of Joe Biden as the next president of the United States, has been roundly repudiated as wrong and even treasonous, there are nevertheless those who have shown support for those who breached security to vandalize the building. Others still suggest, without evidence and despite all evidence to the contrary, that this was a false-flag operation conducted by far-left agitators. Once again many teachers find themselves navigating politically divided classrooms and communities.

We've collectively asked a lot of our educators this academic year. The "new normal" of remote or hybrid teaching amid a global pandemic has been trying. Kids, and their families, are living in a state of anxiety: economic, health, and government instability are real and present concerns. Throw in a contentious election followed by an attack on the government and fear, for many, has reached fever-pitch.

Seeing adults behave worse than children I can't imagine is setting their minds at ease.

Here's how teachers talked to their students about the events at the Capitol – or didn't – and why.

As told to Jamie Kenney:

Christa O.

Middle School speech therapist, New York

New York has been through a lot. Especially areas like my work community, which is predominantly people of color. Our kids have gone through a lot with race riots, lock downs, and also with the affects of COVID going through a low socioeconomic area. And seeing adults behave worse than children I can't imagine is setting their minds at ease. We've had parents call upset saying their children are depressed, suicidal, self-harming. It's just terrible, and that doesn't even include the fear some of our kids have been undocumented or having their parents undocumented.

We got an email late Tuesday night from our principal telling us we had her support and if we needed her to reach out. She even gave us her cell – it was great to know administration was supportive. I posted a presentation for my students. The message was that current events are scary, but they have the power to pay attention, speak up, and, in seven short years (or less), vote. I encouraged them to shoulder up – stand together and take care of each other. That our differences do not have to divide us. I also gave them a Google quiz for feedback asking for self-reflection. I want them to know that we are there for them.

Chrissy H.

3rd grade, North Carolina

"My students said nothing about it. The news they wanted to talk about is that it’s going to snow."

Irene R.

Caroline Brehman/CQ-Roll Call, Inc./Getty Images

5th grade, Wisconsin

After reading a message from our administration, we watched a 10-minute video from CNN so we had some content knowledge. We discussed how we were feeling. We analyzed four different images of the day, asking students to respond to the same three questions each time: what do you see, what do you feel, what do you wonder? We also updated them on how things were resolved [Wednesday] night ... and ended with an advisory-like reflection question: how can we support our classmates who may feel scared or worried right now?

Many students said they felt scared, sad, and confused. They understood profoundly that people were threatened and that our democracy was threatened. We talked a lot about symbols of democracy and notions of safety – and how both of those are different for different people.

Many of my students stayed after the official time to share more of what they know. They shared it with confidence strong statements like a president inciting a riot and violence. They declared that people should be punished for what they did. As a teacher, I always struggle with redemptive endings. I never want to leave kinds traumatized or uncertain, but not everything could be tied up in a neat bow. The last picture we showed was the boxes with the electoral votes; we talked about how people had the wherewithal to grab them and save them and what a powerful symbol was.

Jennifer S.*

High School composition, Indiana

We had no real discussion at all. I offered it as a journal topic and several wrote about it. I don't think I'll engage much beyond that not so much. Our building is really politically divided, and it feels like a minefield. I think that makes me a coward, but I’m nervous about backlash, from students, teachers, and families. I am not sure if I would have wanted to discuss it in any case – even if the community weren't so divided. I haven’t yet figured out how to articulate my opinions in a reasonable way. Also, I try really hard to keep my political opinions to myself. As an agent of the government as a public school employee, I take very seriously my responsibility to maintain political neutrality.

*not her real name

Caitlyn S.

Courtesy of Caitlyn S.

Elementary School, Pennsylvania

I teach children with complex support needs with multiple disabilities in grades kindergarten to second in School District of Philadelphia with mostly brown and black students. I did not want to ignore.

We started by talking about how something bad happened. My curriculum given has access to News2You by Unique Learning Systems and they had a short breaking news article with clear “facts” leaving much out but keeping it to the point. ... We tied it to how all week we’ve discussed and wrote resolutions, which we defined as a promise we make to ourselves to do something better or help others, and how the event and actions are not following those.

I then read "All Are Welcome," which is a great story of inclusion and emphasis differences of all types. We then said how the people in the story are promising to themselves to be kind, understanding, and do the right thing.

I emphasized that we are all welcome in my class – we are better because of how we are different. My students were able to respond with yes/no communication cards to our discussion. I felt better knowing that I didn’t ignore. It was mentioned; it was emphasized how wrong the situation was, how I am not okay with it, and that they are important to me.

Bonnie K.

High School English, New York

We were supposed to have an independent writing day so students could work on an essay. A few of my students came to class (virtually). They asked if we could talk. I told them it was totally optional if they wanted to stay and talk or they could go and write. A few stayed. We used Jamboard [an interactive whiteboard system from Google Workspace that allows students to collaborate in real time] and posted about their thoughts, feelings, questions and facts. Generally, I think it's always important to reflect with students. They need a space to process. I try to do this after major events... I started doing this after the election.

Sarah S.

High School math, Massachusetts

I didn’t mention it and it didn’t come up so I just kept things as light and positive as possible, which is important to me because I particularly do not know what is going on at home for the students and as scary as things are, I want them to feel happy and safe with me. Absolutely, if I’m that adult that they feel comfortable with then OK, but I’m not leading with it. My role is to teach math but I start every class off and let them share and talk about anything important to them. I’m ready to chat with my students about big things and comfortable to do so if need be, though I prefer one on one or a smaller and more intimate setting.

Rachel L.

Courtesy of Rachel L.

8th grade history, Florida

We turned on the live feeds and watched in horror together as the riots began. I immediately sat and wrote this prompt to begin discussion for Thursday. ... I asked them to write. Just write. They wrote non stop between 10 and 30 minutes. All of them. It was amazing. I was floored at the “thank yous” they verbally said to and wrote to me. The amount of students that said they “needed the assignment” almost brought me to tears. Some even asked if we can do this once a week. We discussed how each day we are living history and how it is affecting all of us, some positively and some negatively. I have read every single response. It was eye opening.

Meredith H.

1st grade, Connecticut

"My first graders didn't bring it up so I didn't either. We got an email last night from our teacher in residence for diversity and cultural competency. My principal brought it up today at our faculty meeting and said that there are varying levels of knowledge for students and opinions of families. We would most likely run into students sharing parental opinions and he said that discussing those comments it in the framework that while we may disagree that is what makes our country great that we can have disagreements and still value one another. The email from the teacher in residence was more about the actual events."

Sharon P.

The Washington Post/The Washington Post/Getty Images

5th grade, New York

My co-teacher and I spoke about how to discuss this with out students the night before and tried to come up with some sort of plan, but it it felt [even] in the midst of everything [last night] really uncertain. Our school leadership actually emailed everyone Thursday morning encouraging us to talk about it and sharing resources that we could use to talk about it. They wrote very clearly about what our values are is a school and why we need to address these things.

The words that came up for my students a lot were "confused" and "scared." And a lot of the kids just wanted to know, "Well, what happens now?" The part of the Bronx that some of the kids live in was really impacted by Black Lives Matter rallies and protests this summer, and they saw a lot of really scary activity from their homes or out, like, really close to where they live. They saw police barricading people. They saw police beating people. And they're like, "Well, what happens now? Everyone just walked out." And that felt really hard to not not be able to answer them because it doesn't feel fair.

I wanted to make sure that their voices were heard. And I try to do that every day. But especially today, I wanted to make sure that their voices were heard. I just let them say what they needed to say. I didn't talk over them. I might try to guide the discussion with some questions, but I didn't talk over them. I didn't tell them they were wrong. And when they asked what happens now, I said, "I don't know."

Responses have been lightly edited for length and clarity.