January 18, 2021

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Teachers Grapple With Discussing Capitol Riot With Kids During Already Unstable Year

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Raven Althimer was teaching a remote lesson to her ninth graders about how to better advocate for themselves when she noticed something happening on her television in the background.

“Something is going on in Washington, D.C.,” she told her students. “Let’s stop.”

Althimer, a history teacher in Chicago who had been teaching a life-skills course at the time, tilted her computer toward her television, letting her students see for themselves: A group of rioters was storming the U.S. Capitol. 

The students, who are Black, were confused.

“Is this a KKK rally?” one asked.

“Why is this being allowed to happen?” asked another. 

They ultimately landed on one conclusion: Had it been them rioting in D.C., they would have been shot.

On Wednesday, children — like their parents — bore witness to an unprecedented event in American history when violent rioters, spurred on by President Donald Trump, stormed the U.S. Capitol building to disrupt certification of the Electoral College results. Educators, many of them working from home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, started unpacking the events of the days with their students from behind a computer screen, eerily aware that they were tasked with explaining another momentous event during a year already marked by traumatic upheaval, in which kids’ notions of safety and security have been punctured and the failures of adults have trickled down to define their daily lives. 

Teachers ranged in how they presented (or said they planned to present) the riots, varying in how much of their opinion they would choose to divulge, how much they would lead the discussion, or tailor their lessons to how much pushback or passion they anticipated. The fact that some teachers were only a few days into a new semester with new students —or hadn’t been able to develop trusting relationships from behind a computer screen — only made a delicate situation even more difficult. 

Althimer kept glancing at her television, noticeably distracted from the lesson at hand, when she decided to scrap her plans.

“I can’t let history happen and ignore it,” she said.

One of my students said, ‘If 20 of us had done that, we all would have been dead.’ I said, ‘No, 20 of you wouldn’t have even gotten that close.’

She narrated the events as her television streamed on mute, providing context and making historical comparisons. Her students not only quickly deduced what the riots said about the state of American politics, but also what the events said about their place, as Black teenagers, in American society. They knew that earlier in the week, Wisconsin had mobilized the National Guard anticipation of protests against the decision not to charge the police officer who shot Jacob Blake seven times in the back. Their lives were marked by fear of police and incidents of police brutality. Where were the police now? 

“They think of when they had Black Lives Matter over the summer, peacefully protesting, and were tear gassed. People are literally storming the Capitol and nothing is happening to them,” Althimer said. “One of my students said, ‘If 20 of us had done that, we all would have been dead.’ I said, ‘No, 20 of you wouldn’t have even gotten that close.’”

Richard Rosivach, a high school history teacher outside of Minneapolis, compared teaching through the riot to being in the classroom during the mass shooting at Columbine High School and 9/11.

In the former case, he was working in Denver, only a car ride away from Columbine. His students listened to news coverage that day and heard journalists speculating about how unexpected a shooting was in a place like Columbine, a predominantly white and affluent community.  

He watched as his students, scared and battered from their proximity to the massacre, went from sad to angry over the subtext: “At the time, downtown Denver was about 95% students of color,” Rosivach said. “They knew what the news meant is that you would expect it in a place like their school.” 

Messages like that — about what those in power expect and accept from groups based on race and class — dovetails with what his students, many of whom participated in anti-racism protests in Minneapolis over the summer, saw unfolding on Wednesday. He expects them to draw parallels between how Black Lives Matter protesters were treated by police compared to how insurrectionists storming the Capitol were treated.

On 9/11, Rosivach said he struggled to teach as the news was unfolding, but he learned that it was important to keep circling back to the longer-term political and cultural implications of the attack, a lesson he hopes to apply to the insurrection.

On Wednesday, Rosivach’s classes started just as the situation began to deteriorate. He opened with a statement before moving onto the day’s lesson: “I’m not ignoring anything. But I don’t know what’s happening and I don’t have a full view. I don’t want to misstate it but I don’t want to minimize it or scare anybody,” he told students. 

By that evening, Rosivach was still thinking through how he would continue to address the events not only on Thursday, but on Friday and Monday. His school is racially and ethnically diverse, and students have expressed a range of opinions across the political spectrum. He serves refugee students who were traumatized by the protests in nearby Minneapolis over the summer. He also worried that some students will have the urge to blame their Trump-supporting peers for the violence. He said he’s also worried about some of his students of color who want to become police officers and have been struggling with watching recent events unfold.

“If nobody says anything then I’ve failed as a teacher because then I haven’t created a space where things like that can be discussed because they need to be,” said Rosivach.

In California, high school history teacher Adrienne Borders planned to start her Thursday class with a reminder she’s invoked before: “Never entertain expression of the idea that someone has less rights than someone else.”

On Wednesday evening, she drew up a lesson plan with four goals in mind for students. She wants them to understand what constitutes valid reasons for and forms of protest; that the words of leaders are important and can lead to concrete action; the differences in police responses when dealing with different groups of people; and the differences between expressions of white rage and protests for fundamental human rights for people of color.

The lesson will include multiple choice questions probing how students would define the events — a protest, a riot, a revolt, an insurrection, a coup or terrorism?

After noting that the country was founded on a revolution that many consider to have been righteous, another prompt will ask students to evaluate whether  Wednesday’s act of rebellion was “acceptable and legitimate.” The prompt notes that “there is a clear right and wrong answer.” 

After reviewing pictures of police responses to Wednesday’s riots, the George Floyd protests, and protests against coronavirus lockdowns, Borders will ask students to evaluate similarities and differences in police responses.

She can’t predict how students will react, what their political leanings look like, or how respectful they will be of one another. She’s only known them for two days, and they’ve never met in person. 

In Alberta, Canada, Gord Milstone has been working with his 12th grade students to compare the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms to the governing documents of other countries. He plans to include the riot in his discussion of the U.S. Constitution, looking at the rights and responsibilities of citizens, and comparing it to the 1970 October Crisis in Canada, when Quebecois separatists killed a prominent politician and former Prime Minister Pierre Trudeau declared a form of martial law. 

Though a country away, the events in D.C. feel tied to his students’ realities. 

“Whatever happens where you are, it could happen up here next,” Milstone said. “It might look different but it could have resounding effects.”

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