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Stunned teachers and scared students: How the Capitol insurrection is overtaking lessons

 A man carrying a Confederate flag walks through U.S. Capitol
An image of a man carrying a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol stunned and angered many students, teachers said.
(Saul Loeb / AFP/Getty Images)

Brianna Davis, a history and government teacher at Rancho Campana High School in Camarillo, was showing a readout of the Declaration of Independence with her students online when she began receiving news alerts about the violent siege on Capitol Hill — live history careening into her government course.

“I don’t know what we’re watching. I don’t know what to do right now,” Davis recalled thinking as she struggled to respond to her virtual class, not about the profound 1776 document under study but the 2021 insurrection before their eyes. “There was no way to analyze the grievances of the colonists as things were going down in Washington D.C.”

The class ended as questions were just beginning, but Davis said she knew she needed a plan to help her students understand what happened.

“I can’t, in good faith, teach government and not teach this,” said Davis, who has taught for 19 years. Some of her students were grateful she chose to address it. “They were ready to talk about it.”

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With millions of students throughout the country online or connected during class last week, teachers have been confronted with instant tumult in their lesson plans — whether in a history, math or English class — pivoting to discuss the volatile news events with students too young to vote but full of questions and fears.

What led to the riot? What is the electoral process? How come this is different from the police response to summer Black Lives Matter protests? What comes next?

Some school districts in Southern California are making plans to address the issue. At the Los Angeles Unified School District, teachers are preparing to discuss the insurrection and its aftermath when classes resume Tuesday after winter break.

Long Beach Unified sent out guidance to teachers and staff on how to talk to their students about the unrest based on grade level. In a letter titled “A Tumultuous Day for Our Nation,” Supt. Jill Baker said the event, while shocking, presents an opportunity to discuss civility, equal rights and civic action for social change.

The guidance offered conversation starters to get students to open up and asked teachers to pay attention to their students’ emotional health. The school district also provided key messages to give to students, including how history has shown that hate only causes harm, and that violence is never the answer to anger.

Davis could not afford to wait for guidance. That night, she put together a presentation that began with a timeline of how events unfolded based on news reports. She included statements from former Republican and Democratic presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama and used a chart so students could express what they felt, heard, saw and thought.

She scrapped her plan on the Civil War and instead presented the hastily assembled lesson. She showed images of the mob storming the Capitol. One photo showing a man holding a Confederate flag angered her students, who were quick to point out that the the Capitol was attacked and burned during the War of 1812, which she had previously taught them about.

Her class includes students who span the political spectrum, including supporters of President Trump, Davis said. But the conversation in her virtual classroom remained civil, and she focused on the historical context and the importance of democratic processes like free and fair elections and peaceful transitions of power rather than politics. She shared her presentation online with other teachers, who thanked her for the starting point.

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“Students respond to history events when they make sense in their own lives,” said Kevin M. Schultz, chair of the history department at the University of Illinois at Chicago. In this case, the riot appeared everywhere on the news and social media, and the political polarization that manifested itself on Capitol Hill was something everyone has felt from fractured families or friendships, he said.

At a Long Beach school, one elementary school teacher asked her students if they wanted to talk about their feelings on the insurrection. In a group of about 10 fourth-graders, some said they felt unsafe and scared after seeing and hearing what happened in Washington.

“I’m scared because when people break into government houses, that might happen to us,” one student wrote. Another said, “I feel scared to go outside because some people might still be mad.”

“I feel uneasy and at a point where I don’t know what to do anymore,” another said. One of her Black students wrote, “I feel scared to go outside and feel unprotected. Sometimes I feel like I’m going to die because of my skin tone.”

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At the end, the teacher, who declined to give her name to protect her students’ privacy, said she had them listen to a meditation that eased some of their nerves. With the pandemic struggles students are facing, she prioritized their emotional health over lessons.

Dr. Linda Drozdowicz, a child and adolescent psychiatrist at Blythedale Children’s Hospital and assistant professor of clinical child psychiatry at Yale University, said it’s important for adults to let young people and children process their feelings.

The most important thing, she said, is to remind them that they are safe. “We can process it and talk about it, but in the end, they are OK.”

Navigating the issue has been fraught with worries. At one San Gabriel Valley middle school, students began discussing the riot in an online chat in a seventh-grade math class. One student asked the others if they had seen the news.

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“Yeah and it makes me so mad that they bearly got a slap on the wrist for it,” one student wrote online.

“If they had been Black they would’ve been cleared out with tear gas,” another student said, adding, “the way trump told them to go was ‘i love you go home!’”

Vivian Chau let her students chat for a little before she asked them to withhold from talking about politics. Chau said she kept the conversation brief because she did not want to inflame tensions. She worried about appearing to choose a political side.

On Thursday, Erik Anderson, a high school teacher in Edina, Minn., gave his students time to process their thoughts about the riot while going through photos of the event. On Wednesday, he spent 45 minutes on a virtual meetup with some of his ninth-graders, who had questions about the electoral college process and responsibility of the police in the riot.

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Anderson, a social studies teacher, said the police killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, about 10 miles northeast of Edina, was fresh in their minds, and many students noted parallels of the conflicts.

“They saw those scenes here in Minneapolis last summer,” Anderson said, when protesters took to the streets as part of the Black Lives Matter movement. Anderson’s students noted that while protesters were met with heavy police force in Minneapolis, rioters on Capitol Hill were not. And the image of the man carrying a confederate flag inside the Capitol stunned his students, who had just studied the Civil War.

“There were a lot of questions about what comes next,” Anderson said. Some students wondered if this was the future of the country.


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