When rioters began breaking into the U.S. Capitol last week following a rally hosted by President Donald Trump in Washington, D.C., Oakcrest High School social studies supervisor Joe Costal was glued to social media watching the events unfold.
Like educators across the nation, he knew the next day would be an important teaching moment.
“From my perspective, we have to learn from what’s happening, and we have to give students a forum to talk about what is happening around them. I think that is social studies at its best,” Costal said.
As early as the evening of Jan. 6, before the glass was swept up, the damage was assessed or Congress reconvened to continue certifying the Electoral College votes that would officially select Joe Biden as the next president of the United States, educators began brainstorming ways to address the events with their students in a meaningful way.
Egg Harbor Township High School history teacher Michael Martirone said that evening that he simply would provide a platform for discussion.
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“Not many students understand what the Electoral College is and why today was important,” Martirone said Jan. 6. “Tomorrow will be a day for listening and provide students with a baseline of information.”
Atlantic City preschool teacher Brittany Smith wrote on Twitter that evening, “Moments like this make me wish I taught older grade levels, so I could truly have some discourse about events like today.”
Instead, Smith, who last year went viral for a book list she created on how to talk to students about race, got to work developing ideas with a community of teachers nationwide on an application called Clubhouse.
Later in the evening, Smith posted ideas for instruction to her followers who may teach older grade levels, such as using Google Forms or journaling exercises to allow students to communicate how they’re feeling, hosting debates on whether the events were purposeful and effective, and allowing open discussion on what students saw on the news and social media.
Costal said he saw a tweet from a professor at Hofstra University that included “this amazingly comprehensive, well-structured lesson plan,” so he sent out the information to the teachers he worked with and encouraged them to use some of it in their own lessons.
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Zack Leathers, who teaches History through 20th Century American Pop Culture at Oakcrest, said he used that information to create a forum for discussion in his own classroom last week, a discussion that has continued to evolve over the past week.
“I don’t bring my political beliefs into the classroom ever, and just kind of present the facts,” he said. “We had people on both sides of the spectrum on this particular issue as far as how they’re processing it.”
He said he also urged students to be respectful, even if they didn’t agree. This is also part of a large schoolwide lesson this year on being a good digital citizen, Leathers said.
They went over a timeline of events, analyzed quotes from legislators and others, and predicted what would happen next.
Leathers said the idea of talking about such a divisive topic can be nerve-wracking for a teacher whose students come from a variety of backgrounds and political beliefs.
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“Social studies teachers who are not addressing the issues in class because they’re too nervous to talk about it, I think they’re doing a disservice to the kids,” Leathers said.
He said students who don’t have all the information may still begin to form opinions about the events, so it’s important for all educators to talk about the “hard issues.”
Tamar LaSure-Owens, a first-grade teacher at Leeds Avenue School in Pleasantville, said that like many teachers last week, she began looking for resources and lessons on ways to help students understand what took place at the Capitol.
“I was able to utilize my students’ ability to recall information about peaceful protests as a strategy to connect and help them understand the tragic events that took place at the United States Capitol,” LaSure-Owens said in an email to staff and administrators last week. “I created a PowerPoint of pictures from Wednesday’s event.”
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She said much of the foundation for the lesson was laid earlier in the year through the district’s Amistad, Holocaust and Latino curriculums.
“This is AMHOTINO curriculum initiatives at its best, serving as a conduit to teach writing, reading, reasoning and critical thinking skills; and its immediate impact on student learning because it is relatable, useful and engaging,” LaSure-Owens said.
In Atlantic City, Smith said that even for her preschool class, she was able to use the book “What Can a Citizen Do,” by Dave Eggers, to impart a lesson about citizenship.
“As a preschool teacher, a really big way that we communicate ideas is through literature and open discussion,” she said. “While we didn’t directly discuss the events that happened the day before, it was still a way for us to discuss being a good citizen and a good role model.”