By the time I woke up on Sept. 11, 2001, one tower had fallen. As I was leaving for school, the second one did.
I was 13, an eighth grader in Portland, Oregon. In social studies class our teacher, Ms. James, rolled in a TV on a metal cart. A pall was cast over the school; we followed no lessons that day. We watched news coverage, and Ms. James led discussions of what was happening, what it meant for our country, how we felt about it.
Teachers begin most every school day with lesson plans, but sometimes events change the course of the classroom — and the course of history.
It remains to be seen how history will remember Jan. 6, 2021, but for some teachers at Teton County School District No. 1 the riot in the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., was too big a moment to ignore, especially when the students start the discussion.
“We like to think of it as the ‘off-the-bus test,’” said Lisa Lowenfels, the fourth/fifth-grade teacher at Kelly Elementary School. “We greet the kids off the bus — there’s only 50 of them. If within the first few minutes I’ve heard from 20 kids that want to tell me what happened yesterday, we have to talk about that before we can go on.”
Talk of the halls
Sure enough, on the morning of Jan. 7 Kelly students were talking about the Capitol riot in the halls. Discussing the event with her students, Lowenfels said, started with a factual discussion: What happened? How do you know that?
Elementary-age students don’t have the fully rounded knowledge to truly contextualize an event like that, but they have enough to discuss what it means for the country.
Lowenfels tries to avoid “value-laden” conversations, sticking instead to the facts.
In the case of the Capitol riot, however, interpretation comes into play. An NPR/PBS Newshour/Marist poll found that only 2 in 10 Republicans blame President Trump for the event, while 9 in 10 Democrats do, so reactions have been mixed across the country.
To understand those different perspectives, Lowenfels’ class talked about verbiage: Most mainstream news outlets labeled the event an “insurrection,” while others call it a “protest” or an “act of terrorism.”
“We kind of put these three words on again and just, event aside, we look at what these three words mean,” she said.
Appropriate context changes according to the age of students. Jackson Hole High School social studies teacher Cheryl Katz, who called the event an “insurrection,” talked with students about other historical insurrections, like the storming of the Bastille, the 1789 attack on a Paris prison that catalyzed the French Revolution.
Part of that discussion is the caveat that history may well look differently on this moment.
“Those are worthwhile conversations to have without saying it’s going to be remembered that way,” Katz said.
After 9/11 the political understanding, especially for my middle school peers, coalesced around the idea that it was a tragedy, an attack on our democracy. Differences of opinion as to why the federal government hadn’t stopped it, or whether the War on Terrorism it spawned was warranted or conducted correctly, were beyond our conception.
For the Capitol riot, differences in opinion are already stark. Kids bring their own perspectives, regardless of age. Jackson Hole Middle School history teacher David Wells makes space for his students who are already forming political opinions.
“At the start of any lesson, I set the ground rule that any perspectives are acceptable so long as they fit within the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the 1st Amendment rights in public schools,” he wrote in an email to the News&Guide.
An event like the Washington riot, with its many different interpretations, Wells said, offers a chance for students to further their media literacy. With so many resources available, he gathered a bevy of news articles, including some from foreign papers, to spark talk about how bias or perspective arises in the media.
Other teachers echoed Wells’ sentiment that politics can’t be ignored but that discourse must remain respectful. They also insisted that their own opinions had no place in the classroom.
“No teacher should let their kids know you know what side of the fence they’re on,” Colter Elementary School fifth-grade teacher Amy Asbell said.
Asbell’s students didn’t ask about the Capitol riot, so she didn’t touch on it in her classroom, but she has been a teacher long enough to have seen other earth-shattering national events reverberate through schools. A kindergarten teacher during 9/11, she didn’t talk with her students about it that day, but when she returned to teaching fifth grade, her students talked about little else every year on the anniversary.
Her discussions and lessons around such events fit the pattern of other teachers: Gauge student reactions, facilitate discussions and keep their own politics out of it. Sometimes, however, it’s difficult to keep emotions out of the classroom.
Forget the fractions
None of the teachers who spoke to the News&Guide indicated that the events of Jan. 6 had the emotional weight of 9/11 or the 2012 shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut. But for many the Capitol riot is of that magnitude, a national event that edges out discussions of fractions, lessons on Reconstruction or the multitude of other long-standing topics students learn about.
How today’s school-age kids will remember the Capitol riot is unknown. Students of my generation have lived with the memory of 9/11 for nearly two decades, and in many ways our educators, like Ms. James, helped contextualize the meaning of that traumatic event.
Many teachers see facilitating that discussion as one of their integral responsibilities, particularly when different sides of the aisle have opposing viewpoints.
“It’s our job to give them the tools to be able to talk and have meaningful exchanges with people that have different political ideas than they do,” Katz said. “And I feel like we need that more in our society.”