The Capitol insurrection in the classroom
Social studies, once a pillowy reserve of consensus history and anodyne civic lessons, has in the last year been in a state of play. In classrooms and from Chromebooks, discussing January 6 has been so sensitive that organizations and experts have published resources on how to teach it.
I talked to a high school teacher, an historian and an education expert to hear what they think about the struggle to teach January 6 in this volatile, fractious educational moment.
The conversations have been edited for length and clarity.
Anton Schulzki, president of the National Council for the Social Studies and teacher of American history at General William J. Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, Colorado:
It’s been a rather hyper politicized environment and as a result, there’s been lots of legislation that’s been passed in some of our states and also in some local communities that would rather restrict what teachers can talk about. With those restrictions in place some teachers are going to find it difficult to actually have these conversations.
And I have to respect their decisions even though it may not be the best thing for students in the end. You’re talking about people who live and work and teach in these communities, and they have to figure out they have to do what’s best for themselves as well. Some people may see that as being a bit of a copout or being rather wishy washy but I have to respect the professionals in the classroom. They’re the ones who know their students. They’re the ones who know their community.
We can’t deny the fact that something happened last January, right? All the facts are pointing to certain groups that were involved in the riot or insurrection. We’re still learning the facts that are coming out as to what’s actually behind all of this. And those facts are going to continue to play out. We can only look at things as they are right now. And I would urge teachers to listen to their students and also to be mindful of their community and to listen to the people in their community. That being said, I think the best thing that educators can do is to be honest and be truthful with their students.
I think the most important thing is that teachers have to really be able to listen to their own students and find out where the students are coming from.
Hasan Kwame Jeffries, history professor at Ohio State University:
Part of the challenge for teachers, and I think this is really incumbent that they do this, is how do you talk honestly about something that has deep historical roots, in the moment — this is something that was led by a specific group of people in the United States. These aren’t Democrats, these aren’t radical leftist. These were loyalists to the former president of the United States. And just saying that for some is a sign of bias, but it’s not. You literally are stating the facts.
I think really, there are three angles that teachers should use. One historical context: How does this connect to the past and how can we draw the connections to the use of political violence to overturn elections, as well as the use of racism to justify these attempts to delegitimize elections. There’s a long history of that: the civil war, reconstruction, and a hundred years of disenfranchisement. So you have to put that in the historical context.
The second aspect is to talk about it in terms of good governance, talk about it in terms of government operation, the way this democracy works on a practical level, when we’re talking about federal elections and state elections. So that students can understand that — when their parents, or friends or the internet say the vice president could have stopped this, he just chose not to, or that there was voter fraud — that’s wrong.
The third approach is by teaching critical analysis skills with regard to evidence. Evidence for the justifications for the attempt to stop the peaceful transfer of power, this idea of voter fraud: What is the evidence? What are people saying? That’s an important tool that children need to have because essentially this becomes a media literacy lesson and saying: “OK, this is what the courts say, and this is what you’ve read on the internet. How do these stack up together?” One of the lessons that can come out of this is, why do people believe this if there’s no evidence for it. Teaching students the difference between speculation, conspiracy rumor and that which is actually provable. That’s nonpartisan. It’s not bringing politics.
Paula McAvoy, assistant professor of social studies education, North Carolina State University:
For many students, 2020 was their first experience of a presidential election, and what they saw was a deeply flawed democracy. It is really important for teachers to continue to discuss this event because young people need to understand that it should not be this way.
When teaching about January 6, it is also important that teachers do not assume that students have much understanding about what happened. Teachers can use this moment to review the events leading up to and on January 6 and share what we know now — perhaps using some of the video compiled by the 2021 impeachment managers.
The challenge with this approach is that to state the facts that Joe Biden won, there has been no evidence of widespread fraud, and that Donald Trump was impeached for “incitement of insurrection” will be heard by some students as teachers imposing a partisan opinion on the class. Consequently, some teachers will avoid bringing up the issue. Others might try to take a “neutral” view by saying, “Some people say there was fraud and others say there was not fraud. You can decide for yourself.” But this misrepresents the facts by suggesting that nobody knows for sure.
Rather than presenting January 6 as an event that is open to interpretation, teachers can treat it as a day of learning and remembrance.
Last, students also need to understand that the event is not over: There is an ongoing Congressional investigation; states are changing laws to make voting harder; and there are bills in Congress that attempt to create a more secure vote. Students ought to be learning about all of these issues, if we have any chance of improving the system we have.
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