Teachers across the country face a daunting challenge this week: how to talk with students about the anniversary of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Discussing it last year, as it happened or the day after, was hard, teachers tell NPR, but this year will likely be harder. Our nation’s political divides persist, and polls show Americans still don’t agree on basic facts about why a mob overran the Capitol, attacked police and threatened lawmakers.
NPR spoke with a dozen educators and civics experts about how they’re handling the anniversary in the classroom.
Don’t assume students know what happened
This one may surprise you, but several educators tell NPR they plan to talk about the events of Jan. 6 as if their students know very little about what actually happened. Because many don’t.
“We were talking about the burning of Washington, D.C., during the War of 1812,” says Kristen Crews, who teaches high school American history outside Winston-Salem, N.C., “and I was kind of surprised at how many kids don’t realize or understand what happened a year ago and how serious it was. And I was like, ‘No, this is one of those times where history is relevant!’ ”
Teens get so much of their daily news from peers, social media and other unreliable sources that educators say it’s risky to assume students know even basic facts about that day.
That’s why Emma Humphries, of iCivics, a national nonprofit devoted to improving civics education, recommends teachers “start by asking students what they know about the events of Jan. 6 or what questions they might have about [that day].”
This allows teachers to gauge the depth of students’ understanding, while also letting kids’ own curiosity and interest guide the conversation.
Create a safe space for debate
Classrooms are like grocery stores and movie theaters: They’re full of people with diverse life stories and conflicting opinions, brought together for a common purpose. Unlike grocery clerks and ticket-takers, though, teachers have to engage their students in difficult conversations.
That can’t happen, teachers say, unless students feel safe sharing. That’s why, before discussing the events of Jan. 6, it’s important to establish some ground rules.
Students must feel comfortable sharing without fear of judgment or embarrassment — from their peers but also from their teacher. Disagreement is healthy — but must be respectful and informed. That means questioning opinions, not the character of the student who holds them.
“Let your students know that their learning environment is a safe and brave space,” recommends updated classroom guidance from Facing History & Ourselves, a global nonprofit that helps teachers use history lessons to combat bigotry and hate. The group even recommends students draft a formal contract, laying out the rules for classroom conversation.
Teach students how to find the facts
One of the most obvious ways students can begin to explore the events of Jan. 6 — or any other fraught moment in history — is by using primary sources to build a foundation of facts.
Several teachers say, even before beginning a conversation about Jan. 6, it may be necessary to provide students with at least a baseline of truth.
“Even older kids can come in and really derail things in terms of what they think they know or, you know, some story they heard at home. And then it can all just be a big jumble,” says teacher Gabby Arca, who has taught K-12 in Washington, D.C., and Oregon. She advises fellow teachers “to get on the same page about the basic facts before you just open a discussion where it can just kind of go into a free for all.”
Start with the easy stuff.
For example, we know from official records — videos of lawmakers’ speeches and news stories leading up to the day — that Congress was meeting in a joint session, presided over by former Vice President Mike Pence, to officially certify the results of the 2020 presidential election.
Those are all incontrovertible facts.
It’s also a fact that, at the same time, thousands of former President Donald Trump’s supporters gathered for a planned rally near the White House to protest what Trump argued was a fraudulent election. Teachers say Trump’s speech to the crowd, in which he encouraged them to “stop the steal” and “fight like hell,” is a valuable source to understand his motivations and those of the crowd.
Then come the thornier facts, though facts nonetheless.
Was the election corrupted by fraud? According to a new NPR/Ipsos poll, two-thirds of Republican respondents believe it was — despite trustworthy sources refuting those claims. This puts teachers in the difficult position of contradicting what some students are hearing at home.
Several educators tell NPR their job is to teach students how to think, not what to think. Instead of simply saying, “Trump’s election fraud claims have been thoroughly debunked,” some teachers say they would rather help students investigate the claims themselves — that it’s a more meaningful (and lasting) learning experience if the truth requires a journey of inquiry.
Helping students develop news literacy is a top concern
Challenging students to check their facts doesn’t mean teachers step aside. Instead, they play a vital role helping students differentiate between a reputable source and propaganda; between an advocate who profits from falsehoods and a journalist or expert who traffics in facts.
“I want my students to develop an appreciation for expertise,” says Justin Christensen, a high school government teacher in San Jose, Calif. Even down to the weather, he jokes.
“Rather than me simply saying, ‘It’s sunny. Let’s move on.’ I would want [my students] to consult a meteorologist. I would want them to find the expert in the field.”
In Chicago, high school teacher James Fitzgerald says he enjoys pushing his students to always question their assumptions and to back them up with evidence.
“I like to play a lot of devil’s advocate and just get the students to be, you know, almost get mad at me for asking too many questions. But then they get to use that 6 inches between their ears and think about what their own position is,” Fitzgerald says.
NPR spoke with teachers of history, civics, government and English, and all said, in these days of information overload, helping students develop these news literacy skills — and learn to meaningfully question everything that comes their way — is one of their top concerns.
“A true patriot is someone that questions and investigates,” says Crews, in North Carolina.
But beware of creating a false equivalence between two sides of a debate
Inquiry is good, says Matthew Kay, a high school English teacher in Philadelphia, but teachers should also beware: There’s a difference between rich inquiry, where students have to push and pull at the evidence behind a complex idea, and what Kay calls a “cheap trick” of the classroom.
That’s when a teacher divides a class in half — or students into pairs — and asks them to argue different sides of a debate in which only one side is truly supported by evidence.
Kay says asking students to debate climate change this way, or whether voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the White House, “does our kids a disservice” because it risks creating a false equivalence in students’ minds. In both cases, it’s not a 50-50 debate, he says. The evidence is clear.
On the matter of Trump’s election fraud claims, Anton Schulzki, a high school teacher in Colorado Springs, Colo., and president of the National Council for the Social Studies, says while student inquiry is important, “it’s also our responsibility to correct mistakes” and to be clear with students: “‘You know, the evidence points in one direction, not to another.'”
Anthony Maida, a high school teacher in Eagleville, Pa., says he too worries about teachers short-changing the facts of Jan. 6 for fear of sounding political and potentially alienating some students (and perhaps angering their parents).
Maida, who is also a former Marine, says it’s clear to him that what happened that day wasn’t simply a protest or demonstration, but an insurrection, and he’s not afraid to say so in class.
“They want you to be apolitical. But being apolitical is a political choice, right? If I look at Jan. 6 and take an apolitical stance, that signals I’m OK with it … and I’m not.”
Maida says part of his job as a teacher of U.S. government is to “demystify it — because that helps defend democracy.” And that, he says, requires that he not “sugarcoat” the facts.
Teach students to pay attention to the words used to describe an event
Several educators say exploring this tension, over the nouns and verbs we use to label events in history, will help them frame Jan. 6 for students and put it into historical context.
“Why was Shays’ Rebellion called a ‘rebellion,’ and why was the Boston Tea Party called a ‘tea party?’ ” asks Humphries of iCivics. “Why was John Brown’s Raid called a ‘raid?’ “
For generations, the murder of as many as 300 innocent African Americans in Tulsa, Okla., at the hands of a white mob was known as the Tulsa Race Riot. Only recently have historians, and even President Biden, embraced a more accurate label: massacre.
Along the same lines, students can follow the evolution of language in news reports describing the events of Jan. 6, with outlets, including NPR, turning quickly and consistently to “riot” or “insurrection” and publicly explaining their reasoning.
Fitzgerald in Chicago says other language around Jan. 6 sparked important conversations with his students, some of whom have participated in Black Lives Matter protests.
He says his teens noticed, in 2020, when BLM protestors were referred to as “thugs” and “looters” who were destroying property. “[My students] are like, ‘None of those terms were ever used for people that were literally inside the Capitol of the country.’ ”
Nina Sethi, who teaches elementary school in Washington, D.C., says some of her young students also took notice.
“They felt like people were clearly breaking the law and endangering others when they broke into the U.S. Capitol. But the reaction they got from the police and the media and other security forces was very different from Black Lives Matter protesters.”
People make choices and choices make history
The organization Facing History & Ourselves has just published a new Jan. 6 lesson plan for teachers that unpacks a common word used to describe the Capitol attackers: mob.
And this gets to another key takeaway for the classroom: History is made by people, and not just famous ones — in this case, Trump and Pence — but by thousands.
“Our tagline is ‘People make choices and choices make history,’ ” says Abby Weiss, of Facing History & Ourselves.
The new lesson plan includes multiple expert perspectives on mob psychology, and asks students: Why do people choose to participate in mob violence? The lesson also includes reporting by NPR and The Washington Post on two perpetrators of the insurrection, and challenges students to think about why they may have been motivated to participate in the day’s events.
“We’re asking students to consider why so many people, including those who apparently had no plans to commit violence, participated in the insurrection,” says Weiss.
The lesson encourages teachers to “invite students to reflect on how even seemingly small choices that individuals make can contribute to larger acts of injustice and violence.”
Jenny Staysniak, a high school history teacher in Sudbury, Mass., says, “What I don’t want to ever do with my students is simply demonize or paint this portrait of the other.” She plans to ask her students to explore, “What do we know about those who stormed the Capitol? What do we know about those who spoke out afterwards? Why do we think those actions occurred? What about those people’s identities made them believe that they were making the right choices at the time?”
Look for parallels in American history
Nothing happens without context, and teachers tell NPR, as shocking as the events of Jan. 6 were, exploring previous precedents can help students make sense of what happened. For example: when invading British troops attacked Washington and set fire to the Capitol in 1814.
The election of 1876 was arguably the most contentious in U.S. history, ending Reconstruction and setting the stage for a century of oppressive Jim Crow laws across the South.
In fact, several teachers suggest they may draw parallels between those 19th-century efforts to suppress Black voting and recent moves in many state legislatures that will essentially make it harder for some citizens to vote — new rules that will, in many states, hit communities of color the hardest.