History teachers revisit their curriculum after the Capitol riots

Brianna Davis was listening to a documentary of famous people reading the Declaration of Independence with her class when news broke of the riots at the US Capitol.

“We were listening to the words that built America” as she began getting alerts and seeing images of chaos in Washington DC, she told CNN.

The history and government teacher at Rancho Campana high school in Camarillo, California had to cancel her class early, she said. She knew what was unfolding was historic in a way like nothing she had ever experienced in real-time with her students — and she just didn’t have the words to explain it to them.

Davis and other history teachers across the country have faced a dilemma since January 6: How do you put a historical moment into context as it is happening and what does teaching history look like in the years that follow?

It’s a problem they feel compelled to address for the younger generations.

From classrooms in a small Virginia town, a California suburb and in the city of Philadelphia, some teachers feel the answer lies in more education about the history of protest in the US although they worry about threading the needle in an era of unprecedented ideological acrimony.

“There’s no curriculum for that,” said sixth-grade history teacher Hayden O’Rourke of Wagner Middle School in Philadelphia. “You have to think on the fly.”

After Davis finished her classes, she turned to the news and tried to digest what was taking place. Before long, she was back to work, pulling the images she thought would one day end up in the history textbooks and creating an assignment that would pull what her class witnessed together into their lesson plan.

The history they need to know now

The image that stuck out most to Davis’ students was that of the Confederate flag being carried inside the US Capitol.

She spent much of the class periods discussing the photos as well as comments made by her students as part of a project she assigned. And to put what they saw into context, she relied on articles about American history, including the Preamble to the Constitution and the origins of the Confederate flag.

“They saw and understood this situation enough to know that democracy is bigger and better than just them,” Davis said. “Their role in the process was to make sure something like this never happened again, or at least understand how this happened.”

Jeff Robinson, a history teacher at Chilhowie High School in Virginia, said with the cyclical nature of history, there was plenty in the curriculum that could help put some context around the riots.

Just as immigration has been a contentious issue in current political conversations, so too was it in the 1920s, he said. And although the images from the US Capitol were shocking, they could be connected to the War of 1812 when British troops set fire to the same building, Robinson said.

What has taken a new shape in their courses is the history of protest in the US. While Robinson’s students used to be shocked by images of Vietnam War protests, now, he says, they are used to seeing chaos and clashes. “These students grew up in an era of protest,” he said.

Even in O’Rourke’s classroom, where many of the sixth-grade students are learning the basics about political parties and trying to wrap their heads around what happened on January 6, their teacher says some are making clear connections to the Black Lives Matter movement.

“One said, ‘Well if there were Black people doing that, we would get shot at,'” he recalled one student saying in response to the images from the Capitol.

The theme of protests is one that keeps coming up for Davis. She said she is grappling with how to teach it: What makes a protest peaceful and what makes it violent? What does it mean to have the right to protest?

Where they go from here

Across all of their classrooms, the teachers said their students brought up questions around how to keep the Capitol riots from happening again.

Curriculum standards move slowly, Davis said, and it is unlikely there will be a large-scale response in lesson plans. “It feels like it is all up to the history department,” she said.

Some schools may require teachers to talk about the topic, O’Rourke said, but ultimately teachers will have to make their own decisions about if and how to talk about the riot.

The teachers say they worry that teaching such politically charged issues will be seen as influencing the viewpoints of their students.

“I’m just going to present the facts and try to be balanced on both sides and let the chips fall where they may,” Robinson said.

But some of the issues that need to be covered, such as social movements for racial equality, involve walking a difficult line, Davis said.

“I’m still learning and I’m still trying to be a better teacher of tackling the tough subjects of ‘Let’s break down the system of oppression,'” Davis said. “How can we talk about slavery and the history of the US and not talk about White supremacy. That’s kind of the biggest frustration … walking that line of what you need to know (for the education standards) versus how it really happens.”

From this experience, Davis said that the biggest change she plans to make to her curriculum is the addition of media literacy. It’s important, she says, to understand how events are portrayed and how people access information.

O’Rourke, for his part, said he has made the comparison to Instagram influencers. “If they talk about a special product, you’re probably going to buy that,” he said. “[The protestors] heard their president, so they followed.”

O’Rourke said he will continue to emphasize the importance of looking deeper into the differences across the political spectrum: not just what it means to be Left or Right, but what extremism looks like and why people think the way they do.

Robinson said he will continue to emphasize American ideals, including the long history of peaceful transfers of power.

“I said, ‘Guys what you have witnessed for the last four years of politics, that’s not really what it’s supposed to be,'” Robinson said. “They’ve never lived in a society where Americans see themselves as one place.”

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