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Teachable moment: School and students respond to Jan. 6 attack on Capitol

When history unfolds in real time, teachers don’t have the luxury of a curriculum to guide the narrative they present to their students. After violence broke out in the Capitol last week, teachers and administrators moved to develop a plan, but with less than 24 hours to prepare, much was left up to individual educators. Some student leaders worry it wasn’t enough.

The insurrection at the Capitol building on Wednesday, Jan. 6 has left faculty of the Harvard school district grappling with how to teach students about the violence that occurred. Both Bromfield and Hildreth Elementary School (HES) administration and teachers recognize the necessity of addressing this issue and began having conversations with students last week. However, what is already a difficult discussion becomes even harder as each student has a different level of understanding and comfort, posing a challenge of how best to approach the subject.

Superintendent Linda Dwight acknowledged and condemned the Capitol riots in a districtwide email on Thursday. Highlighting the schools’ priorities of antiracism and valuing diversity, she wrote that teachers would be discussing the news with their students, and she included resources for family discussions as well. See "Chalk Talk: Respect, kindness, and nonviolence are non-negotiable."

The faculty of both Bromfield and HES also held multiple staff meetings before Thursday’s classes to plan an approach, and following a meeting with the schools’ principals, counselors, and psychologists, Bromfield counseling department leader Sara Lamere told the Press, the school administration sent a letter to the teachers with suggestions of how to talk with students about the insurrection.

“Ignoring [the insurrection] doesn’t help,” Bromfield Principal Scott Hoffman said in an interview with the Press. “You have to put it out there, and put it out in a way that keeps everyone feeling safe and supported.” Hoffman explained that while most of the conversations about the attack took place in social studies and English courses, all teachers could address Wednesday’s events as they saw fit. For some, this was a brief acknowledgement before moving on with class. For others, however, dedicating a whole period to talk felt necessary, particularly early on Thursday morning.

For social studies department, history in real time

Teachers in the social studies department did make an effort to bring up the Capitol attack in their classes, communicating with one another beforehand about how best to do so. Kathleen Doherty, the department head who also teaches several psychology and history classes, said that although a scheduled exam meant her AP students did not get the opportunity to share their thoughts on the riots, she held a discussion in the rest of her classes.

Because she teaches different courses and grade levels, Doherty noted that each discussion had to be tailored to the students. To start class, she had her students write a set of responses—such as what they knew and thought about the topic and any questions they had—so she could gauge their level of understanding. She then played a few news clips and opened the floor to conversation. “This is not a partisan issue … I hope that we create a really open atmosphere in the classroom where people can say what they think,” Doherty said.

Eighth-grade civics teacher Andrew Wright had a similar approach in his classes, asking his students to fill out a Google form with their questions at the start of class. He then addressed students’ concerns and centered the conversation on the Constitution. “In this event where people have tried to take the government by force, that can’t really be done so easily if we abide by the social contract,” Wright had said to his students. He told the Press that explaining the insurrection in this way helped his class process the issue and better understand the freedoms and limitations that are supposed to exist in the country.

As a civics teacher, Wright says his job is to “make students into good citizens who have faith in the government,” but that’s challenging when the government allows violence like this to occur. He acknowledged that the first election of which some of his students were fully cognizant was one in which “there were challenged results from some people, but also an insurgency against the Capitol building.” He added, “I guess I’m really sensitive about what that will do to their mindsets.” Wright hopes to make his students aware that the type of behavior exhibited at the Capitol was unprecedented and unlawful.

Matthew Lynde, who teaches current events, economics, and global studies, said he covered the Capitol riot in depth in each of his courses, and he plans to continue the conversation into this week. Lynde explained that he also started class with time for students to write down what they saw on the news before holding a class discussion. Since many seemed hesitant to share their thoughts at first, Lynde began with a presentation of news pieces that he had gathered to help the class process the events. “My biggest question for the students was making sure that they had some kind of understanding of what happened, and it wasn’t just being filtered through some disparate social media comments,” he said.

Although there are differences in political opinion among Bromfield students, Doherty said there was unanimous concern about the violence and the implications of the Capitol riots. Most notably, she said, “Many students talked about what they viewed as a very stark contrast between how the Black Lives Matter protests were handled in Washington versus how this one was handled.”

Shocked, but not surprised

“A lot of people were shocked,” Lynde said about his students, “but they made the point that they weren’t that surprised. … Whether or not they expected that to happen, they didn’t necessarily think the idea of political violence was out of the question.” Lynde added that in this week’s classes, he dove into discussing the roots of violent protests and what the consequences of this one might be.

Senior Brooke Caroom said that students in AP European history were asked to document the events from a “historian’s perspective.” Overall, she believes that teachers demonstrated “a good response in trying to incorporate the discussion” into their classes.

Sophomore Amita Khurana agreed that talking about the riots in her global studies and English classes helped her process what happened. “By having a discussion and using factual language, [we were] able to clear up some of the misunderstandings that people had,” Khurana said. “And seeing our teachers in a more vulnerable light—seeing that everyone is having a hard time with this—was comforting.”

However, others, including eighth-grader Robyn Douglas, wish the insurrection had been addressed in other classes. “It would have been nice if teachers just said at the beginning of class, ‘The events that happened were really scary’ and talked about it a little more just to [let us] know that [the classroom was] a safe place to [discuss] these things,” said Douglas.

Similar sentiments were expressed by members of Bromfield’s Students for Justice Club, which was formed this past fall as a space for students to share open discussion about social justice issues. The group plans to address the insurrection at its meeting this Friday, but its leaders, Hannah Chiou and Timur Sahin, worry that the events aren’t getting enough attention in the classroom.

After overhearing a teacher recommend that a student attend the Students for Justice meeting to talk about the issue, Sahin hoped the club wasn’t being used as a stand-in for the difficult job of facing the topic head-on in the classroom. “We should be encouraging kids to talk about it in school and in classes—like in every single class—rather than a single club, because I don’t think kids are going to take the time to go sign up for a club to talk about it on their own.”

As for what the attack means from a historical perspective, Chiou said there hasn’t been enough guidance from teachers: “I really don’t think we’re getting into those more profound discussions about what this means in America and what this means for democracy. I think each student has sort of been left to think about it themselves.”

Concern among HES students about the insurrection was noticeable as well, and while talking about the violent attack on the Capitol with elementary school children was “complex,” Principal Josh Myler and Assistant Principal Dori Pulizzi said doing so was still necessary. Addressing the issue in a way similar to Bromfield, Myler held staff meetings to discuss the faculty’s approach, and he sent an email to parents Wednesday evening with resources to help them speak to their children.

In elementary school, each grade level is at a very different developmental stage, so adjusting the conversations around the insurrection depending on age level is difficult. Myler said elementary students are “incredibly honest and observant,” and while they may easily raise questions and issues they have, they don’t have all the tools and knowledge to fully understand.

Myler said that for the older students in fourth and fifth grades, teachers are having discussions about what the students know and feel about the issue, but are also teaching about democracy and the constitutional amendments because their classes are starting to learn about U.S. history. For the younger grades, however, teachers are focusing more on explaining what expected versus unexpected behavior looks like and how this impacts our society.

An emphasis on diversity

HES has been working on diversifying its curriculum to be more inclusive and historically accurate, Myler said, so the school is now opening up conversation about the violence at the Capitol within the context of what the students are learning. Pulizzi said one of the ways the school is doing this is through a pilot diversity program where teachers and their classes read books that celebrate diversity.

“Students of color don’t have the privilege of ignoring some of the racism that exists in our country … and we understand that some parents don’t want their children exposed to some of the ugly things in the world,” Pulizzi said. “It’s walking that fine line of protecting your child, but also recognizing your privilege and understanding that it’s a responsibility to tell the truth so that the world can be better.”

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