It’s not easy.
When she reached out to social studies teachers across the country after the attack on the Capitol, the common sentiment they were experiencing was “shock and grieving,” said Emma Humphries, the chief education officer for iCivics, a nonpartisan nonprofit organization founded in 2009 by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor to create content and games to promote civic education in schools.
“It felt like a day of mourning for social studies teachers,” she said. “It might have felt like that for all of America, but they were thinking about what they have to say to their students.”
For their entire careers, those teachers have explained to students how the U.S. government was formed and how it works. They have taught about federalism and the separation of powers and the right to vote. And they have taught about perhaps America’s greatest political achievement: the peaceful transition of power when one president’s term ends and a newly elected president’s term begins.
This year, the transfer of power already has not been peaceful. A U.S. Capitol Police officer and four rioters died after a mob overran and defaced the Capitol on Jan. 6 in an effort to stop the certification of Joe Biden’s victory. Scores of police officers were injured as they attempted to defend the People’s House.
Teaching about U.S. government and the political process in the current environment is “tremendously difficult,” Humphries said. “There’s so much tension in the air, and people are looking to you in a balanced, unemotional way to cut through it all. That’s a lot to ask of anyone.”
Amy Raper, who teaches seventh- and eighth-grade history and civics in the Peoria Unified School District in Arizona, said she wanted to see how much her students had processed of the day’s events before leading any lessons. She gave them paper and asked them to write about what they thought or to ask questions.
“I was kind of tiptoeing into the situation,” Raper said. “I feel like we’re in a climate where you don’t want to say things to offend people since we’ve not seen anything like this in our lifetime. Giving kids paper to talk about this was a safe start.”
Some of her students wondered why the attackers were so angry. For many, the biggest question was why so few were arrested and why they were treated differently from those at demonstrations protesting racial injustice last summer.
“Can I answer that question?” Raper said she responded to her students. “I don’t have an answer for that.”
Raper, who has been teaching for 17 years, said she will watch the presidential inauguration with her students this week and explain to them how the process will play out.
“It doesn’t matter where I stand politically. I’m always going to show the inauguration because it shows you government in action,” she said. “It’s so important to see it, and I’m hopeful.”
Alysha Butler-Arnold, who teaches U.S. history and African American history at McKinley Technology High School in the District, said her students were prepared to process what was happening. She said she had taught them about events such as the 1873 Colfax massacre of scores of Black men in Louisiana, which led to a Supreme Court ruling later that made it difficult, if not impossible, for the federal government to prosecute hate crimes committed against Black Americans.
“My students weren’t caught off-guard,” she said.
She also teaches them about how vital the peaceful transfer of power is to the survival of American democracy and uses history to explain Biden’s inauguration in this critical moment in U.S. history.
“We have made some comparison to the peaceful transfer of power [after the 1800 election], when [Thomas] Jefferson became the new president [succeeding John Adams], and how that was a test of our democracy,” she said. “This inauguration, too, is a test of our democracy.”
Marian Dingle, an elementary school educator in Georgia, said, “I don’t know anyone who found it easy to discuss the insurrection in class, for a variety of reasons.”
She said they were “glued to media trying to make sense of it ourselves as information was released. Many faced discouragement from school officials in doing so. Others wanted to but felt unsure. And still others acknowledged that it was okay for educators to take a breath and begin a day or two later.”
Eleanor Roosevelt High School in Eastvale, Calif., was still on winter break when the Capitol was attacked, but a number of students contacted 11th-grade U.S. history teacher Amanda Sandoval to discuss it.
The next day, Sandoval created a lesson plan to share with students that captured the day’s events and asked them to address a number of questions.
“As students are witnessing and living through this historical moment, my goal is to give them the skills and background knowledge necessary to process what they see online and on TV,” Sandoval said. “I have dedicated this unit to media literacy and connecting it to our U.S. history standards.”
With so many sources of information available, particularly on social media, Sandoval said one lesson she wanted to drive home was that students need to use sources that are verified.
“I have had a few students who claim false information as facts. When I see this happening, I ask if they can send me a credible source or evidence of what they are saying, or I share a credible source with them,” she said. “For example, a student claimed the shirtless horned rioter was associated with [Black Lives Matter] and antifa. I was able to show multiple articles that proved that this was incorrect.”
While many teachers are spending days teaching about the attempted insurrection at the Capitol and the upcoming inauguration of Biden and Kamala D. Harris as president and vice president, respectively, there are other teachers who are staying focused on the regular curriculum and class lessons.
Some say their students are too young to understand, while others say the subject is too fraught with emotion and political controversy to deal with at any length — or at all. Some teachers said they would address the issue only if students asked, and then respond with facts about what happened and go no further.
Several teachers in school districts located in areas represented by House legislators who voted against certifying Biden’s victory said they could not speak on the record because of the controversy it could stir in their communities and because doing so could affect their jobs.
One teacher at a school in the Florida congressional district represented by Rep. Matt Gaetz (R) said, “I’m first year and don’t want to test my luck.”
Gaetz has been vocal about alleging fraud in the 2020 election despite no evidence and said, incorrectly, that there was proof that the attempted Capitol insurrection was led by left-wing agitators rather than supporters of President Trump.
Even in an area of Raleigh, N.C., which is represented in the U.S. House by a Democrat, one teacher asked not to be identified so as not to draw criticism for having a discussion with students about the attack.
“While I don’t think anything I’d say would reflect poorly on our district or my school, I know things are tense and I wouldn’t want to agitate it further,” said the teacher, who teaches American history at a high school.
She did devote class time to the breach of the Capitol, beginning with a video summary of the events, and then started a conversation. The school principal had suggested that teachers give students the option not to engage with the discussion, but no student did in this class. The class defined terms to identify exactly what had happened at the Capitol and settled on “insurrection.”
Anton Schulzki is the president-elect of the National Council for the Social Studies and a teacher in Colorado who said he plans to keep “a minimal focus on any impeachment talk.” The main reason, he said, is that some of his students are preparing to take International Baccalaureate exams in May and they have to stay on track to learn the curriculum to do well on the test. He is just starting a new unit focusing on the Mexican Revolution and does not want to deviate too much from the curriculum.
Nicholas Ferroni, who teaches history and cultural studies at Union High School in Union, N.J., said he allowed his students to share their thoughts about the insurrection, but he also raised two relevant historic events: the burning of Washington in 1814 and the Wilmington insurrection of 1898 in North Carolina.
“Being a history and cultural studies teacher, any time anything happens, I always compare it to a similar prior event,” he said. “Not only for context, but to reinforce to my students that history repeats itself.”
Many teachers link pieces of history to current events to draw connections over history and because it is a safer way to address an issue without discussing the present manifestation of it.
Joe Harmon teaches eighth-grade social studies at Redbank Valley Junior and Senior High School, in New Bethlehem, Pa., in a region that voted overwhelmingly for Trump.
He said he worries that because this is the first election most of the 13- and 14-year-old students have paid attention to, they’ll think everything that has happened this month is typical for U.S. politics.
“I guess that’s my fear, that to them, this is becoming normal,” Harmon said. “You know, you have an elected leader that’s behaving and acting like that, and they think that’s just the way it is. It’s a tough line, especially in my area. I don’t want to be Trump-bashing, but I do want to point out this isn’t the way it normally has gone.”
At noon Wednesday, Harmon will sit with his students in their classroom and watch the inauguration of Biden as the nation’s 46th president. Harmon did the same thing for Trump’s inauguration four years ago, and he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“The inauguration is always a big deal, and even the kids who were ardent Trump fans, they’re excited to see it, they want to see it, and I’m proud of that,” Harmon said. “It’s history.”