Staff planned for impact of Capitol Riots on learning environment

The Mustang Staff

2021 storming of the United States Capitol DSC09048 (50827411286)

Photo by Tyler Merbler from USA, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

On Jan. 6, rioters in support of then-President Donald Trump stormed the U.S. Capitol while Congress was in the process of certifying the electoral college votes for President-elect Joe Biden. The day after, the MHS staff met to prepare for how the historical event might impact the learning environment in the days that followed.

An unprecedented attack on the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C struck much of the nation by surprise on Jan. 6. Congress was in the middle of certifying President-elect Joe Biden’s presidency when rioters stormed two separate entrances on the east and west side of the building. 

Some have attributed the rioters’ incentives to words from rallies where then current president Donald Trump encouraged his supporters to challenge the Electoral Vote count. 

According to a BBC article “Capitol riots: A visual guide to the storming of Congress,” at a “Save America” rally held at the Ellipse near the White House earlier in the day of the rioting, then president Trump said, “We’re going to walk down Pennsylvania Avenue… and we’re going to the Capitol and we’re going to try and give… our Republicans, the weak ones… the kind of pride and boldness that they need to take back our country.”

U.S. Representative Brad Schneider (IL-10) was observing the election certification process from the House Gallery – the elevated viewing platform that runs around the House Floor – when the insurrectionists broke into the Capitol. 

Schneider’s Communications Director Matt Fried said in an email that that was “where he was initially asked to take cover, and it’s where he heard a gunshot that he later learned killed a woman. These were moments of confusion and terror for many, as we watched previously unimaginable violence.”

Fried added in that email that he hopes schools will remember and weigh the significance of the hours where many Americans did not know what would happen next. He mentioned that schools will remember this as the first time in the nation’s history that we have failed to peacefully transfer power from one administration to the next. 

“I hope that schools will be blunt when they explain the call-to-action from the President of the United States for his supporters to gather in D.C. that day and ‘fight like hell and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore,’” Fried stated in the email.

Social Studies Teacher Michele Bonadies first heard about the insurrection during one of her AP Government classes, and she was shocked by the event: “My first reaction was fear, like this is just insane.”

“We had an emergency faculty meeting before school began the day after, on Jan. 7, and our school said, ‘This was an insurrection; it was a rebellion; you can talk about it.’ You don’t have to be neutral because there’s not another side,” Bonadies said.

When met with such politically charged topics, some schools can have a tendency to shy away or even discourage discussion about these topics. MHS, however, gave students a forum to ask questions, discuss their emotions and ultimately turn such events into a learning opportunity.

“I was glad that the school gave us that freedom to acknowledge [the event] because I had heard from administrators here, not from any teachers from other schools, that other schools were like, ’No, you are not to address this’,” Bonadies said. 

At that Jan. 7 staff meeting, the Assistant Superintendent of Teaching and Learning Stacey Gorman discussed how to prepare for the potential impact of events in the classroom setting. 

We shared a document with a variety of resources for teachers to use with their students,” Gorman said. “We included ways to facilitate conversations with students, including discussion questions. We provided videos that provided an overview of the events leading up to the insurrection at the Capitol. We had pictures of the attacks at the Capitol and analysis questions for teachers to ask students.” 

The insurrection was unprecedented and unexpected, so for many staff members, it presented a particularly difficult situation for which to prepare.

“The attacks on the Capitol were pretty challenging,” Gorman said. “While we can give teachers a plethora of resources to use with students, there is a lot of emotion around these events that can make it difficult to lead these discussions.”

English Teacher Carsyn Rodriguez said she saw a need to talk to her students about the events at the Capitol to her class.

It was a major event in our country’s history that left people feeling a number of emotions,” she said.

Rodriguez added ignoring events like the riot at the Capitol “doesn’t keep students from finding out about them.” 

“It just might prevent them from having the opportunity to fully understand and process them,” Rodriguez said.

In one math class, the day after the riot, the teacher showed a slideshow full of pictures taken during the riot. The math teacher allowed the students a choice on whether or not to talk about the riot and the pictures that were displayed.

Another math teacher, Julie Ellingsen, recalled how she was teaching a class when the riots started; she informed the students of what was happening and let them go watch the news if they wanted. She then gave students time to reflect the following day in class. 

“I felt like it was really important to give kids a place to talk after all that has gone on recently,” Ellingsen said. 

Whether it was about the riots, the pandemic, or anything else, Ellingsen gave her students a choice to either privately message her in the Zoom chat or do a reflection activity on their own.

“It is important to consider that other people’s experiences might create different perspectives,” Ellingsen said. 

In an attempt to prepare for the conversations, Ellingsen spent the night of the riots and the morning before her first class doing lots of reading and watching the news.

“I don’t know if anyone could have been prepared to have these conversations,” Ellingsen said, “but I tried my best.” 

Social Studies Teacher Andrew Hirshman said he did not feel worried about how the students would behave during discussions on the riots. 

I actually was quite confident in our students’ capacity to share their perspectives but remain respectful and listen to one another,” he said. “I have not been disappointed.”

But he also added history classes cannot be taught without addressing the current political landscape. 

“It would be like teaching math without numbers,” he said. “I cannot speak for other teachers, but I do feel in general, our society needs to practice listening and learning from others, even when it challenges our own perspectives and beliefs.”

Hirshman compared preparing for this event to the day after 9/11.

“I was nervous. That is natural. I have taught the day after other difficult events, including 9/11.  However, these events have to be addressed. It would be inhumane to not allow space for students to reflect and discuss things like 9/11 or the Capitol insurrection the day after it happens,” he said.

Therefore, many teachers tried to use the event as a learning opportunity for how students can stay accurately informed and respectively interact in discussions about current events.

“Be open-minded, be active, be engaged, be willing to compromise,” Bonadies said. “I think people think– because that’s what we see– that politics is fighting. Politics is the people who have the power part, but it’s our government, it’s our republic, and we all have a vested interest in having our representatives–even if they’re not going to represent each of us exactly the way we want; that’s impossible– doing their best.”

Bonadies also addressed a realization that potentially could come from witnessing the Capitol riots.

“I hope it has a positive impact, not that there’s anything positive about seeing a rebellion,” she said, “but I hope it’s a reminder, a touchstone maybe, how fragile our republic can be.”