'You can't brush over it': Teachers tackle tough conversations about U.S. Capitol breach
“One of the first things a couple kids said to me was, ‘If that was Black people, we would have been shot. Kids aren't stupid." Anthony Nicodemo, teacher in the Greenburgh-North Castle school district
On a normal evening, Roosevelt High School history teacher Daniel Colli turns in early. But on Jan. 6, he was up half the night, deciding what to say to his students in the morning.
“Here I am watching history unfold, and I'm thinking to myself...I don't know how to present this to 10th graders,” Colli said. “How do I teach this? You can't brush over it. I couldn't move on with the lesson I was building from the day before.”
When his first class began on Thursday morning – a Zoom class, since Yonkers is still on a weeklong holiday pause – Colli polled his students: do you know what happened last night? All of them said yes. Then he asked them all to name one fact about what happened.
“[The students] were saying that protesting turned violent, and they broke into the Capitol,” he said. “They knew that one woman died.”
Colli said his students were confused. They were surprised to see Rudy Giuliani calling for “trial by combat” and President Donald Trump telling protestors breaking windows “I love you.” A few students asked him “Are we at war?”
Teachers around the country found themselves in Colli’s position Wednesday night. They consumed the news in shock and horror, then logged onto classrooms the next morning to find students who were angry, confused and scared, looking to their teachers to help them make sense of it.
Major events sometimes grind all other teaching to a halt. In Yonkers, Roosevelt High School Principal Edward DeChent sent a message to all his teachers instructing them to take a few minutes to discuss the previous day’s events, whether they taught government or geometry.
“Students are confused, anxious, scared, upset,” DeChent said. “Their favorite teacher may be their English teacher. They want to hear what the English teacher has to say about what happened.”
Educators take different views on what they should say about what happened, walking a familiar line between frank discussion of politics and becoming political.
“Staff are authority figures, and they should not impose their viewpoint, because they have a lot of influence in that classroom,” said Nyack Middle School Principal David Johnson. “Our role is to present the information and allow students to formulate their own opinions.”
Johnson reminded his teachers on Thursday morning of the district’s controversial topics policy, and said he would encourage any teacher struggling with how to characterize Wednesday’s events to talk about the definitions of words like protest and insurrection, letting students decide for themselves what to call it.
Others took a more frank view.
“I think that it's important to share the truth of what's happening,” said Anthony Nicodemo, who teaches government in the Greenburgh-North Castle school district. “A mob stormed the US Capitol to try to stop the execution of the US Constitution. That's a fact ... We owe it to our kids to tell them why it happened.”
Nicodemo scrapped his lesson plans for the day to discuss what he called “a coup attempt.” He teaches a class of mostly minority students, which added another layer of emotions to the day’s discussion.
Compared to BLM protests
“One of the first things a couple kids said to me was, ‘If that was Black people, we would have been shot,” Nicodemo said. “Kids aren't stupid. They're the ones going to the store being followed around by people, being treated differently because of their color.”
Teachers at Roosevelt, also a majority minority school, told DeChent they were hearing similar sentiments from their students: if this had been a Black Lives Matter event, they never would have reached the Capitol and more people would have been hurt.
“That’s how our kids feel,” DeChent said. “That's why I asked [teachers], even if you aren’t a social studies teacher, to have that five minute discussion with them, to sort out who's not doing well with it.”
Moments like these are why it’s important for teachers to build relationships with students, DeChent said. Not every child has other safe spaces to work out what they’re feeling about things they see on the news, but they all do have feelings about it, whether adults recognize that or not.
“We sell our students short,” said Johnson. “They are citizens like us. They care about this democracy. They're not just neutral bystanders. They care about what's happening around them, and they have opinions that run the gamut.”
The news cycle has been relentless over the last several years, and many teachers are somewhat used to addressing students the morning after a tough day. But this tough day fell smack in the middle of a tough year, and many teachers had to help students sort through their feelings through a screen.
“I'm talking to a laptop,” said Colli. “With high school kids, the cameras are off. Especially in first period, I'm talking to initials in black boxes. So I'm trying to figure out, with a sensitive topic, how do you read a room, when you're not even in the room?”
But despite the high-running emotions, technological barriers and political tightropes, educators pressed ahead, because these moments aren’t just challenges. They are an opportunities to bring to life what students have been learning in books, said Dawn Bartz, executive director of social studies for Yonkers school district.
“There's so many different connections you can make,” Bartz said. “Teachers are looking really closely at the First or the Twenty-Fifth amendments. They're looking at the role of the media, the role of technology….one teacher is talking about what's the difference between peaceable assembly and what's being called an insurrection. She’s doing a word study.”
If teachers do the work to help students process these events, Bartz said, they become touchpoints that can be referred back to. A lesson about transfer of power with a middle school class is no longer a dry discussion of historical tradition. It’s been brought to life.
“To be able to take something that is so far removed from them: the Constitutional Convention, and to make it real ... that’s what I love about social studies,” Bartz said. “History becomes really relevant for the students, as it should be.”