Educators use U.S. Capitol riot, political upheaval as teachable moment
A year of protests surrounding racial injustice, a worsening pandemic, political upheaval and a contentious election leading to a tumultuous transfer of power.
It has all the makings of a real-life civics lesson. And educators across the suburbs are taking advantage of these teachable moments in history.
"It's been a rich content time," said Paul Friedrich, who teaches social studies, AP U.S. history and current issues at Vernon Hills High School.
The Jan. 6 insurrection at the U.S. Capitol not only gripped the entire nation and world, it triggered teachers like Friedrich into action as they scrambled to build lesson plans around the momentous happenings of the day.
"It's only the second insurrection against our government in American history," Friedrich said. "Students really had a recognition that they were looking at something that really was history in the making. That's why it's important to help them process this because I think it is worrisome to all of us."
Leaders at Algonquin-based Community Unit District 300 curated developmentally appropriate resources on the subject to support teachers across all grades "because students of all ages are going to have questions about it," said Lindsay Jonas, assistant superintendent for curriculum and instruction.
"We know that those conversations look a little bit different at each of those grade levels," Jonas said. "There were lots of different resources that talked specifically about how to guide those conversations ... How do you engage in a conversation with kids around sensitive topics, such as politics or civil unrest?
"You're living through history right now," Jonas said. "People will look back on our time here and where were you and what were you doing and ... what were the conversations like after and how did we pick up as a nation and as a community."
Tom Smith, who teaches U.S. history at John Hersey High School in Arlington Heights, usually covers in class the nation's founding democratic principles, rule of law, separation of powers, free and fair elections and civil liberties -- all of which have been tested in the past year.
Smith said the Capitol attack further illustrates "how those principles are challenged and how they can endure." During times of civil and political unrest, educators play a critical role in providing students "context and perspective, and reassurance when necessary," he added.
"That's our duty as citizens, to understand why those are nonnegotiable ... those core democratic principles are what should be unifying all of us," Smith said.
"We can provide a forum for students to express their concerns or questions, and attempt to operate from a common level of understanding ... (help students) have perspective to navigate during uncertain times."
In many U.S. history classrooms, students just finished learning about the Civil War and Reconstruction -- an apt metaphor for current events and the deep divisions that persist in America today.
"It's ironic in many ways," said Friedrich, adding that a student remarked after watching a news clip of the riot, "It took about 160 years, but they finally got the Confederate flag into the Capitol building."
It sparked a deeper conversation about the differences between protest and sedition and definitions of sedition, domestic terrorism and insurrection, he said.
Friedrich said it also was important for students to appreciate what Congress did after the insurrection -- voted to certify Biden's election victory.
"It's an incredibly powerful statement of the stability of our democracy," he said. "In spite of that, on the same day they came back and they finished the job."
Teachers also drew comparisons between the inaugural addresses of former presidents Abraham Lincoln and Thomas Jefferson and that of President Joe Biden making calls to unity after a divisive period.
This past year's events also emphasized the value of civil discourse and allowing for opposing viewpoints.
"We always wanted to start with creating a safe space so students can ask questions and talk freely," said Anna Veksler, who teaches U.S. history honors and current events at Round Lake High School. "I also challenged the students to put their bias aside, which can be difficult for even adults to do. I'm modeling for them what that conversation is going to look like."
In the aftermath of Jan. 6, Veksler urged her students to think critically about what transpired and read news articles from multiple perspectives and credible sources.
"We encourage them to use their inquiry skills to draw their own conclusion," Veksler said. "There was definitely some emotion in the classroom. There was confusion. This was maybe the second election in their lifetime that they can remember."
Veksler reassured students what they were witnessing wasn't normal and encouraged them to talk to counselors and social workers.
"This isn't something they should fear moving forward," she said. "We take a historic lens and all elections have some sort of unknown, have some sort of differences. Fortunately, after an election in our country we still go to work. We go to school. We need to carry on with the transition of power."