Some teachers opted to discuss the Capitol riot with students. Here’s how they approached it.

Erin Donnelly
·10-min read
Teachers have been using the Capitol riots to address inequality, history and basic kindness. (Photo: Getty Images stock photo)
Some teachers have been using the Capitol riots to address inequality, history and basic kindness. (Photo: Getty Images stock photo)

Sanibel Schneider facilitates a learning pod for a handful of first-graders in New York City, and was on her laptop as her students quietly did their own online coursework when “things started to pop up” on her newsfeed Wednesday. That’s how she learned that a mob of Trump supporters, one of whom was fatally shot by police, had stormed the U.S. Capitol — news she opted to keep from the 6-year-olds in her care.

“I felt that it wasn’t my place to share everything that was happening with them,” Schneider tells Yahoo Life, adding that she did, however, feel compelled to “prepare them for, honestly, the sadness that was going to come when they discovered all this” once they got home.

“I just had a big circle sit down with them on what it means to be a good citizen, and what it means to be nice, and what it means to love and be supportive,” Schneider says.

As expected, the kids arrived to class on Thursday bursting with questions about the insurrection like: “How can we stop this?” “Why would someone say that?” and “Why are people like that?”

Schneider says the hardest part of being an educator is not having the answers. “You can only explain what you know. I can’t put into words why someone would act that way, and they know that and they don’t get it either,” she says.

Some educators have reportedly avoided bringing up the insurrection in class, particularly for elementary-aged students, or expressed discomfort about bringing it up; one second-grade teacher told Yahoo Life he’d been “on the fence” about covering the topic, and an Atlanta administrator at a school currently still on winter break said that there are currently no widespread plans to address it when classes resume. But plenty of others embraced the opportunity — including fifth-grade history teacher Natasha White, who knew, while watching news footage of rioters on Wednesday, that she’d have to scrap the lesson plan she’d slated for the next day.

White decided to zero in on the language being used to describe the event, as well as how officers responded. The educator, who teaches at KIPP Lanning Square Middle, a public charter school in Camden, N.J., started pulling news images for a presentation that she titled “Exploring what’s happening in our country right now” in order to pose the question as to whether they illustrated a “protest” or “domestic terrorism.” The presentation also contrasted Wednesday’s much-criticized police response to the force used against Black Lives Matter protesters during the summer, and included MSNBC host Joy Reid’s comment that “White Americans aren’t afraid of the cops. White Americans are never afraid of the cops, even when they’re committing insurrection.” Students were also invited to share their reactions in a Google form.

A slide from Natasha White's lesson addressing Wednesday's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Courtesy of Natasha White)
A slide from Natasha White's lesson addressing Wednesday's insurrection at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo: Courtesy of Natasha White)

Speaking to Yahoo Life after her remote class on Thursday, White shared how her students responded as she challenged them to “use these definitions to figure out what actually is happening.” Along with basic questions about the significance of the Capitol and the election confirmation process, her fifth-graders — many of whom are Black or Latino — wondered why police didn’t resist more.

“Kids made a lot of observations about Black Lives Matter protesters and how if people had been Black they definitely would have been treated differently,” White says. “They would not have been allowed to just run rampant throughout government buildings, with nothing happening to them.”

While there was some disagreement, White says the conversation was civil, noting, “we have a lot of discussions with varying viewpoints, so kids know how to disagree respectfully, and it’s always really grounded in etiquette.” She adds that she hasn’t received any pushback from parents who are accustomed to current events and serious issues being discussed in class on an “entry-level.”

Many school districts have encouraged teachers to reach out to their students about Wednesday’s events. New York City Department of Education chancellor Richard Carranza urged educators to “be anchors for your school communities” and supplied resources to “support mental health and wellness during this trying time.”

In Connecticut, Wolcott Public Schools superintendent Tony Gasper issued a statement reminding teachers to stay “politically non-partisan” as they broached the topic with students.

“Conversations may become emotional and our job is to allow this to happen in a way that focuses on common respect and human decency,” his message to staff reads. “However, political non-partisanship does not mean that we must accept the means by which some people choose to express their disagreements. So, I encourage you to lead your students’ conversations toward the many peaceful and productive ways in which the good people of our nation have brought about positive and peaceful change in the past.”

And in California, superintendents representing various school districts within Santa Cruz County issued a joint statement pledging to “establish a safe space for discussion and learning about these still-evolving events.” They also stressed the importance of providing emotional support.

“We are encouraging students expressing fear or distress about what they witnessed to reach out to their teacher, principal or counselor for support,” the statement reads.

Some teachers have shared their own resources for addressing these weighted topics. Marilyn Ramirez, who teaches ninth-grade English in an integrated co-teaching class (comprised of generalist and special education students) at a New York City public high school, tweeted out the chart she used to foster a dialogue among her students when class resumed on Thursday. Ramirez tells Yahoo Life that she herself found the chart format online after struggling to figure out how to address the insurrection with her classes.

“I couldn’t really sleep [on Wednesday] because I was thinking, ‘What should I do?’” she says. “Then I just started going online to different chats ... and then I got overwhelmed with resources.”

Ultimately, she settled on the chart because it gave space for students to share their thoughts and concerns about what had unfolded in Washington, D.C. “I wanted to really see where the students were at,” Ramirez says.

Like White, Ramirez has a large number of Black and Latino students. She says that they “brought in different perspectives,” but “pretty much everybody was on the same page” with regard to the racial inequality they saw.

“A teacher never wants to bring in their own opinions,” she says, “so I was really blown away because they were like, ‘they didn’t treat the Black Lives Matter protesters the same in the summer.’”

But an A.P. history teacher in Texas, who asked not to be identified by name, tells Yahoo Life that some of her high schoolers were more prone to debate when she walked them through a timeline of Wednesday’s events in class the next day, including President Donald Trump’s rally and the certification of election results.

“Most of the questions from my kids concerned wrong information that they read on Reddit,” she shares. “Some thought it was antifa staging the riots; one kid said that he read the rioters were trying to protect the people [of Congress more than they were trying to attack the building. I pointed out that Nancy Pelosi probably didn't feel protected as the guy sat in her chair and wrote a note saying they'd be back.”

WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Members of the National Guard and the Washington D.C. police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capital after thousands of Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
WASHINGTON, DC - JANUARY 06: Members of the National Guard and the Washington D.C. police keep a small group of demonstrators away from the Capital after thousands of Donald Trump supporters stormed the United States Capitol building following a "Stop the Steal" rally on January 06, 2021 in Washington, DC. The protesters stormed the historic building, breaking windows and clashing with police. Trump supporters had gathered in the nation's capital today to protest the ratification of President-elect Joe Biden's Electoral College victory over President Trump in the 2020 election. (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

The teacher, who also discussed the 25th Amendment with her students as Trump faces calls to be removed from office, adds that she “absolutely feels the need to give accurate information” in classes, given the wave of disinformation found online.

“Mainly, I just wanted to make sure they had correct information about what happened,” she says of her goal for approaching the insurrection in Thursday’s class. “I feel it's vital to present the facts. I also feel it's vital to distinguish the rioters from other Republicans in government who are standing up to President Trump and refusing to accept his methods for their Republican party. We talked a lot about what this means for the future of the Republican party and how it will look going forward.”

Meanwhile, one second-grade teacher in New York City, who also asked to remain anonymous, decided to use the D.C. events as a lesson not in politics, but in tantrums.

“Rather than getting into the nitty-gritty politics — because these are kids who are 7 years old and I think that conversations like that aren’t the most appropriate, but obviously it’s important to talk about what they can take away from these things — ... we focused the discussion more on appropriate reactions when things don’t go your way,” she tells Yahoo Life.

“We acknowledged that there was a group of people who were unhappy about the way the election turned out and they reacted in a way that was not an appropriate way, and it wasn’t safe. And we talked about things like violence isn’t the answer. “

She presented a scenario to which her young students could relate: dress-up costumes.

“‘If so-and-so wanted it to be Pajama Day, and you wanted it to be Fancy Day, if it ended up being Pajama Day how would you respond?’” she asked the students. “‘Would you go around the classroom kicking and screaming, or ruining and destroying objects around you?’ Just putting into perspective. And they were all looking at me like, ‘Of course not.’ They do understand.

“Our main thing was, it’s OK to stand up for what’s right and you should stand up for what you believe, but it’s not OK when you’re going about it in such violent and harmful ways,” she adds.

These are hard conversations to have, but White and her fellow teachers say it’s crucial to have them. When it comes to issues involving inequality, teachers need to be held accountable for what they say — “and more importantly, what we’re not saying,” she says.

“These minds are not just for math equations — we have to teach them how to be critical thinkers of their society because they’re going to be the ones in a very short period of time who are going to be making decisions about what happens in our country,” White says. “And if we don’t take the time to inform them, and if we pretend that what’s happening on the news doesn’t affect them, then we’re doing them a disservice, and we’re also doing ourselves a disservice for not preparing our next generation.”

Ramirez agrees.

“When people say, ‘Oh wait until students get into the real world’ — but they’re already in the real world. They’re already experiencing so much.”

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