'Hear a child's perspective': How America's teachers talked with kids about Capitol riot

Gabrielle Vann was “kind of scared, terrified at the same time.”

Hannah Roe was “blown away.”

Eva Guerrero felt “more confusion than anything.”

Kayla Disher stayed up until 2 a.m., watching updates come through on Tik Tok.

The seniors at Beech Grove High School outside Indianapolis watched Wednesday's riot at the U.S. Capitol unfold on social media sites such as Twitter. As supporters of President Donald Trump stormed the building, the teens found themselves disappointed

Disappointed in the rioters. Disappointed in the country’s political leaders. Disappointed in the law enforcement response and the double standard they saw in it. Disappointed in the media portrayal.

“There are a lot of double standards,” Guerrero said. “If that had been a different protesting group, would there have been a completely different reaction? Would there have been more force?”

Lee Shively, a teacher at Beech Grove High School, leads students in his AP U.S. government and politics class in a discussion about the riots that took place Wednesday in Washington. The class met virtually on Thursday due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Like teachers all over the country, Beech Grove government and politics teacher Lee Shively hosted the videoconference discussion Thursday to help students process the difficult news. It's important, he said, to give them a venue to talk about what's happening in the world around them.

“These kids care and they have an opinion,” he said, "and they want to talk about it."

In Nashville, students had just resumed classes virtually Thursday — many still reeling from the Christmas Day bombing that rocked the city, as well as the other traumas related to the pandemic, school closures and racial unrest last year. 

It's important to acknowledge these events, as difficult as they may be, said Ashley Croft-Callery, principal of Nashville's Inglewood Elementary School. 

"We know that the impacts of traumas like these can be long-lasting and that strong relationships with a caring adult are the key to buffering the impacts of trauma and lowering anxiety for children," Croft-Callery said. "Acknowledging difficult events doesn’t re-traumatize students. Rather, it empowers them with a safe space to process their reactions and have their voices heard."

Witnessing 'history'

Erica Kelley, a world history teacher at Orchard Knob Middle School in Chattanooga, began class Thursday asking her seventh graders, "How old does something have to be to be considered history?"

From there, the students talked about what they had heard about the mob at the nation's Capitol, watched a short news clip and asked questions about the images they found online of officers deploying tear gas or lawmakers returning to the Senate chambers after the violence was quelled.

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"The conversation was definitely student-led. I think that’s really important when we are having any discussion about current events, that they do the talking, not me," Kelley said. "I tried really hard to make sure the way I presented any part of the lesson was that we really focused on facts."

About half of Kelley's students had heard about the mob violence, and some even drew parallels between the riot at the Capitol and demonstrations they'd seen take place across the country — and in their own city — after the death of George Floyd in 2020. 

Kelley wanted her students to understand the seriousness of what they and the country had witnessed. These are those types of moments in history where somebody is going to ask where were you when you got the news, she told them — like the 9/11 terrorist attacks, the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster or President John F. Kennedy's assassination has been for past generations. 

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of  the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday in Washington. (AP Photo/Jose Luis Magana)

Heart before head

Allowing students to lead the conversation and reflect on what they are feeling is one of the strategies for discussing difficult events that the education nonprofit Facing History and Ourselves suggests for civil discourse in the classroom. 

"In the midst of troubling and fast-moving events, it can be beneficial to focus first on emotional processing, addressing the 'heart' before the 'head,'" a guide published by the organization Wednesday suggests. "In your first conversation with your students about the events of January 6, 2021, provide them space to reflect on their emotional responses to the event and surface questions they are sitting with."

Many teachers themselves might still be shaken and grappling to make sense of the scenes at the Capitol as well.

"My fellow social studies educators – I know you are mourning, I know you are speechless, and I know you don't yet know how to help your students through this moment. That's OK. It's enough to just be human alongside them," said Emma Humphries, the chief education officer of iCivics, an organization that provides free, digital resources to teachers. 

"I too urge listening to students first. We need to do more of that every day. That and teaching full and honest accounting of our nation's history and political systems," Humphries said in a tweet.

No bias, but vulnerability OK

Kelley said she makes sure to be transparent and genuine with her students about her own emotions. Though teachers should be careful not to impart their own biases or political leanings on students, experts say, it's okay to be vulnerable.

"Students need to understand that being vulnerable is human and it is normal, and that being scared and being concerned and being uncertain happens," Kelley said. "That's exactly the reason we have this type of conversation, so that we as a group can understand what's happening."

Teachers who are struggling with how to characterize Wednesday's unrest could talk about the definitions of words like protest and insurrection, letting students decide for themselves what to call it, said Principal David Johnson of Nyack Middle School in New York. 

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 New York's Greenburgh-North Castle school district. “A mob stormed the U.S. 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.”

Trump supporters try to break through a police barrier Wednesday at the Capitol in Washington.

Most of his students are people of color, which added another layer of emotions to the day’s discussion.

“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.”

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Adults can learn from children

Teachable moments around Wednesday's riot will continue, teachers said. In Tennessee, sixth grade social studies is focused on ancient civilizations. So along with a conversation Thursday, teacher Joel Covington at West End Middle School in Nashville plans to incorporate this week's events when the class covers the rise of democracy in Ancient Greece later this semester.  

"When we start about to talk about the rise of democracy and its struggle in Ancient Greece, I'll say: 'Let’s think back to things that even just happened in our recent history.' I'll ask them: 'What can we learn from Greece? What can we learn now?'" said Covington said. "Maybe: 'How do we prevent these things from happening again in the future?'

"It's important to hear a child's perspective. We think we have all the answers sometimes as adults, but we need to be hearing perspectives from kids."

When Kelley, the Chattanooga teacher, asked her 12- and 13-year-old students what people could learn from the events at the Capitol, their responses were "mindblowing, and really inspirational," she said. 

"They said that we should learn how to get along with each other, that we should look at ways that we are alike instead of how we're not. We talked about the reactions of many of the politicians who condemned the violence. They were very hopeful," Kelley said. "For me, it just restored my faith in humanity. This is the future of our country. These students are so inspirational. I did not teach them today. I learned from them today.

"We are in good hands."