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5 Ways to Discuss the Capitol Riot with Your Students

capitol riot
(Image credit: Pixabay)

Educators should not shy away from talking about the rioters who stormed the U.S. Capitol on Wednesday, January 6, says Dr. Sigal Ben-Porath

“It was a very disturbing and significant moment in American history, so most students will be needing a place to consider it outside their families, and they don't have peer groups right now for the most part because of the pandemic,” says Ben-Porath, an expert in civic education at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. Those students who have not heard about the event really need to hear about it and understand what's happened, she says.

But Ben-Porath knows talking about the storming of the nation’s capitol isn’t easy, especially given the polarization of the country and that students’ families may be listening to what teachers and students say during remote class sessions. 

To address the subject, consider these tips.

Focus On the Facts 

Teachers can discuss the facts of what occurred on Wednesday as well as discussing the roles of voters, electors, the courts, state legislative bodies, and Congress in an election, says Ben-Porath. 

“I think facts, and not your stance on the matter, on what happened yesterday and on the democratic process are the main learning goal for teachers today or this week,” Ben-Porath says.

Seek Out Good Sources 

Hand-in-hand with this facts-first approach, educators should use this moment to further highlight digital literacy lessons, Ben-Porath says. Students should look at diverse and reliable news sources ranging from local to national publications and apply critical thinking skills to unverified social media posts. 

She adds that with older students and politically open classrooms, teachers can move on to questions about student reactions to the events. But not every class will be able to take that next step. “For some teachers, it will suffice to just stay with what the facts are and where we can find them,” Ben-Porath says. “Even if we just stay there, we have done a lot to overcome some aspects of this polarizing moment.”

Consider Discussing the Event in any Class 

This discussion will come naturally to civics, social studies, and history classes but the topic shouldn’t be left to the humanities educators alone. “I don't think it's solely the responsibility of the social studies teacher,” says Ben-Porath. “I really think that a math educator, a science educator, the people who are in the classroom or virtual classroom today, have a responsibility to make even a limited 15-minute portion of the class available to students to discuss it.”  

Explore Living Through Historic Moments 

It’s a good time to remind students these are historic times that can be compared to other crucial moments in the history of democracy, Ben-Porath says. She suggests building exercises and discussions that ask students to document where they were, what they were doing, and what others who were nearby might have felt as events unfolded at the Capitol.  

Remember That Educators Can Help Navigate Society Through Turbulent Times 

The polarization of American society today is epistemic, Ben-Porath says, “Meaning we don't share the same knowledge, the same information, the same understanding of reality.” 

“The way to overcome the polarization that is plaguing our country is rebuilding a shared foundation of knowledge,” Ben-Porath says. “This is what teachers do. This is what they do every day. This is their trade. Who, if not teachers, can help us do this?”

Erik Ofgang

Erik Ofgang is a journalist, author and educator. His work has appeared in the Washington Post, The Atlantic and Associated Press. He currently teaches at Western Connecticut State University’s MFA program. While a staff writer at Connecticut Magazine he won a Society of Professional Journalism Award for his education reporting. He is interested in how humans learn and how technology can make that more effective.