As events unfolded at the U.S. Capitol building earlier this week, teachers across Frederick County and the nation threw out planned lessons and instead tried to help students make sense of such a harrowing day in modern American history.
Inundated with images of President Donald Trump’s supporters storming through the halls of Congress, some Frederick County Public Schools students logged onto their classes the next day shaken and perplexed.
“I could tell something was up. I could tell [students] had something else on their minds,” said Chelsea Naegele, a fifth-grade teacher at Oakdale Elementary School.
Watching the news at home, Sebastian McDow, a 10th-grader at Linganore High School, said he was confused. He went so far as to call the Capitol siege his generation’s 9/11.
“You don’t go and storm government property on a regular basis, so it was alarming ... I was shaken and afraid because I didn’t know what was going to happen,” he said.
McDow’s government class met via Google Meet the next day, and his teacher began by giving students the opportunity to discuss what had happened and share their perspective on it.
Tyler Hanson, a social studies teacher at Tuscarora High School, did the same. He provided students with an anonymous form through which they could ask questions and guided a discussion that ended up lasting most of the class period.
Not only did students understand the significance of what happened at the Capitol, but the conversation branched off in different directions, he said.
“A lot of [students] had the sense that this is the Capitol building, a hallowed ground, if you will, to democratic history,” he said. “A lot of them were quick to point out comparisons to the Black Lives Matter protests that happened this past summer as far as the difference in the way these protestors were treated.”
Bringing current events, especially those that are unfolding in real time, into the classroom is important, Hanson said, because it allows students to reflect, think critically, and discuss the events in a structured environment.
“Current events don’t just go away when you get older. So as much as it’s important to teach students ... about the past, you also have to teach them how to interpret the present,” he said. “It’s kind of like the preparation for when you go out into the real world as an adult and you don’t have that structured environment, where it could just be a conversation with your co-workers.”
Naegele agreed. Students, no matter the age, are trying to process the world around them, she said, and children often look to teachers as guides.
Michael Bunitsky, a former FCPS Board of Education member who taught social studies in FCPS schools for more than 40 years, said bringing current events into the classroom is critical for the learning process.
“We’re teaching government, we’re teaching history, this is history in the making ... how do you learn from history if you don’t study it while it’s in the making?” he said. “This is a learning experience in all capacities.”
Bunitsky recalled major events that happened while he was a teacher, such as the assassination attempt on President Ronald Regan and the Space Shuttle Challenger disaster. Both led to real-time discussions with his students.
Such conversations, however, can be tough for teachers to navigate. Not only do they have to leave their own personal views out, but they also have to understand and be prepared for the varying perspectives that students may come to class with.
“You don’t say it’s right or wrong...you have to discuss the event and how it potentially affects the nation,” Bunitsky said. “As a teacher, I would try to present information in a variety of ways and make sure that every student in the class heard all those different things. [Students] may not agree with them, they may not like them, they may think they’re dead wrong ... we still have to give the information.”
To help prepare FCPS teachers for class time following the Capitol siege, resources and tools were developed at the system level Wednesday evening, said Colleen Bernard, secondary social studies curriculum specialist for FCPS.
Teachers were not required to bring up the events in their classrooms, however.
Naegele had not planned to talk to her fifth-graders about what happened at the Capitol, wanting to spare them from the harsh realities of the adult world, but it was unavoidable. A student brought it up and it was like “fire to the dynamite,” she said.
Students started asking questions, and Naegele said she tried to give them as much information as she could while also remaining objective.
She did choose to impart one lesson on her young students.
“I did say to them, ‘As your teacher, I want you to know that that’s not appropriate behavior. I don’t want you looking at social media and the news and thinking that this is a way that you appropriately behave, because this is not what we do,’ And they were very receptive to that,” she said.
Teachers are navigating these tough conversations in even tougher conditions though, Bernard pointed out. They are separated from their students by screens as a pandemic rages on and the nation is experiencing one of its most politically polarized eras.
“Our job is to get our students ready to be active participants in our democratic society, and they can’t be active participants ... if they don’t have an understanding of the world in which they live,” she said, and this is done through having real conversations in a safe space.
Some students seem to appreciate it. McDow said having an open conversation with his peers was reassuring and helped him process Wednesday’s events better.
This idea of reassurance was something Naegele also tried to convey to her young learners.
“I just reassured them and said you’re safe. You’re safe in your school and your community,” she said. “And I told them you’re 10 and 11 and your job right now is to be a kid and live your best life right now before you grow up.”
On Friday, the Frederick County Board of Education issued a statement condemning the “acts of violence” that occurred at the nation’s capital.
“Our teachers and staff are ready to listen and are prepared to talk with students who may be feeling overwhelmed, fearful or who have questions. We reiterate our commitment to inclusion and welcome each and every student and family to FCPS,” the statement said.
On Twitter, Superintendent Terry Alban said she was saddened by the scenes from Washington, D.C.
“The world has looked to the U.S.A. as the model of democracy and the peaceful transfer of power. We must find a way to restore the democratic ideals that millions died to defend. This is a sad day for all of us,” she wrote.