By Dr. Alan Singer
National Public Radio and ABC News warn, “Teachers are on the front lines in the Jan. 6 culture war.” Depending on where they work, teachers experience different political pressure when it comes to how to discuss with students the events that rocked the U.S. Capitol a little over a year ago.
For younger children, important themes are community decision-making and fairness, the building blocks of a democratic society. In grades five to eight, students learn about the foundations of the democratic process — rights and responsibilities, civic action and voting — along with injustices.
In grades 11 and 12, students should follow congressional hearings, evaluate media coverage and discuss the implications of current events. For these grades, the anniversary of Jan. 6, with expanded media coverage, offers a teachable moment for more in-depth analysis.
While students and teachers are entitled to their opinions about the implications of the events, discussion in class about them must be respectful, and speakers must support statements with evidence. The teacher must prepare documents for evaluation, ask questions of student speakers and moderate discussion.
The teacher must guide students through multiple sources with different perspectives so they can form their own questions, evaluate the sources and information, and arrive at conclusions supported by evidence. This process must not include deciding whether the Jan. 6 insurrection happened. It happened, and it was indeed an insurrection, intended to block certification of the presidential election.
One difficulty in addressing the events of that day is the country’s partisan divide. An Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research survey found that despite widely viewed video footage, 60 percent of Republicans claimed the attack on the Capitol was not violent or somewhat violent. Here, teachers should ask students to suggest additional documents to allow them to discuss and decide whether the events were violent or not.
To be clear, more than 700 people have been charged with various crimes at the Capitol. The FBI estimates that about 2,000 people were part of the mob that breached the building after a pro-Trump rally at which then President Donald Trump and other speakers repeated unsubstantiated charges that the election was stolen.
Some 140 law enforcement officers were injured during the attack, one died, and the Capitol sustained some $1.5 million in damage. More than 160 of the rioters entered guilty pleas in exchange for lighter sentences. Seventy have been sentenced. Thirty-one were jailed and 18 received home detention. The longest prison term so far is five years. About 100 defendants have ties to extremist groups.
Trump tweeted many times on the afternoon on Jan. 6, attacking then Vice President Mike Pence more than once. At 2:38 p.m. — more than an hour and a half after Trump supporters first breached the Capitol — Trump tweeted, “Please support our Capitol Police and Law Enforcement. They are truly on the side of our Country. Stay peaceful!”
At 4:17 p.m., Trump tweeted a video in which he told his followers, “I know your pain, I know your hurt. We love you, you’re very special. You’ve seen what happens, you’ve seen the way others are treated . . . I know how you feel, but go home, and go home in peace.”
Sen. Mitt Romney, a Republican from Utah, called what happened on Jan. 6 “an insurrection, incited by the president.” On Fox News, Rep. Liz Cheney, a Republican from Wyoming, said, “There’s no question the president formed the mob. The president incited the mob. The president addressed the mob. He lit the flame.”
The New York Times published useful lesson ideas to aid teachers. It also recommends consulting the websites of Learning for Justice (formerly Teaching Tolerance), Facing History and Ourselves and the Anti-Defamation League. The Times package includes documents with questions sorted by these themes:
- Understanding what happened and reacting to it.
- Investigating President Trump’s responsibility.
- Exploring why democracy requires a peaceful transfer of power.
- Understanding the roots of the riot.
- Considering the role of the news media and the power of language.
- Scrutinizing how social media can facilitate insurrection.
- Putting Jan. 6 into historical context.
Dr. Alan Singer is a professor of teaching, learning and technology and the director of social studies education programs at Hofstra University. He is a former New York City high school social studies teacher and editor of Social Science Docket, a joint publication of the New York and New Jersey Councils for the Social Studies. Follow him on Twitter, @AlanJSinger1.