Suggestions for Teaching About January 6th
Education Policy Brief #TBA | By: Lynn Waldsmith | January 24, 2022
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As the House committee investigating the January 6th attack on the Capitol gains momentum, teachers throughout the country are struggling more than one year later with how, or even if, to teach students about that pivotal event and its impact on our democracy.
For example, a Pennsylvania school district warned teachers earlier this month not to “wade into” discussions about the one-year anniversary of the Jan. 6 incident with students. A school administrator of the Pennridge School District, located outside Philadelphia, instructed teachers in an email to “simply state that the investigation is ongoing and as historians we must wait until there is some distance from the event for us to accurately interpret it.”
Pennridge Superintendent David Bolton defended the contents of the email, telling local news outlet WHYY that “multiple teachers” had asked for guidance from the district on how they should address the anniversary.
In a similar incident, middle school teacher Liz Wagner teaches in a Des Moines suburb. She and her colleagues got an email from an administrator last year, warning them to be careful in how they framed any discussion about Jan. 6.
“Last year I was on the front line of the COVID war, trying to dodge COVID, and now I’m on the front line of the culture war, and I don’t want to be there,” Wagner told the Associated Press.
While some teachers feel strongly about teaching students about the Jan. 6th insurrection and the current congressional fact-finding mission to uncover the truths that led to it, others are wary to wander into what they see as yet another political hot potato, particularly in so-called red states with Republican majorities. And still other teachers prefer to avoid discussing the event altogether, particularly if administrators are cautioning them to do so.
The reluctance is understandable, since it illustrates how divided the country remains as the “big lie” that Donald Trump won the 2020 presidential election continues to reverberate through the Republican party and its supporters.
A little more than a year since pro-Trump protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol, attacked police, threatened lawmakers, and disrupted the certification of the 2020 presidential election, an NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll finds that roughly half of U.S. adults say an insurrection took place that threatened democracy, and about as many say Trump is to blame. In addition, more than six in ten Americans (62 percent) think the investigation into Jan. 6 is appropriate and not a witch hunt (compared to 35 percent who believe the opposite).
Yet many Americans have accepted a different narrative, with 80 percent of Republicans saying the events of Jan. 6 were a legitimate act of dissent or should be put aside as something that occurred in the past.
Despite the deep partisan divides, anxious teachers are being encouraged by many educators and parents not to avoid teaching students about the events of Jan. 6 and their aftermath. Teaching that history, civics or current events have real world applications is crucial in helping students to become engaged in democracy. So, the more important question becomes, how to teach young people about that infamous day. Fortunately, there are numerous resources available (see below), but most experts agree on some basic fundamentals.
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First, adults shouldn’t assume that students know what happened on Jan. 6. Many don’t. It’s a good idea for any class discussions to begin by focusing on what students know and what questions they have. Teachers should remain as impartial as possible by simply stating the facts surrounding the day and the current investigation. This also underscores the importance of not only teaching students to check their facts but to help them develop news literacy by helping them learn the difference between a reputable source and propaganda.
Teachers must create a safe space for debate and encourage students to share and criticize opinions, not attack each other. On the other hand, teachers must be careful not to create a false equivalence between “two sides” of a debate. For example, a teacher should never divide the class in half and pose a question as to whether voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the presidency because the evidence is clear and overwhelming that such claims of voter fraud perpetuated by the “big lie” are completely false.
Drawing connections between what happened on Jan. 6 and past examples of sedition and pubic protest is also encouraged, so students can learn how various historical examples are similar to and different from what happened on Jan. 6. The textbook company McGraw Hill recently said in a statement that it will include events from Jan. 6 in new editions of their books.
“As our content and curriculum are updated for new editions of our social studies programs, events such as Jan. 6 (as well as many other recent events of historical importance such as the 2020 election, the Trump presidency, the COVID-19 pandemic and more) would certainly be covered in age- and grade-appropriate ways – and aligned to state standards and local school district needs.”
Experts say focusing on language should also be a key point of any lessons about putting Jan. 6 into historical context. For example, the murder of hundreds of innocent African Americans in Tulsa, Okla. by a white mob was known for decades as the Tulsa Race Riot. Only recently have historians begun to refer to the tragedy as a massacre. Students can explore how news outlets like PBS have changed references to Jan. 6 over time from ‘Protest’ To ‘Riot’ To ‘Insurrection’. Or they can discuss why many Black Lives Matter protestors were referred to as “thugs” or “looters”, when some people continue to refer to Jan. 6 participants as “patriots”.
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NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist National Poll: One Year Since the Unrest at the U.S. Capitol, January 2022
New York Times — Teaching Resources to Help Students Make Sense of the Rampage at the Capitol