“It’s sad that the color of someone’s skin determines whether they are a threat or not,” says a high school student. Her classmates react with thumbs up and heart emojis.
“If that was us, we would have been dead no question about it,” another student says. “You see how when it was the [Black Lives Matter] protest, you couldn’t even get up 1 step but somehow the Whites made it all the way in there through police and all.”
Anacostia High School teacher Ronald Edmonds watched over Microsoft Teams as his 12th graders reflected on Jan. 6, the day hundreds of alt-right insurrectionists seized the U.S. Capitol. The history teacher of 23 years had to change his lesson plans Thursday. He called the new one “Chaos On Capitol Hill.” Edmonds had already been teaching his U.S government class, a group of six students, about the Bill of Rights. The invasion of the Capitol offered an opportunity to further explain the First Amendment. What happened Jan. 6 was not a protest, he says.
Edmonds’ students could not talk about Jan. 6 without mentioning race and law enforcement. A White mob incited by President Donald Trump, some of whom carried Confederate flags, breached the Capitol. Edmonds is Black, as are all his students. Anacostia High School is located in Ward 8, a majority-Black ward where views of the police are complicated. This is a ward that saw the most homicides in 2020. It is also the ward where a Metropolitan Police Department officer shot and killed 18 year-old Deon Kay in September. Edmonds did not tell his students that law enforcement treats Black people differently than White people. They arrived at that conclusion on their own based on lived experiences.
“Where was the National Guard?” a third student asks during another class of Edmonds. “If this was a peaceful protest of Black people, there would have been the National Guard lined up on the steps. This goes to show you this is White privilege. This is White supremacy.”
With a virtual classroom as his background, Edmonds leans into the camera as he intently listens to the student speak. He is the only one with his web camera on. He respects whatever way students want to share. Camera off. Chatroom. In response to this student, he shares how previous classes of his had toured the Capitol, which is roughly three miles away from Anacostia High School. The Capitol, which on Wednesday was a place of shattered glass and ransacked offices, is also an educational space for students.
Edmonds, like a lot of teachers across the District, weighed how to talk about Jan. 6 with students. They reviewed resources ahead of class. They also took time to reflect on how they felt about the insurrection in their city. Some classes started with meditation. Others dove right in and discussed the civil unrest. Students sometimes introduced the topic themselves. Challenging conversations about race and policing seemed inevitable this week. Teachers focused on listening to what the students had to say and some corrected misinformation.
At Creative Minds International Public Charter School in Ward 5, 4th graders used words like “stunned,” “scared,” “angry,” and “sad” to describe how they were feeling in the aftermath of Jan. 6.
“Most of them had a strong understanding of what happened,” says their teacher, Elizabeth Coldwell. She says they learned from their parents and the news.
Altogether, Coldwell taught 21 students on Thursday. She had planned to teach them about the earth’s layers but decided it more important to reflect on what was happening on top of the earth, so she structured her lesson plan around Jan. 6, asking students to choose from a list of feeling words to describe how what happened impacted them. One student said he was stunned because he couldn’t understand how Trump supporters got into the Capitol. The most popular question that day was why hadn’t police stopped them? A few students said they were scared. They knew a woman was shot and killed inside the Capitol. One student had a neighbor who worked in the Capitol. Others had parents who were journalists that were reporting what happened.
“People they know and love were put in harm’s way because of [Wednesday’s] events,” says Coldwell.
Both Coldwell and Edmonds found some light in the darkness.
“Honestly I’ve been extremely blown away with these students this year,” says Coldwell. “I’ve been passionate about teaching the truth about our country. I never worked with a group of kids who are so passionate on their own.”
Her students, who are between 8 and 10 years old, unpacked racism’s role in the rioting. Coldwell, who is White, teaches a diverse group of students who are White, Black, Latinx, and Asian. They all feel comfortable offering their own perspectives, Coldwell says. One Black student shared how police wouldn’t have treated rioters as nicely had they looked like him. Another White student expressed how she was embarrassed after seeing a video of a White officer taking a selfie with a White rioter. Coldwell explains that they had the language to talk about racial justice after reading Harbor Me by Jacqueline Woodson earlier in the year.
“It felt authentic,” says Edmonds of his own students’ reflections. “This is young people who are now being aware and being exposed to the fact that this is their government too.”
While it hurt to see White nationalists and conspiracy theorists successfully storm the Capitol, their attempt to subvert the election ultimately failed. Congress confirmed Joe Biden as the presidential election winner before dawn. One former student texted Edmonds afterwards to say “my vote counted.” A text like this brought joy to a man who spent decades trying to teach his students why democracy matters.
Jan. 7 was undoubtedly a difficult date for teachers who had to work the day after an attempted coup in their city. They were simultaneously sitting with their own raw emotions about Jan. 6 and holding space for their students.
“You know this happens. You are not surprised. But that does not mean it does not affect you,” says Syreetta McArthur, a third grade teacher at Lafayette Elementary School in Ward 4.
McArthur was indifferent as the events of Jan. 6 unfolded in real time. “As a Black woman in America, you keep going. You keep going,” she explains. Then, when it came time to teach her students Thursday, the heaviness of it all hit her that morning. “Trying not to cry in front of your students because maybe you are an emotional person—because I am—and trying not to say this is how it is supposed to be,” she continues. “It’s hard. It’s really difficult to find the words to say.”
She recalls how a friend of hers who worked for the Obama administration wasn’t allowed to take photos in her wedding dress on the steps of the Capitol. She became more hurt as she thought of that, the police shooting of Breonna Taylor, and the hundreds of Trump supporters who managed to take control over the Capitol and left largely unscathed. Meanwhile, her students, who were born during President Barack Obama’s second term, “have so much promise,” she says.
“This world can be an amazing place and here we go,” says McArthur. “Right in their backyard.” Despite how challenging it was, McArthur held space for her students the best way she knew how, by having them create art inspired by what had happened.
Mische Walden, a counselor at John Hayden Johnson Middle School in Ward 8, says teachers in her school were more angry and confused by what had happened Jan. 6 than the students. After she and her colleagues observed classes all day Thursday, they decided to host a professional development gathering with staff on Friday.
As a third generation Washingtonian, Walden could understand how emotional Jan. 6 was for locals. She was angry to see a mob invade the Capitol. She too noticed law enforcement acting less militant this time around than over the summer during protests over anti-Black racism and police brutality. She had watched CNN from 2 p.m. to 1 a.m. Wednesday and texted a colleague as she did. A school resource officer whom she plays basketball with was called to respond to the rioting on Capitol Hill. When Walden reported to work on Thursday, she had to first vent to her mental health team.
A number of charter schools in the District closed on Thursday due to what happened on Capitol Hill. KIPP DC and Friendship, charter networks that educate more than 11,000 students who are mostly Black, canceled class to give families time to process. “The pain and anxiety being felt in our community is real,” KIPP DC CEO Susan Schaeffler told families via email.
After processing the day’s civil unrest with his colleagues, Cody Norton, a third grade teacher at Marie Reed Elementary School in Ward 1, channeled his reflection into action. He created a discussion guide for teachers Wednesday night that centers around power, liberation, and White supremacy. He says the framework helps facilitate a discussion by first assessing the needs of both the teacher and students, and then having them decide how they want to participate. “We should have agency when deciding how or when to engage in challenging dialogues,” says one slide.
While some of these words might seem to be above 3rd-grade reading level, Norton has introduced, say, the concept of White supremacy to his students. Norton, who is White, simply explains it as a group of people who believe they are superior to another group. His students know this goes against a principle of the classroom, which is that someone may not hold a belief that seeks to deny the humanity or the rights of other people.
“Young kids, they have a very strong understanding of these abstract sociological concepts. The challenge is connecting the concept to the definition,” says Norton.
Mary Dent, a special education teacher for preschool kids at Smothers Elementary School in Ward 7, feels similarly. Her kids’ families were impacted by what transpired on Jan. 6. One parent, an electrician for the Capitol, was under lockdown until nearly 11 p.m. The insurrectionists destroyed all the work he had performed in preparation for Inauguration Day.
While she did not explicitly talk about what had happened with her students, Dent re-introduced concepts that would empower them during a difficult time. She read The Lying Liar Called Racism: A Love Letter by Giselle Fuerte. The story is about a villain called racism who lies to people to try to make them believe they aren’t a mountain but a pile of spaghetti. As she read to her group of five students Thursday morning, she reminded them they are mountains, as are their family members. Parents listening in reinforced these ideas.
Dent, a Black educator of 34 years, says most, if not all, of her read-aloud books are by authors of color. She buys them herself, she doesn’t mind. All of her students are Black and she wants them to see themselves in what she’s teaching. “My job is to empower them,” says Dent. “That they know how important they are. They know they have a voice.”
Scott Goldstein, the executive director of the local teacher advocacy group EmpowerEd and a facilitator with the national youth civic organization Mikva Challenge, got messages from many educators Wednesday evening asking how they should teach Jan. 6. “How do we square this with what we teach students about our country and our democracy,” says Goldstein.
For the Mikva Challenge, Goldstein wrote lesson ideas and shared them with teachers. He offers three different activities that jive with Common Core State Standards. By 10:30 a.m. Thursday morning, he says about 500 people had looked at the sheet of lesson ideas on Google Docs. The sheet advises teachers to make space for students. Don’t lecture. Talk. It can be really hard to talk about topics like democracy, race, and policing with students, particularly when parents can listen in via virtual learning, he says. He adds that DC Public Schools, particularly the social studies department, is very encouraging of educators taking advantage of teachable moments.
“I think it is important for teachers to be vulnerable, to share their own thoughts and perspectives with their students. But I think it’s just as important that that’s not what’s dominant,” says Goldstein.