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Helping Students Process the Capitol Attacks

on Friday, 08 January 2021.

By: Meghan McDermott - Faculty, ACE Teaching Fellows

United States Capitol

After the storming of the U.S. Capitol left students and teachers wondering how to process and talk about what they witnessed, Meghan McDermott, a faculty member for ACE Teaching Fellows, shared these thoughts and resources.

This week’s events in Washington, D.C., mark a time­­ when teachers must set aside their carefully crafted unit and lesson plans and help students make sense of the chaos of the present moment. As Catholic school teachers, however, our very first response must be to take a breath and ground ourselves in prayer. After the House of Representatives reconvened to continue its debate on the Electoral College results, Speaker Nancy Pelosi read the Prayer of St. Francis, a prayer that many of you likely know by heart. Before we dive into a thoughtful review of resources, I invite you to pause and reflect on these familiar words:

Lord, make me an instrument of your peace:
where there is hatred, let me sow love;
where there is injury, pardon;
where there is doubt, faith;
where there is despair, hope;
where there is darkness, light;
where there is sadness, joy.

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
to be consoled as to console,
to be understood as to understand,
to be loved as to love.
For it is in giving that we receive,
it is in pardoning that we are pardoned,
and it is in dying that we are born to eternal life.

With this prayer for peace in mind, I want to share some resources as you determine the best path forward in your classroom. Your choices should be responsive to your subject area, the age of your students, your school context, and various other factors. Some of you will likely spend a complete class period, or even multiple class periods, helping your students contextualize events, break down primary texts, and understand the aftermath. Others may simply remind your students that they are safe and loved and then move forward with your regular instruction. It is important to be responsive to students' needs and collaborate with your colleagues to make sure that you aren't overwhelming students.

Although there is no single “right'” way to respond in your classroom, I want to share a few resources to frame your thinking about how to engage in conversation with students.

  • Teaching Tolerance has a wonderful article, "When Bad Things Are Happening,"that provides a framework for helping teachers facilitate discussions about crises as they unfold. In TT's words, "the time will come for teaching the many contexts of this moment. But for many communities and students, these images and existential threats of violence may invoke fear or trauma. Here are ways to attend to the right now. Please take care."
  • The @SSChatNetworkon Twitter hosts weekly Twitter chats related to various social studies topics. Wednesday night they held a special Twitter chat for teachers to share concerns, ideas, and resources. The entire conversation is archived under the #sschat hashtag on Twitter. (You can also find it here, on a Wakelet.) I especially recommend reading posts that share lists of useful questions and sentence stems for structuring challenging conversations. There are also a few different KWL adaptations that could be useful for opening a discussion.
  • Finally, here is an article by an assistant professor at Michigan State University, Dr. Alyssa Hadley-Dunn, who runs a Facebook group, Teaching on the Days After: Dialogue & Resources for Educating Toward Justice. (Make sure you check out Dr. Hadley-Dunn's list of "interrupter phrases" that you can use if someone says something harmful or questionable.)

So many resources are flooding the internet right now, so give yourself a set amount of time to do some research and then go with what feels right for you and your students. Don't try to read everything because it simply isn't possible. Now, a few reminders about what you already know about teaching to keep in mind as you peruse these resources:

1. Classroom community is key. It is a good idea to remind students about discussion norms before discussing such a sensitive topic. In this case, this week’s events are sensitive on multiple levels. You may have students (and/or colleagues, and/or parents) who are experiencing fear or trauma. There may be members of your classroom and school community who have very different perspectives on what happened, why it happened, and what it all means. I highly encourage all teachers to remind students of classroom norms and expectations before engaging in any conversation.

2. It's okay to be honest with your students when you don't have all of the answers. I would suggest creating a space to collect questions that require further research. If appropriate in your class, you could use some of these questions to guide student inquiry in the coming days. Crafting thoughtful responses is more important than having immediate responses right now, so give yourself and your students time to process.

3. Maintain communication with your administrators, colleagues, and school parents. When navigating sensitive subjects in your classroom, it's a good idea to make sure that your administrator is aware of your plan. If you have an administrator who is hesitant to allow conversation about sensitive topics in the classroom, you'll need to be even more thoughtful about presenting a rationale for the importance of giving students space to process and learn together. In the past, I've also shared resources (like a few key articles) with parents to provide them with some talking points for dinner conversation and give them a sense for my approach in the classroom. Aim to be proactive with your communication.

These are simply some initial thoughts on the task ahead of you today and in the coming weeks. I and ACE will keep all teachers, school leaders, and their students and families in our prayers.

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