For schools, Jan. 6 riot is a complex teachable moment

  • Sarah Wong, a middle school social studies teacher in Exeter, teaches most of her students remotely. She says her district has encouraged her and other teachers to discuss current events in class. Courtesy of Sarah Wong

NH Public Radio
Published: 1/20/2021 5:18:54 PM

In the two weeks since a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol, many people in New Hampshire have been trying to make sense of the news. That includes kids, who are still learning the basics of government and politics. And it also includes many families and teachers, who say with the right approach, the events of this month can become teaching opportunities.

The day after the Capitol riot, 14-year old Elijah Bacote went to class at Plymouth Regional High School, and he said no one – not his teachers, not any of his peers – brought up the news.

“It’s historic, but at the same time, no one’s really talking about it,” he said. “That’s just school, I guess.”

The superintendent in Plymouth, Kyla Welch, said she left it up to teachers to decide whether to discuss the riot. That has been the case in a lot of New Hampshire schools, which means many teenagers are processing current events online, at home, or not at all – and not in school.

Elijah said he and dad, Benjamin Bacote, who is Black, have talked a lot about racial justice and protests since getting involved in Black Lives Matter events last summer. Benjamin Bacote teaches at Waterville Valley Academy, a private high school, where he worked with students to unpack the riot and its aftermath.

“We devoted 25 minutes of the class just to discuss the timeline, to try to give a little civics lesson, to try to give them some context,” he said. “Even defining: what is insurrection, what is white supremacy, what is antifa?”

Bacote said teachers should give their students context to make sense of the chaotic news cycle. Otherwise, Bacote said, the burden of understanding it falls on kids.

“They’re left to try to figure out what to think and how to deal with the scenes and the trauma that happened,” he said.

Whether students discuss current events in class depends largely on their teacher and the school culture. And it can be tricky territory for teachers: Talking about the news means talking about politics, and with scenes of rioters waving Confederate flags inside the Capitol, this means talking about race, racism and white nationalism.

Tanisha Johnson, a parent in Exeter and a founder of the Seacoast chapter of Black Lives Matter, has worked with the Exeter school district on race and equity issues. But she said her kids’ teachers still shy away from current events.

Johnson understands that these discussions feel charged.

“We have the range of parents’ opinions and feelings,” she said. “And so that’s why teachers are afraid, you know, the repercussions of talking about something that they’re not even comfortable talking about themselves.”

At Cooperative Middle School in Exeter, a group of mostly white social studies teachers say the district is helping them figure out how to have these conversations, without stepping on parents’ toes or ignoring the emotional toll of the news.

Seth Macomber said, in addition to helping students understand what happened, it’s important to give them space to process how current events make them feel.

“I had some people [say], ‘We need to do a social media campaign, like these are the things that you need to look at!’ And I was like, ‘Cool if you feel that emboldened, that that’s your path, great,’ ” he said. “If your path is just, ‘I want to listen to music because media is stressing me out right now and watching TV is stressing me out,’ then that’s your path.”

Sarah Wong, who teaches social studies down the hall from Macomber, said teachers need to be honest that they, too, are making sense of the churning news cycle and don’t always have all the answers.

And she encourages students to ask questions, especially when they’re scrolling through social media posts.

“I had a student today who was asking me a question about seeing the speaker of the House’s podium on eBay, and [asked] ‘Was that true? I saw it on social media,’ ” she said.

This unsubstantiated rumor, that rioters who had stolen House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s lectern were selling it online, got traction last week. Wong praised her student for spotting potential misinformation.

“Even just asking the question – ‘Is that true?’ – is showing me what you’re learning. It’s showing me that you are recognizing that we need to think critically about what we see,” she said. “And so it’s very rewarding to see the kids kind of grow through that process.”

But these teachers say there’s a lot of work ahead. They’re still learning how to talk more candidly about issues of race and racism. And they, too, can get overwhelmed by the news.

Wong said with the inauguration, she’s bracing for the unknown.

“The kids are asking, ‘Are there going to be more riots?’ And I say, ‘I don’t have that answer. We all hope that there will not be,’ ” she said.

For that reason, Wong and her colleagues don’t plan to watch the inauguration live in class. In the event anything violent does happen, they want to give everyone a little time to reflect before they come back together in class.

These articles are being shared by partners in The Granite State News Collaborative. For more information visit collaborativenh.org.




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