Inauguration Day is typically a celebration steeped in tradition and spectacle and symbolism, the kind of newsworthy event from which educators could easily draw age-appropriate lessons.
But this is no ordinary inauguration day, no typical peaceful transition of power and show of unity. President Trump will be the first commander in chief since 1869 to miss his predecessor’s swearing-in, which comes days after he was impeached for his role in the riots designed to stop the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s victory. Security at the inauguration will be abnormally tight, and much of the typical pageantry has been shelved due to the pandemic.
Chalkbeat asked educators how they plan to approach Wednesday’s historic events and found a spectrum of responses. Some teachers appear to be facing inauguration day with trepidation. Generic inauguration activities could feel tone deaf. Deep divisions in some communities make lessons about politics feel like a third rail. And with threats of violence, is it even safe to watch the festivities?
But other educators are not shying away and instead embracing the moment, holding student elections, watch parties and otherwise tailoring lessons to this unprecedented moment.
“They see and know a lot of what goes on in the world,” said Brianna Rifkin, a third grade humanities teacher at Rocketship United Academy in Nashville. “We believe our job as educators is to empower them to be empathetic leaders and to advocate for themselves, their school, their community.”
Rifkin along with another humanities teacher and an English language specialist spearheaded an effort to hold the K-4th grade charter school’s first student government association election after seeing the students’ interest in November’s election. Twenty-six students ran for the eight slots, creating campaign ads and speeches. The election was held Friday, and the winners will be “inaugurated” over Facebook Live Wednesday morning.
“It’s brought us a lot of hope to see how many students were so eager to be a part of making change, beneficial change for their community,” Rifkin said.
Other schools are taking a more traditional approach — watching the ceremony — but with updated twists to fit their remote reality. The American Dream School in the Bronx is hosting a schoolwide inauguration watch party by streaming the event, said Felix Sanchez, a 12th grade government teacher. The school’s student council and government classes will facilitate by asking trivia questions about the inauguration and sharing facts, and students watching will mark a bingo board when phrases or topics are mentioned.
“After completing the bingo board and announcing the winner, students will have the opportunity to engage in a schoolwide reflective discussion,” Sanchez said.
But in a sign of the uncertain times, the school also has a plan in place if violence or anything unexpected interrupts the ceremony and students need emotional support.
At Clinton Hill Middle School in Brooklyn, seventh grade humanities teacher Tracy Garrison-Feinberg will show students a presentation about inauguration history on Tuesday using resources and short videos from PBS and the Bill of Rights Institute, and students will have small group discussions and a writing exercise. On Wednesday, students will watch events that coincide with their classes and have an opportunity to share questions and comments on a collaboration board.
Through this approach, Garrison-Feinberg said the school is emphasizing both the history of the day and today’s unprecedented events, including two impeachments and the insurrection.
“I am spending more time on the current political moment than I have since the 2009 inauguration of Barack Obama, with its historic significance,” she said.
Some teachers, though, aren’t comfortable tackling the subject head on. Tom Murphy, a special education social studies teacher at Coronado High School in Colorado Springs, said he will mention the inauguration, but not teach about it. He won’t assign reading ahead of time or plan a lesson. And as to the unusual circumstances surrounding this inauguration, he will meet it with “radio silence,” calling it a “toxic topic.”
“The students will have to get their information from their families on this one!” he said.