Capitol riots force NYC teachers to adapt their lessons in real time

Washington DC Tense After U.S. Capitol Is Stormed By Protestors
Members of U.S. Capitol Police inspect a damaged entrance of the U.S. Capitol January 7, 2021 in Washington, DC. The insurrection the day before forced teachers to adapt their lessons in real time. (Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images)

As rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol building in Washington, D.C., Manhattan high school teacher Jake Boeri combed news sites for dramatic photos of the day’s events. He took screenshots of President Donald Trump’s tweets that falsely claimed widespread election fraud and collected headlines that traced the crescendo of an insurrection.

By 9 p.m. on Wednesday, Boeri had created a lesson for his global history and media literacy classes at the High School for Health Professions and Human Services.

As America’s grip on democracy slipped, New York City educators were once again tasked with helping students navigate a tragedy as it unfolded. 

Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza encouraged teachers to address the historic moment in their classrooms and the education department provided links to resources for those who may need help knowing where — and how — to start. 

“My heart breaks to know that our young people have witnessed this violent assault on people, property, the rule of law, and on our democracy itself—met by a response that illustrates our nation’s troubled past and present,” he wrote in a letter to educators. “Today, tomorrow, and beyond, you will have the opportunity, and responsibility, to acknowledge and discuss these events. Staff and students will be looking to you for reassurance, guidance, and leadership.”

For his part, Boeri kicked off his lesson by asking how students were feeling. 

“There was a lot of anger but I think it was productive anger,” he said of his students, who had mostly kept up with the news events of the past 24 hours. 

Students immediately started to compare how police treated extremists at the Capitol this week and their response to the racial justice demonstrations following the killing of George Floyd. Boeri showed students photos of rows of law enforcement standing in riot gear at the steps of the Capitol ahead of a Black Lives Matter demonstration earlier this year. The students at his school are mostly Asian, Black and Latino, and some joined marches for racial justice over the summer. 

“They were very angry about the ways their communities were treated. A lot of them were saying, ‘If we were there, Latinos and Blacks, we would have been killed,’” Boeri said. 

With so many students learning remotely amid the raging coronavirus pandemic, teachers say that convincing students to engage with online lessons has been a constant battle. That wasn’t a problem on Thursday, Boeri said, noting that his students were eager to discuss what they had witnessed. As this school year has coincided with momentous news events, he has sometimes worried about straying from the content he’s supposed to teach. But he doesn’t see any other choice, and knows his students are learning how to think critically about the news and the world around them.

“Especially when we’re trying to talk about current events and our role in history, it is so vital to give teachers the space to decide what will be right for their students,” he said. “It would be a terrible waste and a missed opportunity not to talk about it.”

Evan O’Connell, who teaches U.S. history and government to juniors and seniors at Metropolitan Expeditionary Learning School in Queens, explained that the pandemic has forced teachers to incorporate current events into their lessons. 

“I think being in the pandemic and being in remote learning almost enables that. Like, ‘to hell with the content,’” he said. “What matters right is responding to how people are thinking and feeling. And there’s so much learning going on there.”

On Thursday, O’Connell’s students were also quick to contrast the flaccid police response at the Capitol with the mass arrests and harsh crowd control tactics law enforcement used on those who took to the streets of New York City this summer. As students typed their thoughts into the chat, O’Connell read them aloud. 

“Kids were pointing out how this looked like, to them, white supremacy,” he said.

Students’ strong reactions made O’Connell wish they could be together in person.

“This would be the kind of moment where collective, in-person, physical processing would be helpful,” he said. “Face-to-face, eye contact.” 

The students in Keun-woo Lee’s class were too young to talk about everything that had unfolded the day before. Even as a pre-K teacher, Lee does not shy away from discussing complex topics with her 4-year-olds at PrePrep The Joan Ganz Cooney Early Learning Program in the Bronx. This felt different. 

“I tend to think young children are capable of understanding higher level concepts and understanding current events,” she said. “But given the events at the Capitol yesterday, it seemed like a very complicated and violent situation.”

She thought about how she might talk about the news by trying it back to a lesson about voting from earlier this year, when the students held a mock election whether to hold a pajama day or crazy hat day. (Pajama day won.) But none of the students brought it up, so Lee and her co-teacher turned to a lesson about how to handle their emotions, speaking about what to do when they feel sad or angry and participating in a breathing exercise together. 

“We wanted to keep our structure and flow, and keep it joyful,” Lee said. 

She balanced that with the knowledge that some families might be struggling in the aftermath of the uprising. Lee turned her attention to parents, sending them text messages with a link to an article about how to talk to kids about news events, and a message to reach out if they needed help. 

Her principal offered similar words of support for staff, along with some resources to use, which Lee said, “I definitely appreciate.” 

“It’s just a whirlwind of big events,” she said. “Big things that are happening for teachers as well.”

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