As pro-Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol last week, eighth-grade history teacher Katie Mather started getting emails from students, checking to see if she was watching the news.
They wanted to make sure she knew that “the Capitol was being overtaken by an angry mob,” said Mather, who teaches at Blach Intermediate School. Mather set aside class time to talk through the day’s events. A history teacher who discusses current events with her classes regularly, Mather said she takes her cues from students.
“They were very eager to talk about this yesterday and sort of ‘unwrap’ what had happened,” Mather said in a Friday interview.
Last week, teachers nationwide faced finding ways to address with their students the violent mob that overtook the U.S. Capitol. That was further complicated by the fact that many schools remain remote. The Los Altos School District returned to partial in-person instruction this week, but was virtual last week.
In the Mountain View Los Altos Union High School District, where classes remain online, more than 260 teachers, administrators and staff signed a public statement denouncing the storming of the Capitol building.
“This action crystallizes the violent, ever-growing threat of white supremacy and fascism in our society,” the statement reads. “We cannot profess to support equity in our schools and our society while declining to take a clear public stand against this threat intensifying before our very eyes.”
The signatories include Superintendent Nellie Meyer and the principals of Mountain View, Los Altos and Alta Vista high schools. LAHS teacher Seth Donnelly, who drafted the statement with other social studies teachers, said it was important to condemn what happened and make clear it isn’t legitimate political discourse.
Julia Pressman talked with her fourth-graders at Oak Avenue School about what happened, saying that kids have a right to know what is going on in their country.
“As teachers, we’re not asked to only teach,” Pressman said. “We’re also asked to lead our students through hard moments, and to translate chaotic events, or frightening events, into words that make sense for them.”
Pressman said she made sure to be truthful and use accurate language, explaining that pro-Trump rioters had stormed the Capitol building, forcing lawmakers to evacuate and putting lives at risk. She told students that after the building was cleared, Congress continued working and affirmed President-elect Joe Biden’s victory.
“The truth doesn’t scare children as much as the absence of clear, direct and truthful communication does,” she said.
Feelings of outrage
Among Mather’s eighth-graders, she said the general feeling was outrage. Students contrasted the police’s treatment of the Capitol protesters with the treatment of Black Lives Matter protesters last summer. Students said they were embarrassed at how this made the U.S. look around the world.
Fellow Blach eighth-grade U.S. history teacher Jason Dewberry said he was amazed at the rich discussion.
“As much as it sickens me to see what happened, it’s really sparked great conversation in our history classes,” he said.
The class is studying the Constitution and Bill of Rights, and Dewberry said they discussed how the First Amendment protects the right to peaceably assemble and protest, but not violence or property destruction.
Both Mather and Dewberry said they avoid sharing their political beliefs, focusing instead on students’ perspectives.
“That makes me very hopeful – they care,” Mather said. “I really feel strongly that teenagers (and) kids need to know what’s going on, so when they’re older, they’re less likely to sit around and let things like this happen again.”