As the violence at the US Capitol shook the country on Wednesday, many of Massachusetts’ teachers and school administrators had to shift gears, pause their lesson plans, and help their students grapple with the implications of the attack — even as many educators were still trying to process it themselves.
“I’m still processing,” said Marcus Walker, a humanities teacher at Fenway High School in Boston. “Between the pandemic and Donald Trump and the racial unrest. ... It’s overwhelming, and that’s an understatement. It’s just really difficult to think about what kids are thinking and going through right now.”
In an academic year that has already been tragic for some young people and challenging for nearly all, Wednesday’s siege was yet another dark moment. To make matters more difficult, most students in Massachusetts are still learning remotely, at least part time, and don’t have the in-person camaraderie of their teachers and classmates for support.
When Walker returned to his virtual classroom on Thursday, his priority wasn’t traditional teaching. He wanted to give his students the facts to inform their opinions and the space to ask questions and understand their own feelings. It was not lost on many of his students that the treatment of the pro-Trump supporters in Wednesday’s mob was vastly different than the treatment of protesters at Black Lives Matter demonstrations last year.
He showed them YouTube videos and countless images. He asked: What do you see? How does this image make you feel?
He also wanted his students — ninth, 10th, and 11th graders — to understand just how serious Wednesday’s events were; he wanted them to know that in a functioning democracy, this is not the norm.
“Especially after four years of Trump, I feel like young people, it’s really hard for them to nail down what’s acceptable and what’s not acceptable behavior in our democracy,” he said. “Trump has really moved the goalpost on what you can say and what you can’t say.”
Teaching about traumatic events, racial injustice, and the intersection of the two has quickly become an important part of teachers’ jobs over the past year. But figuring out exactly what role educators should play in those discussions has been difficult in some communities.
In June, Milton teacher Zakia Jarrett was placed on paid leave — a move that was swiftly reversed — after she discussed a poem about racism in one of her classes. The school’s reaction sparked outrage in the community, and Jarrett worried at the time that the consequence she faced would discourage others from talking about race in class.
“Students already think it’s taboo to talk about race, and I worry that this just confirms that,” she told the Globe at the time. “If we believe as a society that antiracism is a goal, we need to teach it actively to all our students.”
Across the region this week, school administrators emphasized that message of active engagement to teachers and to the wider school community. Teach about it, and discuss it, many said. Don’t ignore it.
“Ignoring this event is normalizing the event,” Newton North High School Principal Henry Turner wrote in a blog post to other educators, urging them to be “leaders committed to social justice, antiracism, and equity.”
“Whether it’s an announcement, optional student and/or faculty meetings, or classroom discussions this event should be discussed,” he continued. “This was not politics. This was an attack on our country.”
In Boston, too, Superintendent Brenda Cassellius said teachers are expected to keep political partisanship out of the classroom, but Wednesday’s violence was simply “unacceptable.”
“When the Capitol is stormed, that’s pretty black and white,” she said in an interview. “We would not teach our children to storm the cafeteria or the library. There are ways to address the behavior without addressing the intent.”
Cassellius said she was in an executive team meeting Wednesday when the news of the violence broke, and she and her colleagues sat there in shock for just moments before jumping into the next step: How are we going to prepare for the children tomorrow?
In an e-mail to Boston Public Schools staff on Thursday, Cassellius included a variety of resources about discussing violence with students. She encouraged educators to take time in their classes to process this week’s events and to give students a safe environment to express their feelings.
“What’s unfortunate is we have too many of these situations happening for our children, and that they carry this huge burden unnecessarily because of the conditions we as adults are creating for them, and it is not fair at all,” Cassellius told the Globe. “It’s just so disheartening to me that we can’t be better for our children.”