Supporting Teachers in Facilitating Civil Discourse Around Recent Events

A Note on January 6's Violent Protest in Washington, D.C.
A Note on January 6's Violent Protest in Washington, D.C.

School Leadership

For classroom teachers and those who work with students, the events in Washington D.C. on January 6, 2021, represent many things. They are not just an important teachable moment about our nation’s civic culture, but also necessitate a discussion focused on student well-being.

As the saying goes, sometimes when events unfold and make history before our eyes, lesson plans should be superseded. This is one of those important times. Students will need to ask important questions, talk about their ideas, write about their feelings, and read more information. It is important for teachers to use their best judgment to determine what their students need and that they give them space to do so in a safe manner.

This has already been a school year filled with stress and trauma. We must recognize that students need teachers and school leaders to help them make sense of January 6's violent protest on a personal, emotional level. By modeling how to talk about issues in a civil manner, including expressing stress and frustration productively while also maintaining a sense of community, teachers can provide students with a safe space to express themselves and feel reassured.

We know that even if students do not come into a physical or virtual classroom talking about these events, they are probably thinking about them. They may not be comfortable bringing them up, or they may be too overwhelmed by their feelings to know how to express their ideas and questions.

But they will want and need to talk about what they’ve seen on TV and in social media. Teachers should be prepared to help young people do so. Adults can help students make sense of what they’ve seen and heard, correct misinformation, and fill in knowledge gaps while creating safe spaces for conversation.

We expect students’ questions about the violent protest may run the gamut, but, at a minimum, teachers should expect questions like:

  • Why did rioters do this, and what were they trying to achieve?
  • How did this happen, and was it preventable?
  • Why didn’t the police protect the U.S. Capitol, since so many people thought there was going to be a riot?
  • Why won’t the President concede the election?
  • What will happen to the President now? To Congress?
  • Will there be riots in my city or near my home?
  • How will this impact me?

Teachers may not be able to answer all of these questions, but they can approach the conversations with a goal of listening to students and helping them process their ideas and questions. Teachers of older students may be able to suggest legitimate sources that will help students answer questions.

As we approach these conversations, adults should be mindful that images or threats of violence may invoke fear or trauma in students or in ourselves. Care will be needed to ensure students feel safe as conversations develop in virtual and physical classrooms.

Quelling Initial Fears

The first thing kids worry about is their own safety, especially younger children. According to Barbara Benoit, former Director of Counseling at Flint Hill School in Virginia, “Teachers should present any information in a calm manner, reassuring kids they are safe. The youngest students will have very few details and presenting basic information calmly will be best. For children aged 10 and older, this is an opportunity to explain in age-appropriate terms how our government works.”

Remind students that the government returned to normal functioning fairly quickly and will continue to use the Constitution and values to guide decisions. As with any conversation that might be politically charged, it is important you don’t let your own partisan perspective color how you present facts, so take care to be as objective as possible. Older students may be ready for a deeper conversation about what happened, but understand that they too need to be reassured that the processes of governing will still continue despite the events in Washington, D.C.

Establish Norms for Discussion

Conversations like these can provoke strongly held opinions. Ensuring a civil and productive discussion requires that all participants adhere to clear guidelines. Consider what rules for discussion you will require in order to keep the conversation open for differing ideas and safe for all. For teachers of all but the youngest learners, consider asking students to help establish norms by responding to these questions:

  • What’s the difference between a discussion and a fight?
  • How do you show respect to another person even if you disagree?
  • What does it mean to “assume good intentions?”
  • Is it helpful to interrupt someone when they are talking? Why or why not?
  • Are discussions better when people have reasons and evidence? Why or why not?

It won’t take long to formulate and agree on some ground rules. They will go a long way to preventing students from feeling like a discussion ignored their point of view, or that they were attacked unfairly for their opinion.

Lower School Students

For teachers of lower school/elementary-aged students, it will be important to take the temperature of the class before beginning any discussions. For the youngest students, they may not be aware of the events and tensions.

Older elementary students will most likely be aware, but not fully understand the nuances of the situation. In both cases, it will be best to focus on questions and general thoughts about how people express their views and opinions. You may want to focus on questions like:

  • What can you do when you don’t agree with something or someone?
  • What are safe and respectful ways to express your opinions?
  • What kinds of things should you do before you act?

You want to encourage students to gather accurate information and respond in respectful and safe ways. It may also be appropriate to bring up the rights of all Americans to protest and have the freedom of speech. These rights come with responsibilities and do not mean you can be violent, mean, or disrespectful.

Middle and Upper School Students

Likewise, for students in middle and high school, teachers need to quickly get a sense of how engaged with, and activated by, students are by the events in the capitol. Begin by asking them:

  • What are you thinking about?
  • What do you feel when you see images, news stories, or social media posts?
  • What are you most concerned about?

For students in civics classes, or for older students, there is an opportunity for learning. Students can explore more about how our political and governmental systems are intended to work, and even perhaps how they can take action to make a difference. Teachers may also use this as an opportunity to teach news literacy, helping students think critically about sources of legitimate information and about bias.

For schools with an advisory program, there may already exist a setting for conversations about sensitive topics. Advisors are often skilled at setting up guidelines for sensitive conversations, and they can use their experience to provide a forum where students can ask questions and share ideas. Advisors are also often the ideal people for students who find they need more individual support from a trusted adult.

The organization Teaching Tolerance recommends a three-step process for teachers to follow called “Listen, Protect, Model.”

  • Listen: Ask good questions and listen to kids, try to understand their concerns.
  • Protect: Work to make students feel safe and protected by establishing norms and guidelines for conversation, and by requiring facts and legitimate sources of information.
  • Model: Demonstrate a calm demeanor and reasoned approach to conversation and disagreements. Encourage civil discourse and a sense of calm.

For additional information and more resources:

The Role of Parents

School leaders also know that many conversations will happen at home over the next few weeks. We’ve compiled a list of resources that you can use in your continued conversations with parents. Feel free to share these to help facilitate sharing and openness.

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