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‘I Was Honest’: How Educators Addressed The Insurrection At The Capitol

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Sarah Schneider
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90.5 WESA

Jadyn Gibson’s African-American literature class spent last Thursday discussing the foreshadowing and tension they had felt building during President Donald Trump’s administration.

The majority-Black Allderdice High School class noted the double standards in the police preparation and presence compared to Black Lives Matter protests.

“We had a really deep discussion on the base of this country, what has this been built on and why did it all lead up to this?” she said.

Most of her teachers at the Squirrel Hill school barely touched on the event, she said. Gibson said she wished her teachers had been more open and vulnerable, and had at least acknowledged what happened.

Gibson, 17, is a member of the Black Student Union. Fellow members Noah Castro-Jarrett and Chloe Brown also said few of their teachers addressed the riot.

“When really big events happen, there is a tendency for teachers to mention them but not go into an in-depth conversation about them which I think students really need,” Castro-Jarrett, 17, said. “I know when I’m trying to analyze an event or figure out what happened, I need to communicate with other people. It’s hard to do it by myself.”

Brown said none of her teachers mentioned the event duing the first half of Thursday. Pittsburgh Public Schools students have been learning online since March because of the coronavirus pandemic. 

"It just felt like, did I dream this? Was this like not real because I mean if we were in school, in person I could talk to my peers in the hallway and stuff," she said. "You don't get that online. It's kind of like you're alone until your teacher starts a conversation."

‘I Was Honest’: How Educators Addressed The Insurrection At The Capitol
Students in Jen Klein's AP Government class at Fox Chapel Area High School reflect on the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.

According to Mary Margaret Kerr, a psychology professor in the University of Pittsburgh’s school of education, students need to be able to express their thoughts, fears and questions about what happened. She said even if teachers aren’t ready to dig into Wednesday’s events or lead a discussion, they can’t ignore it.

“They can always say, yes, there's so much to talk about here. I'm not sure what I'm thinking yet. How about if you are write down all the questions you have and let me think about this and let me think about a really good way for us to talk about this,” she said.

Perry High School English teacher Derek Long showed his freshman students pictures of the rioters at the start of class Thursday. Some students hadn’t heard about it. He had them read news stories and write about what they were feeling. Most of his students are Black and asked where the police were and said if the rioters were Black they would have been killed.

“I was honest. I was like ‘I don’t know,’” he said. “I mean those are great questions and I don’t know why that is allowed to happen or I don’t know where the police were. Clearly not the presence that has been there for other protests and demonstrations.”

Some of Long’s students said they were exhausted. He’s heard that before -- like when the officer that killed Breonna Taylor wasn’t charged with crimes related to her death.

“It was the same thing, they were like ‘Mr. Long why are we spending so much time doing this,’” Long said. “They were like it’s the same thing that happens over and over again. It’s going to happen again.”

Long was on a teacher advisory call Wednesday with educators from across the state. He said some of the teachers of color noted that the event was not surprising.

Overnight, dozens of teacher resource guides and infographics were shared online. Many included guidance for talking about the role of white supremacy in the violence.

Joe Welch, a North Hills Middle School social studies teacher and the current Pennsylvania Teacher of the Year, showed his students images and newspaper articles from around the world and asked how they thought historians might remember the moment.  

The students are learning remotely so he used the chat function and asked them to either privately or to the class reflect on the images. He also showed them pictures of the school’s trip to the inside of the rotunda.

“I wanted them to see that this is a place that is orderly,” he said.

He said in a tweet that there is a danger in false equivalency and “balancing.”

“I think it comes out of fear or lack of background to call out when something is universally wrong,” he wrote. “Not teaching something is teaching something.”  

Michele Halloran an Allderdice High School social studies teacher said neutrality has become increasingly difficult during the Trump presidency.

“I typically am pretty good of being able to walk the fine line of staying out of the quote ‘politics of things,’” she said. “For me I just felt a responsibility to address the fact that these people violated something so sacred to this country and this should not happen.”

She said she told her students that the election was not stolen.

“No election is perfect and we’re always going to see a handful of instances of this human error but that does not mean an election was stolen. It just simply wasn’t,” she said.

Dennis DeFillipo, a social studies teacher at Oakland Catholic High School, said he was suprised how reticent his students were about discussing the event. He said many of his students reflect what they hear at home. He said it has been like walking a tightrope to remain neutral. 

"There are certain facts that some people may not like, but they're still the facts and you just have to accept it," he said. "If I call that out, I try to preface my statement by saying that what I'm about to tell you is not partisan. It's not connected to a political ideology, but if a statement is being made that is obviously false, I have to call that out."

Kerr said the event could also trigger memories of other violent acts.

Kaylee Werner a 17-year-old Fox Chapel High School student watched the insurrection with her mom on CNN.

“It was honestly the anxious that I haven’t seen in her since Tree of Life,” she said. “Seeing that kind of anger in my parents’ eyes and that kind of fear in my parents’ eyes just like caused me to question so much about our society, literally.”

Her politics and government teacher Jen Klein said thinking about her students the day after the D.C. event was similar to how she felt in 2018 when 11 people were killed at the Tree of Life Synagogue. She spent Wednesday night Googling and figuring out how to find a way to have students express what they're questioning as events were unfolding in real time.  

“So much thought goes into how to link what’s happening in D.C. and have it make sense without shattering this image of what this country is supposed to be about,” Klein said.