Social studies students reflect on history in the making

By Eric Erickson
Commentary

What questions do you have? What reactions or feelings do you have?

Those two questions were the extent of my lesson plans following the failed insurrection of the U.S. government on Jan. 6, 2021.

When the attack on the U.S. Capitol occurred on that Wednesday afternoon, Como Park High School students were at home for a day of independent, asynchronous work.

With online classes scheduled for all my 11th grade U.S. History and 12th grade AP Government classes over the next two days, I prioritized helping students process what we all witnessed.

This was not a unique decision to my classroom. My Como colleagues and educators across the country adjusted plans to create spaces for students to speak about the chaos and threat to our democracy—the system of government our schools are responsible for teaching.

Democracy requires listening. And given the opportunity to be with my students during tumultuous times, I’ve found the best thing I can do to serve my students is listen.

Listening allows questions of confusion to be heard and addressed with available evidence. Listening allows questions of curiosity to be asked. We don’t have all the answers.

But peers and adults alike may draw upon our knowledge for precedent, or we may speculate given the historical and political context.

Listening allows social and emotional outlets for students. Reactions and feelings vary based on personal experiences and beliefs. But when our schools are working well, our classrooms can respect multiple perspectives, as well as the differing levels of information and knowledge our students may have.

Prior to my virtual classes following the U.S. Capitol riots, I pulled together 10 photos to present. After greeting everyone who popped into our Google Meet, we silently viewed each image for 30 seconds. These fresh primary sources reviewed and informed while allowing sufficient time to pose questions and express reactions or do both. My students had a plethora of questions that fateful Wednesday:

“What were they (the protesters) trying to do?”

“Why would they bring the Confederate flag in the building?”

“Do you think the 25th Amendment will be used?”

“Why weren’t the police stopping them?”

The abundance of questions guided our discussion. The students’ reactions and feelings revealed the challenges facing our nation:

“Surprised that I’m not surprised.”

“Sad and angry.”

“Trump’s supporters were adamant on the importance of the Constitution and rule following. Now they’re saying they only care about Trump and the Constitution and voting don’t matter.”

“I was confused as to why they were trying to invade and defile the most important federal building in the U.S. Seeing the pictures of police standing idly by made me even more upset.”

“There would have been cops in full riot gear to beat them back if it was Black Lives Matter.”

“A low point for American democracy.”

As a social studies teacher, I’m fortunate to process events with students. Listening to teenagers can be therapeutic. I don’t believe it’s my job to tell students what to believe, but I love them all and try to model respect and hard work.

I’m responsible for promoting and supporting critical thinking, and creating an environment for civil discourse. That starts with listening. And if we listen, there is still hope for this American experiment in democracy.

Eric Erickson is a social studies teacher at Como Park Senior High School.

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