Teachers engage students after Capitol insurrection
Burnsville High School social studies teacher Matt Eppen has stood at the front of classrooms after 9/11 and the school shootings at Columbine and Sandy Hook.
“Yesterday was another one of those days,” Eppen said Friday, Jan. 8, two days after pro-Donald Trump rioters stormed the U.S. Capitol, attempting to block certification proceedings that sealed Joe Biden’s win in the presidential election.
Four Burnsville-Eagan-Savage School District 191 teachers described their class interactions after the historic Capitol insurrection of Wednesday, Jan. 6.
“To be honest with you, it’s difficult because of the distance learning to really engage in great conversations,” said Eppen, who teaches three sections of American government to BHS seniors. “But social studies teachers, we generally really like it when the world writes your lesson plans.”
Eppen set aside 10 minutes at the start of each class to let students chime in by voice and chat.
“When you listen to kids talk, you do get a little bit of fear, anxiety, trying to make sense of things that are going on in the world,” Eppen said. “I have had kids say things like, ‘This doesn’t surprise me a bit, I could see this coming a mile away’ to ‘My family left other countries to get away from this kind of stuff’ to ‘I’m offended.’ ... And, frankly, some of them don’t really want to talk about it, but they’ll gladly sit and listen to their peers.”
It’s a “tricky time” for such discussions because of the nation’s divisions, Eppen said, adding that he finds himself “apologizing for adults because, frankly, people are not acting very responsibly.”
A few images from Wednesday “really bothered” students, he said.
“One in particular that came up was the gentleman carrying the Confederate flag through the halls of the Capitol,” Eppen said. “That was an eye-opener for kids.”
In an American government class, it must be stressed that “we are not ruled by a mob,” he said.
“The whole point when we study the Constitution is to say that elections are revolutions in themselves, and when change occurs, this is the peaceful way of doing that,” Eppen said. “Frankly, just to be saying that, this is not the way Americans should be conducting their business.”
“I think for me,” he said, “the message is always about what we can do to make things better.”
BHS social studies teacher Mollie Bousu raised the subject with her section of Success 191, a ninth-grade class covering topics such as college and career planning, digital literacy and financial literacy.
Between last Thursday and this Monday, Bousu asked students to write about their reflections and posed 10 questions of her own to prompt discussion.
It was an opportunity to revisit digital literacy lessons on information and disinformation. Bousu asked students to reflect on key words they’d seen on social media and in the news and whether they accurately described the events. She asked them about social media platforms’ responsibilities in quelling potentially inciteful rhetoric.
“We talked about the approach on Twitter versus Facebook versus YouTube,” Bousu said. “We brought that up again with the closing of social media accounts that has happened in the past week.”
She let students vote on which of her questions to probe further.
“One of the questions that kids wanted to talk about was, Do you think that the words that have been used to describe Wednesday’s events or the response to the events would have been different if the protesters were primarily Black, Latinx or Muslim people” rather than the mostly white crowd at the Capitol?
A number of students thought there were harsher law enforcement responses to this summer’s racial justice protests, Bousu said. A core of students, eight to 10 in a class of 25, were the most vocal, she said.
“I could tell there were varying levels of conversation already happening within their homes or within their groups of people,” Bousu said.
At Nicollet Middle School, social studies teacher Bounthavy Khammratthanome encouraged students to make and keep hard copies of news stories.
“Jan. 6 used to be a date that didn’t have any meaning, but it might change after what took place, and I was there to just help them reflect on it and listen to what they have to say and relate it to what we’re learning in social studies,” said Khammratthanome, who teaches four sections of sixth graders.
Jan. 6 happened to coincide with his classes’ study of the Civil War through a Minnesota studies lens.
With student cameras on during a “synchronous” learning day, students has a “great dialogue” on Thursday, Khammratthanome said.
“They were trying to make connections to how can we be so angry toward each other,” he said. “This is American citizens doing it toward each other.”
Khammratthanome said students discussed the need for facts in disputes.
“We have laws where we can’t just make baseless claims without evidence,” he said. “And we have a Constitution. It’s constitutional that we abide by the courts and their decisions.”
Social-emotional lessons and bullying were discussed in his advisory class period, a virtual home room.
“We just hope adults can do the same,” Khammratthanome said. “Kids are watching.”
Jim Condon, a fourth grade teacher at Edward Neill Elementary, spent Wednesday night absorbing the news and pondering how to tackle it in class the next day.
During the 9:15 morning meeting, he announced there had been a “really big day in United States history” and gave his students the floor through Google Meet.
“And it was just crickets,” Condon said. So the class moved on.
“Honestly, I don’t think I make anything” of the meager response, said Condon, who has taught for nearly four decades. “I suspect there was news and things going on in their families and in those houses. I know a number of the families. I have learned, at least at this point, distance learning clearly dampens interaction. It’s just harder to get the back and forth and the give and the take.”