The events transpiring Jan. 6 at the U.S. Capitol gripped people in different ways.
So much so that officials in Community High School District 99 issued guidance to staff members about how to have classroom discussions on what they described as a “major” development in history.
“This is a major day in history,” said Michael Roether, co-chairman of District 99’s social studies department and a teacher at Downers Grove North.
On Jan. 6, a protest turned into an event where groups took to the U.S. Capitol trying to challenge the results of the November general election.
Roethler said a lot of teachers questioned how to best handle classroom discussions.
Not everyone was instructed to engage in discussions with students about the Jan. 6 events. However, they were advised to present the facts and avoid expressing opinions.
In a Jan. 6 letter, Downers Grove North Principal Janice Schwarze emphasized how important it is to not ignore current events.
She described the events at the U.S. Capitol as a “teachable moment”.
“Avoiding/ignoring comments or reactions shared by students inadvertently sends a message that their feelings, opinions, and uncertainties do not matter,” Schwarze said. “It’s okay to not have all the answers; in fact, our role as educators is not to provide answers but rather to provide an opportunity for all perspectives to be heard in a respectful manner.”
In fact, some teachers believe they have an obligation to engage in discussions with students about current events.
“There are major societal issues social studies classes should be keeping up with,” said Chris Esposito, co-chairman of District 99’s social studies department and a teacher at Downers Grove South.
“One of the big points in social studies education is to better understand the world we live in,” he said.
Roethler said they talk regularly about events of history and how they impact the world today.
The Jan. 6 events at the U.S. Capitol is not the first time the district’s teachers were provided guidance in dealing with students and their reactions to current events.
In a Jan. 6 letter, Downers Grove South Principal Edward Schwartz references other events prompting him to offer advice about classroom conversations.
“The weekend before the election in November, I sent an email to you providing some guidance in dealing with the students and their reactions to the election,” Schwartz said. “This afternoon, the divisive feelings of the election boiled over to something that causes me far greater concern than the election did.”
Roethler said the Jan. 6 events provided an opportunity to explain how the electorate process works.
“We don’t elect a president on Nov. 3 officially,” he said. “We talked students through the process of what happens [Election Day,] what happens with vote certification, the electoral college. The students had a lot of questions about the process. It was a great opportunity to teach them how the voting process for president works.”
Esposito said students shared a number of thoughts, feelings and questions about what occurred Jan. 6.
“As educators, we present students with the facts and help guide them to discover the issues surrounding current events,” he said. “Specific to January 6, students shared the same concerns as our greater society including the violence we witnessed, the impact of political divisiveness, and the role that race played in the events of the day. Additionally, freedom of speech was addressed including discussions on whether politicians should be held accountable for the actions of their followers.”
Neither Roethler or Esposito said they have been contacted by parents or families about the discussions had with students.
Roethler described the discussions as “lively” and “respectful”.
Esposito said it’s clear the Jan. 6 events should have been discussed.
“The report from teachers were that the kids were really engaged in the lesson and really wanted to discuss these issues,” he said.