How to Teach the U.S Capitol Attack Using Inquiry Learning

Although a week has gone by since the capitol attack, many people are still trying to process what happened. Students need opportunities to talk about these events and spaces to safely process their feelings and reactions. For most people, the capitol attack made them feel shocked, saddened, disgusted, and horrified. But between those feelings, there is opportunity. Teachers and parents have the opportunity to delve deeper into the factors that contributed to the capitol attack, make important distinctions, and help students separate facts from misinformation. Furthermore, there is also opportunity for students to ask questions and conduct their own guided investigations into the events that unfolded, and how they contribute to the American historical landscape. The article below outlines ways that teachers can navigate through the events that unfolded and how they can support and encourage questioning and critical thinking from their students.

1. Acknowledge that history isn’t always comfortable

According to the Teaching Hard History report, “We tend to subscribe to a progressive view of American history that can acknowledge flaws only to the extent that they have been addressed and solved”

In my opinion, this means two things: (1) we are not acknowledging the natural and unavoidable bumps and interruptions throughout history, and (2) it subscribes us to the belief that events in history are compact and that they conclude neatly. However, this is far from the truth.

As easy as it would be to teach history as a perfectly linear progression throughout time, this would be disingenuous. History is full of bumps, backwards steps, and mishaps. History is not always comfortable to teach, and to ignore the difficult or shameful periods would be doing a disservice to our young learners.

Photo by Koshu Kunii on Unsplash

The capitol attack is an event that many teachers feel disheartened to teach. However, acknowledging it as an uncomfortable, violent, and disturbing event is something we need to do to maintain honesty and integrity in American history. Helping students understand that history is complex and sometimes messy can help them acknowledge that they will likely live through times of complexity and messiness in their own lives. For instance, they may wonder why people are still fighting for equality in the United States – this would be an example of how events and movements in history do not conclude neatly.

Acknowledging these truths about historical events can help students dive deeper into a historical inquiry of their own. Here are some questions that can help:

What shape is history?

Students investigate events that occurred in their country, province, state, or city and determine what shape they think fits with the history of that area. For example, has their city seen ups and downs in their pursuit of environmental sustainability? Does their province or state have a troubled past that prevents it from making progress? Through research and questioning, students determine the shape that best represents the history of their chosen area and explains their choice. Triangles, circles, hexagons.. all shapes are welcome!

What makes history uncomfortable?

In this inquiry, students tackle the discomfort associated with uncomfortable topics in history. For example, students might look into the treatment of Indigenous communities during the Residential School years in Canada. Why is it uncomfortable to discuss these years in Canadian history? What can be done to rectify the harm caused? How does washing over Canada’s history because it’s “uncomfortable” cause damage? Another example could relate to the treatment of other groups throughout Canadian history, such as the Chinese and Japanese in World War II. Students explore the reasons why these events make people uncomfortable, and perhaps what issues we need to face as a country to reconcile and move forward.

What does a “great society” look like?

Borrowing the term from Lyndon B. Johnson, students investigate what makes a great society. Through targeted inquiry questions and interviews, students gather information and ideas about what constitutes a great society. What programs or policies would help in society? Who would pay for these? Who would they benefit? How would forward progress be measured? Finally, why might your great society look different than someone else’s? This question has the potential to go deep and unpack students’ own values, identity, and ethics.

2. Process your own feelings and emotions

It is important to process your own feelings and emotions before facilitating conversations with students. Coming to terms with your own thoughts and reactions is important because it allows you to process them instead of pouring your emotions out in front of students. This isn’t to say that expressing emotions in front of students is a bad thing, but it is likely that students will look to you as a figure of calm, safety, and rational thinking.

It is also crucial that you recognize your own biases, perceptions, and values and how they contribute to your interpretation of the events that have unfolded. By doing this, you are able to recognize how you might be unintentionally passing on your personal beliefs onto your students. It’s also important to let students guide the discussion and leave your political views out of the discussion. An excellent guide on fostering civil discourse can be downloaded to guide teachers through this.

Some questions to ask yourself are:

  • What core messages about ethics, morals, and values can I extract from these events?
  • In what ways can I weave social-emotional regulation into these conversations?
  • How have my initial feelings changed as I’ve had more time to process the events?
  • What emotions might my students have about these attacks?
  • How can I contribute to our class discussion? What perspectives can I offer them?
  • What suggestions can I offer students who are visibly upset about the attacks?
  • How can I continue exploring topics like this while continuing to teach students?
  • What conversations can/should I have with colleagues about how to respond?
  • In what ways can I facilitate meaningful discussion with students virtually?
  • What conversations can I have with students to help them through their emotions?

Brianna Davis has put together an incredible, reflective resource to help students navigate their feelings about the attack on the capitol; you can access it here.

3. Discuss the power of the media

Once students have been given time to reflect and process their feelings about the capitol attack, they may be eager to understand the media further. This is a great opportunity to guide them through an inquiry about news coverage, bias, and responsible media consumption.

Often, breaking news and other “alert-style” media forms are incomplete; either they lack critical information, they make speculations, or they include information that is later discounted. Students who are old enough to notice the complexities of the media need to understand the processes through which news becomes public knowledge.

Teachers can turn this into a guided inquiry by asking students the following questions:

  • What is the purpose of news?
  • In what ways does misinformation exploit our beliefs and values?
  • Do news reports always need a reputable source?
  • What tactics do purveyors of misinformation use to manipulate its audience?
  • How can you tell if a source is credible or not?
  • What does it mean to be biased? Is there ever a time when reporting should be biased?
  • To what extent should the media be responsibly run?
  • How is the world of journalism changing?
  • What are some best practises for sharing quality media stories?
  • Does transparency matter?
  • What standards should journalism be held to?
  • In what ways does journalism need to adapt to suit the current climate?
  • What does it mean to have a “critical eye”?
  • How does false and misleading information hurt people?

Some other amazing resources can be found in this PDF shared by the News Literacy Project.

4. Begin an investigative inquiry

It may seem like a strange time to dive into an inquiry with your students, but now is actually a great time to do so. With students engaged in critical thinking, speaking and listening, and some healthy debate and discussion, inquiry learning can truly flourish! Here are some ideas to get you started:

Depending on your class and the age of your students, you can begin with a structured inquiry, a guided inquiry, or a fully independent inquiry. 

Begin by sharing a few key points that summarize the news; this can be done in-person or during a virtual learning lesson. Use strategies like graffiti boards, wraparounds, Jamboards, or other interactive tools to get students generating questions they want to investigate based on the information they know.

Next, allow students to come up with questions they want to know the answers to; these can relate to the news, media, government, free speech, or any topic that correlates to the events from January 6th. Finally, you can choose a few questions to steer your students into a structured inquiry, or you can let them explore and investigate on their own using a guided or independent inquiry. 

Examples of a Structured or Guided Inquiry:

How has journalism in Canada/America, etc. changed?

–> Outcome: Students assess the effectiveness of media in improving the quality of life in some countries/regions around the world

What is considered “news”?

–> Outcome: Students assess the credibility of sources and information relevant to their investigations

What influences our individual and group behaviours?

–> Outcome: Students describe how diverse factors influence and shape individual and group behaviour

How does the reporting of social justice issues differ in various news media?

–> Outcome: Students can analyze the viewpoints in news reports on equity and social justice issues

Moving Forward

Listed below are some resources I’ve used in the past to address difficult issues in the classroom. Some relate more closely to the capitol attack than others. The books listed below include affiliate links. Read more about our affiliate disclosure policy here.

Please drop a comment below to share what lessons have worked in your classroom! Join the discussion on Instagram!

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