How teachers can talk about violence at the Capitol

Starting today, teachers across the country, in neighborhoods filled with Biden supporters and neighborhoods filled with Trump supporters, are faced with a challenge: How do they discuss an insurrection on the US Capitol that threatened the peaceful transition of power?

Handmade drawing of the U.S. Capitol building.

Sigal Ben-Porath, an expert in civic education at the Graduate School of Education and fellow at the Center for Ethics at Harvard, says teachers should not ignore yesterday’s historic events, but they have to be prepared for the conversation. Ben-Porath suggests starting with the the facts about the democratic process: according to grade and knowledge levels, discussing the roles of voters, electors, the courts, state legislative bodies, and Congress. The older the kids are, the more detailed the conversation can be, and more opportunities for independent research should be offered.

Discussion can then switch to the events that happened at the Capitol. Look at diverse and reliable news sources, and apply critical digital literacy skills to social media posts that come from unverified sources. Focus on local news and on public media to support a habit of consuming reliable news.

Discuss the reality of living in historic moments. This can be compared to the lives of people in other crucial moments for democracy. Students can talk about where they were, what they did, what others who were nearby might have felt, etc.

The goal, says Ben-Porath, is to find ways to develop together true knowledge about the events. What happened, and why it matters, are the key questions. The process has to include the students, so that they create this knowledge together.

Read more at Penn GSE.