When the siege on Capitol Hill unfolded on Wednesday, Chrissy Prince — an 11th grade U.S. history teacher at Brooklyn Collaborative Studies in Carroll Gardens — knew she needed to deviate from her regularly scheduled lesson plan on the Revolutionary War.
"This is history," Prince recalled thinking as she saw what occurred in the nation's capital. "Whatever we were doing was not going to be as important and as relevant to discuss as what our kids are living through right now."
Her colleague, John Schmitt, got little sleep that night, waking up at 5 a.m. to develop a lesson plan tailored for students in the 6th to 12th grade public school that explored the chaos that happened on Wednesday when a mob stormed the Capitol during the certification of the presidential election for Joe Biden. The events of the day, much of it captured on social media, resulted in the deaths of five people, including a Capitol Hill police officer with roots from New Jersey.
For teachers, the moment doubled as a chance for students to express themselves, attempting to seek answers over the bedlam that transpired in Washington, D.C. Schmitt already knew he would develop a lesson plan before Schools Chancellor Richard Carranza sent an email urging educators to devote time to the insurrection, telling them they have the "opportunity, and the responsibility to acknowledge and discuss these events." It was discussed among teachers at BCS on Wednesday evening. Carranza provided a resource link to help flesh out any lesson plans.
With COVID-19 forcing middle and high schoolers to learn remotely for an indeterminate time, students dealt with the trauma from home. Under normal circumstances, BCS students would be told to form a circle inside the classroom to share their perspectives during a crisis. This time, discussions happened over Zoom. In some instances, students kept their cameras off, making it difficult for Prince to gauge reactions.
"They're 16 and 17 years old, and what they've experienced this past year of their life is, it's intense," Prince said. "Just what they've seen and what they've experienced, they're incredibly resilient. And yet still, we're still able yesterday morning to engage in a really insightful and critical conversation with their teachers."
Schmitt developed the lesson plan in a Google Slides format with the first slide reading, "Welcome. Today we need to talk." Students were first presented with a piece produced by ABC News that went over the day's events, followed by a speech delivered by U.S. Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, who offered the historical context of the day, noting the assault on Capitol Hill was the first in 200 years.
A portion of the lesson allowed students to sort out their feelings through journaling.
"Students need time to process and to journal, because they weren't up until 3 a.m. like I was following the news," Schmitt said. "To give them a chance to journal silently, even five minutes, with some prompts, really goes a long way for them to be able to really put together vocabulary and express how they're feeling."
There was time for questions in Zoom breakout rooms, with Schmitt finding the focus on the discussion to be largely on the treatment of the insurrectionists by Capitol Hill police, including one instance where an officer was seen taking a selfie with one person who stormed the capitol. For Prince's students, the comparisons were alarming.
"The most frequent thing that came up in kids' responses was, 'Well, how come what I was watching on TV last night looked so different from what I was watching on TV in June?'" Prince recalled. "There was no part of our opening where we talked about that. That was something that they brought up on their own."
Schmitt found a similar pattern for his group after asking them to develop come up with words that captured their feelings.
"Students brought up terms like 'white privilege,' they brought up things like 'disgusted' or feeling ashamed to be American," Schmitt said. "As teachers, I think it's, you know, we just sort of let that be because it does need space to breathe. And I'm proud that the teachers in our class really took a big step back, and sort of set their passions to the side, and the students just expressed."
The events have led many students to consider their place when discussing civic affairs. Tamika Styles, a BCS teacher who helped moderate the conversation with her 6th grade class, predicts greater civic engagement that goes beyond just writing about current events surrounding them, but being part of the process.
"Those days are long gone, where young people are looking around them," Styles said. "They are taking notice of the actions of the adults and the world around them, and they're drawing their own conclusions. "