The recent attempted coup at the U.S. Capitol not only highlighted the lengths white supremacists would go to challenge election results but raised questions among local educators on how to help District youth understand the significance of the historic event.

For Ward 8 D.C. State Board of Education [SBOE] Representative Dr. Carlene Reid, pending revisions to the District’s social studies standards provide a perfect opportunity. And while not directly involved in the process, Reid said the changes could better inform youth on the intricacies of the U.S. government and their place within it.

“The group working on the social studies standards is giving a holistic way [of studying history and government]; not just events but the full scope of what actually happened, what led to it and how it’s processed,” Reid said.

On January 6, Reid counted among tens of thousands worldwide who watched as Trump supporters scaled the walls of the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the certification of President-elect Joe Biden’s electoral victory. She said those who breached Capitol security lacked the education necessary to disregard President Donald Trump’s conspiracy theories.

“Civics plays a role in that,” she said. “I heard about the protest coming into town but was more interested in seeing the Electoral College votes for the first African-American vice president. You have to know the key constructs of our government to appreciate these events. It shows the true checks and balances that are in place.” (An upcoming Washington Informer report will share more about SBOE’s plans to update the District’s social studies standards).

Students Reflect on the Assault

In the days following the recent U.S. Capitol breach, political pundits and activists of color have highlighted contrasts between how law enforcement officials prepared for protests led by white versus nonwhites in previous encounters throughout the District, particularly following the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

Similar conversations have so dominated virtual classroom discussions that educators have allowed time for students to explore their feelings and to analyze the racial implications of the U.S. Capitol insurgency.

At Jefferson Middle School Academy, eighth graders under the tutelage of Langston Tingling-Clemmons, jotted down their thoughts and touched on encounters they’ve had with federal law enforcement officials on their walks between campus and L’Enfant Plaza Metro Station before the pandemic.

“I think some students have a lot of questions. [The attempted coup] has definitely sparked their curiosity,” said Tingling-Clemmons who teaches American history.

“I think a lot of students have demonstrated that they’re jaded with how authority treats people of different colors and I’m not sure if they understand how systemic it is. But they understand that the status quo doesn’t treat both communities, as far as race is concerned, equally and equitably.”

The District’s social studies standards, as outlined by the Office of State Superintendent for Education, divides instructions into the following categories: history, geography, economics, and politics and government. And while much of the curriculum focuses on the District, the U.S. and Europe, students begin to learn about American history upon entering the fourth grade.

In the months preceding the insurrection, fourth graders at Boone Elementary, a majority-Black school located east of the Anacostia River, learned about the Great Migration of the 1920s. They also analyzed how various texts, depending on the author, characterized Christopher Columbus’ violent encounters with indigenous people in the Western hemisphere.

Jamila Thompson, a social studies and English instructor at Boone, said students must continue to learn about American history and government in the context of their lived experiences as marginalized people.

On the day following the Capitol riots, she allowed her students to discuss what happened and to establish connections between that event and previous moments in American history during which Blacks were terrorized.

“As teachers, our role in civics is to help students have that passion for history,” Thompson said. “I know I’m doing a good job when my students are angry, asking questions, invested in understanding and making connections – especially connections that lead to the president. That’s something that won’t leave them even though they’re fourth graders and it’s going to give them the eye to see what stories have been left out and whose perspective is missing.”

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Sam P.K. Collins

Sam P.K. Collins has more than a decade of experience as a journalist, columnist and organizer. Sam, a millennial and former editor of WI Bridge, covers education, police brutality, politics, and other...

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