As the House and Senate convened to certify the Electoral College results on January 6, 2021, RHS AP Gov students watched a live feed of senators taking turns to speak on the floor. Some of these senators, following the example of former President Donald Trump, entirely disregarded the legitimacy of the election. Simultaneously, a right-wing mob clamored outside, breaking down security barriers and advancing past Capitol Police. RHS Social Studies teacher Daniel Muro shared the feed of the Senate floor through Zoom with his Period 3 Gov class, business as usual.
But as the afternoon progressed, the mob violently breached the Capitol. As RHS students and teachers finished up their classes for the day, rioters stormed the halls of government, flying Confederate flags and pillaging the building in their frenzied, violent, and sometimes bizarrely aimless invasion. The country was shaken from the assault into Thursday morning. The Ridgewood community was no exception.
For a number of students, the thought of opening up a virtual class at 7:45 AM sharp seemed in poor taste, questioning the point in barreling through a curriculum when a domestic, insurrectionist riot was siphoning all of our attention. For a number of teachers, that feeling was the same, but with the added responsibility of wanting to foster a network of support for students who needed a space to talk, process, and heal.
Six of RHS’s social studies teachers weighed in on this—their approach to coming together in a time of disunity and unrest—and also on how students can best take action in the weeks ahead. Freddie LaFemina, Tim Monahan, Allyson Saladino, Charlie Appel, Gregory Zaino, and Daniel Muro share their thoughts below. While the attack on the Capitol was over two weeks ago, the actions, small and large, taken by the teachers of the RHS community, as well as those of educators across the nation, have such power in upholding a truthful narrative and granting students a safe opportunity to be vulnerable so that we can process the tumult we’ve seen our country undergo.
- Mr. LaFemina – US History Teacher
- Mr. Monahan – Economics Teacher
- Mrs. Saladino – US History Teacher
- Mr. Appel – World History & Human Geography Teacher
- Mr. Zaino – US History Teacher
- Mr. Muro – World History & US Government Teacher
Teachers Medha Kirtane, Patrick Thurlow, and Linda Chamesian were also asked to participate but did not submit responses by the time of publishing.
1. What has your general approach been to covering and responding to the Capitol raid in your classes?
For the first class back, just processing what happened and how we felt about it was the key. Zoom actually allowed me to hear from a lot of students, know how they were feeling, populate the room with their thoughts (even if they didn’t want to say them themselves), just to remind them we’re all in this together. The students were very anxious about [the Capitol raid].
I am there as a guide. I’m not there to put somebody on the board and say, “what do you think?” The history teacher can offer a lot of rich context, give students the tools to learn more and think about how to ask good questions about this. You have to respect the opinions of the people in the room, but at the same time, you absolutely have to set some kind of standard. And that standard is that we need to condemn the violence and call it an insurrectionist riot. It’s like processing the information and creating that common ground as a jumping off point. And if people want to disagree, they have the right to disagree, but it’s important to set that example right at the get-go, and to not really tempt other ideas that don’t condemn the violence.
I teach 5 sections of AP Microeconomics/Macroeconomics and we are currently studying economic inequality and other equity issues. When the insurrection happened on January 6, my classes were already looking at contemporary issues and controversies in the nation (and world) so it was very natural to incorporate that current event into class. Events are still developing and history will ultimately judge President Trump’s role in the insurrection, so I chose instead to focus on giving my students a place to react and share their initial thoughts and feelings about the insurrection.
We have been addressing the Capitol raid since the day after it happened. The first day I saw my classes after the insurrection, we talked about what we saw and how it made us feel. We then have been taking the opportunity to make connections to where we are in the history curriculum. In covering the early Republic, there have been a number of connections to be made. American history is extremely relevant in examining the Capitol insurrection; it will be something our classes revisit the rest of this year.
The general approach has been to allow as much room for students to express and explore their feelings and ideas about the event as I can. In some cases that has involved silently writing, in other small group discussion, and in others open debate. Whatever the activity, the objective is always to help students refine their thinking and engage with their peers.
When current events unfold before our very eyes it is difficult to keep up with the reporting of the facts. By their very nature, things in the news are fluid and always changing. My first approach is to convey this to the students, that the story is still developing and can change as time progresses and more facts are reported. I urge them to be aware that there is a lot of misinformation they will have to navigate through as they process the events unfolding.
At Ridgewood one of our greatest strengths as an educational community is that we have so many gifted teachers that are passionate about what they teach. In difficult times our excellent administrators unite us together and we all share thoughts, practices, and ideas. It helps us further reflect and process the important messages there are to learn.
What we do doesn’t stop there though. So much of teaching is about being nimble and flexible when approaching a lesson. Many of us have been doing what we do for years, but our students still surprise us. We have so many great students in our community and their involvement in the lessons often will cause the teachers to modify and enhance their original plans.
The emotional nature of not only the past few years but the events of Wednesday, January 6, can also not be ignored. Considering all of these things, it has been my general approach to listen to my students. I have presented the most current facts to them about the events and gave them time to reflect, ask questions, and share. I have tried to be candid with them about my feelings on the events, while specifically telling them that their feelings may be different. I have tried to remind them that we have all had different experiences in our lives, which have led us to different beliefs and that is okay. But we are all Americans united under principles that were created by our founding fathers and although times were very different in the 18th century, these principles still hold great value. We all know that we as human beings have our flaws, but it is principles that guide us to a higher purpose. This is why we must protect these principles at all cost.
[The situation] has evolved over the past week (responding on 1/15). Initially, I chose to follow the recommendation of a resource I use often, Facing History and Ourselves. They recommended a very simple approach: “Focus first on emotional processing, addressing the ‘heart’ before the ‘head.’” So, our first conversation in the remote setting was about the events of January 6, 2021, in an attempt to provide students the space to reflect on their emotional responses to what happened. I wanted to give them the opportunity to express their reactions, concerns, questions and have them genuinely received not only by me but their peers as well. We also discussed the importance of listening, being willing to respectfully recognize and engage with perspectives other than their own. It was very helpful for me as an educator, and hopefully it was for my students as well.
2. Especially on a Zoom call, how do you approach comforting students? How do you create a personal, comfortable environment through something as impersonal as a computer screen?
On one hand, we’re robbed of the opportunity to build the kind of community in-class that we would’ve had at this point if we weren’t on Zoom since September. If we had that and [the raid] happened, we could have had a real huddle. The way we could have brought folks together, even physically, to look at each other and to have these conversations, that’s something we could have built on the in-person relationships since September. With that said, there was enough trust in the room, and it varies, where I invited folks to share if they wanted to and I could be a conduit for their thoughts. I was surprised that Zoom, for all the challenges it presents, also presents the opportunity for students to engage in exactly the way they choose, and in ways that are maybe less pronounced or visible. If you need to mute your video for a while, if you need to step away, if you want to not share or not engage… the same thing that’s a benefit is also a disadvantage. We could get a lot of people’s thoughts out there, whether they were voicing them themselves or other people were.
This is always the challenge with the COVID restrictions. At the time of the insurrection RHS was in a fully remote environment, so I couldn’t have any in-class component to this lesson. I wanted to allow students to process, react, and unpackage some of their feelings, but I also wanted to create a space where they could feel completely safe and comfortable. To accomplish this, I used PearDeck, which allows students to respond to prompts anonymously. By screen sharing the results, students could see how their classmates felt, without names being attached to comments.
Connecting with students via zoom has generally proven to be really hard. While it’s important to note that some students actually prefer the security of their own personal space when trying to discuss difficult things, and thus have actually benefited from the experience, for most of us a computer screen just doesn’t feel as real and consequential as a live human being in front of you. For that reason, it has taken patience, humility and a bit of nagging to help kids open up. Once you get a few kids to open up, though, the “safe space” sort of builds itself. When they sense honesty and sincerity, kids tend to respond to and care for one another without anyone having to force them to.
It has been tremendously difficult to make the connections we normally make with students because of the virtual class nature. It is one of the most common complaints I hear from teachers and is why so many teachers are itching to get back to a normal school environment. We all still recognize that safety is paramount, but one of the greatest things about our job is making connections with our students.
That being said, I try and let my students know that my virtual classroom door is always open and if they need to meet, all they need to do is ask. I often miss the student drop-ins to chat about politics, football, Disney, and my favorite TV shows.
Again, I am hopeful that the approach I took the first day helped in comforting my students. It all starts with making sure the students understand that the learning environment is one in which they can safely express their opinions because those opinions will be received respectfully. I have also been mindful of providing the students the opportunity to engage in small group discussions regarding the event in breakout rooms in an attempt to make it more personal. Although I am not present in those rooms one hundred percent of the time, I am confident that respectful discourse has been conducted because of the norms we have established all year long. Rotating the breakout rooms as we respond to different questions also has been beneficial and allows the students to interact with many of their peers in a smaller environment (although obviously still through a screen). We reconvene as a whole class and report out the most significant parts of the group’s conversation, which has worked well I believe.
3. As the teacher, what has the response been like from your students to your classes over the past week? What are a few moments or student contributions you remember specifically?
Students usually like to talk about current events because they are generally relatable as they happen in real time. The most memorable student contributions come when students are passionate; people really do care about the state of the nation even if they have different opinions on how to make America a better place. Listening to students speak about the things that matter to them and their concerns about the state of America give me such hope for the future.
The responses of my students over the past week have been inspiring. The 9th graders, who sometimes aren’t as confident in sharing their opinions on social and political issues, have demonstrated a lot of maturity in the ways that they have discussed the events in D.C and elsewhere. The older kids in my AP Human Geography classes, meanwhile, have all seemed to recognize the gravity of the current moment in US history, and responded in kind. More than half of my seniors have joined me at least once during Period 9 and afterwards to continue a discussion of their thoughts, and several of them have some brilliant ideas about what can and should be done to help move the country forward.
My students have had very open conversations and reflection with one another. I have been impressed and inspired by their willingness to listen to one another and share their thoughts despite many of their differences. It makes me hopeful that they will be better… that they will listen to one another and accomplish more than those of the past.
I will remember our initial conversations where we shared our emotional response to the events of January 6. I will be forever grateful for that opportunity as an educator and for how my students’ insight and willingness to share how they were feeling assisted me in my own efforts to process and understand the event.
4. To what extent do you share your own opinions (on the Capitol raid and on current events more generally) with your students? Why?
It doesn’t just depend on where you teach but teachers, who are employees of the state, can’t actively be campaigning for political candidates and things like that in class, that’s a legal thing, but the ethical part of it is that we do the grading and I’d like to think we have influence over the students. You don’t want to give anyone the impression that they have to agree with something that you’re putting there or is being said in the classroom that could influence their grade or standing in the class or something like that. Your journey is not my journey, it’s important that we can recognize we can have a huge influence.
As a rule, when teaching an issue I will do one of two things. Sometimes I completely abstain from giving my own opinion. This is the most frequent for me. It’s just something I practice, although I don’t think other teachers need to follow it. Other times, I will give a fair presentation of both sides of an argument, then explain which side I am more persuaded by. In these cases I make clear I am giving my opinion only, and that students should feel free to think for themselves and develop their own opinions and reasoning methods.
It’s critical for educators to acknowledge the horror/reality/facts of events that happen. Because I want students to feel comfortable expressing their views, I present the facts at hand and facilitate discussion through questioning.
As a general rule I try to keep my personal opinions and beliefs private in all class discussions, and it’s actually more common for me to argue in favor of a position I don’t personally agree with just so that students are exposed to a full range of opinions. That said, when discussing events like these I think it’s also valuable for students to see their teachers as real people with their own thoughts and feelings about the world. Some things are bigger than academics, and at times it’s important to respect teenagers as equal citizens and just be honest with them about what’s on your mind.
Since Wednesday January 6, I have gotten in the habit of giving a brief update of the most recent news about the events. This is to remind everyone that as new information comes out that the story is constantly changing.
When I share my opinion I try and make an example of myself by reporting the facts that brought me to that opinion, but I also welcome people with different opinions to speak up in a safe environment. Often my students bring up very valuable points, and I think it is important to show them that sometimes listening to others can open your eyes to other ways of thinking.
To me the Capitol building is not only a Federal building… It is a symbol of the principles we hold to be so important. While some of those principles are freedom of speech and assembly, there are also the principles of a free and fair election. Our election process is complex and at times does have flaws, but in a democracy change comes through voting. George Washington recognized this… even Thomas Jefferson in the Election of 1800 noted that his election was a revolution. It is our leadership’s responsibility as elected officials to make us… the people… confident in this process. Our leadership has fundamentally failed at doing this, but this does not warrant the actions that were taken. The events of Wednesday were a culmination of several months and they were the actions of a group of misguided individuals. I say misguided because as they tore through the halls of our Capitol many of them carried the symbol of our American flag. Many of them probably hold the flag in the greatest regard and even thought their actions were in defense of the flag, but the principals it stands for are the exact same principals that our Capitol stands for. Their destruction of the Capitol and violence committed was against the very principals they sought to defend. What began as a demonstration, no different than kneeling to a flag, became a violent insurrection, no different than burning a flag… and for that… all Americans should be upset. Despite all of this, our elected officials assembled together and carried out their duties. We as Americans should be proud of this and we should continue to strive to be a beacon of freedom to the entire world.
I will focus primarily on the events of the past two weeks, since I believe sharing my own opinions generally is not appropriate in a course such as AP Government. I am sure students have formed their own opinions as to what my opinions may be regarding certain contemporary political issues, and that is fine. I do not believe teachers need to present themselves as completely objective robots either. As with all conversations, I try to insure all my students that no matter what their own political ideologies are and their own views may be concerning a particular event they will be received and considered respectfully and for their merits.
5. How do you feel teaching such tumultuous current events? Have you been disillusioned at all? Through the unrest, what keeps you inspired and faithful teaching upsetting topics while setting an example for us young people?
I got everything out of the students. I didn’t even want to teach, I didn’t have anything to say. When things settled down at the Capitol, I wrote to my students that night to at least be able to say things are safe now, things are secure and the process continues, but we’re going to have to figure out what happened here and that won’t take one day. It completely pulled me out of feelings of despair. Even though my students weren’t necessarily just jumping right to expressing hope, in fact most of them were expressing nervousness, fear, anxiety; nevertheless, I told them that I was so moved by their openness to share and be vulnerable and come together and say that to each other. To just slow it down. The students were effusive. They did email me, they did follow up in Period 9, they had the avenue to share and they did express gratitude for that. I told them this may feel like a personal attack—it’s a national trauma—but it might feel very personal, it pierces your security bubble a little bit—I said I know how you feel because I feel it too, I wasn’t sitting there with all the answers. If I had only processed the event with people my own age or other adults I wouldn’t have ended up feeling as hopeful and as secure as if I had spent time with the students. My students really lifted my spirits.
America has been through tough times before and we’ve come out of them. While the current division in America is extremely upsetting, I have to believe that we will come out of these difficult times stronger than we were before. The best example to set is to remain civil with one another, remember that we’re all Americans, we all want what’s best for the nation.
It’s certainly understandable why people might feel disillusioned amidst the turmoil we’ve recently seen, but I think my role as a history teacher helps me to see things a bit differently than a lot of people do. For one, I’m constantly thinking and talking about history, and that helps to remind me how far our country has come. Positive change doesn’t come without fits and starts and challenges, but it does happen, and it’s helpful to be reminded of that. Additionally, and maybe this is cheesy, but I get to talk with young people who give me plenty of reason for optimism about our future. There is so much energy, intelligence and creativity in your generation, and it makes me very optimistic about the future.
Events such as this are emotionally taxing, but I try to see the positive side. As a history teacher, it creates a perfect moment to teach how the lessons of the past can teach us about the present and guide our future. I think above all things, the thing that inspires me, is the power of the human spirit. I saw it in my colleagues as they spent countless hours discussing the events and how they would teach them. I saw it in the members of our congress as they went about their business to finish the process that is an important cornerstone of our democracy.
Personally, I would not necessarily describe myself as “disillusioned” on the morning of January 7. I guess “disappointed” would be more accurate, and maybe a bit lost. Those feelings were immediately rectified by the experience I had with both of my AP Gov classes that morning, though. Processing and reflecting on the events of January 6 with them was not only inspirational but healing as well. Although much of what was expressed was sadness, frustration, and concern for the future, I felt that their ability and willingness to share their emotions and reactions was a tremendous first step in addressing the state of our democracy and what we can do moving forward.
6. How can students get involved beyond the classroom? In what ways have/can/will you facilitate an environment that inspires students to engage with the community and civic/political climate outside of school?
I wanted students to break the ice and call representative Josh Gottheimer by Friday the 15th. Tell him whatever it is you want to tell him, but leave a voicemail, talk to a member of his staff, tell them how you feel. I told classes that this call has no bearing on your own political views, how I’m viewing you, assessing you, your standing in the class, anything like that. I was encouraged because some of my students said “hey, I didn’t realize it was that easy to do. I was nervous to make a call.” I want students to know that they can have an impact. It’s not always about barreling through the class and sticking to the class. We’re trying to teach youth how to be citizens.
There are a lot of great clubs that students can participate in at RHS! One of the clubs I advise, Students for Social Justice, was formed as a result of the conversations students were having last year in the wake of George Floyd’s death. While teachers offer direction as club advisors, the students can really take the lead in the direction and focus of these clubs.
I have a number of different ideas about how we might go about helping students engage with the different communities they feel (and don’t feel) a part of, and so do a lot of the teachers and administrators I talk to, but really it comes down to the students deciding what you guys want to do. We’re here to help, and a large number of us are more than eager to get our hands dirty, but I think the most meaningful student activities are the ones that start with kids taking the first steps.
Our local governments are some of the most important in our life. I try and prompt kids that are passionate to get involved at the local level. I have also tried to stress that community is important and we should all remember that despite everything… We are not alone.
In my AP Gov course, we will be ending the first semester by completing a group project that we hopefully will be able to amplify to the rest of the RHS community in an attempt to engage with the community beyond the classroom. They will be creating “Civic Saturdays” that are designed to foster discussions about our democracy and inspire civic engagement. The purpose of a Civic Saturday is to nurture a spirit of shared civic purpose and responsibility; to make sense of the moral questions we face as citizens; to develop the capacity to act with character in the collective. As a department, we are also organizing a forum mentioned below.
7. How can we educate the truth while simultaneously being compassionate and without getting overly political or divisive?
I set clear objectives when teaching about emotional topics, especially when inviting students to speak. For example, I reiterate the framework of civil discourse and my expectations for productive class discussion. I stress that students do not need to agree with each other, but they do need to listen to one another, respect one another, avoid inappropriate comments directed to one another, and refrain from comments that another student could potentially find hurtful. I like to think that in my economics classes, I model dispassionate, rational, intellectual discourse for my students. What I mean is that in economics there are plenty of issues to debate (minimum wage, tax policy, federal budget, welfare programs, environmental regulation, etc.) but instead of getting emotional about the issues, economists calmly go about measuring the costs and benefits in order to pick a side. I think the world could use more dispassionate and rational debates these days!
Truth and facts matter. History, like current events, can be divisive and political but that’s why it’s so important to work with facts and to consider bias. It’s important for students to feel comfortable expressing their views, but it’s also necessary to point out when something is not factual or cannot/has not been proven.
I think in order to educate towards truth we have to firmly believe that objective truths do exist, and that logic and reason are capable of guiding all free-thinking people in their direction. Once you commit yourself to that, the process of “teaching truth” moves unavoidably in the direction of compassion and away from divisiveness, because it requires teachers and students to develop an understanding of one another. If I don’t try to understand you and how you think, then I can’t help you see reason, and if I can’t get you to reason I can’t get you to truth.
I have morning routines that I have done since I became a teacher. I wake up in the morning and have a cup of coffee and a bottle of water while I review the news. When I look at the news I choose to read the news from various sources with different perspectives and biases. That way I can form my own opinions and discern what is fact and what is fiction or exaggeration. I try to make the point to my students that they should do the same and that we must base our opinions on facts (undisputable) and not others opinions. I stress that this is especially important in the current world we live in.
I am not sure I have found a satisfactory answer for this inquiry. A group of teachers in the Social Studies department are presently working on organizing a virtual forum to discuss this very question which will hopefully include professionals from the field of journalism to assist us in answering this very important question. I also believe that once we have healed from this attack on the very seat of our democracy, we must continue to find the courage to engage in these uncomfortable conversations as long as we establish an environment for civil discourse, even if some of those conversations may be characterized as divisive.
Graphic: Jiah Lee