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'What Are We Going To Do Tomorrow?' How Teachers Tried To Talk About The Attack On The Capitol

Principal Raffel gives his morning announcement

On January 6, Morris Elementary School Principal Dave Raffel and his family stayed glued to the news until late at night as a mob of pro-Trump extremists stormed the U.S. Capitol Building.

He looked over at his son, an 8th grader, processing the images and realized he was going to have to say something to his other kids: the 1,200 at his school.

Every day, Raffel films his morning announcements and says the Pledge of Allegiance for his students, who are still learning remotely due to COVID-19.

On Thursday, he was more conscious of the words of the Pledge and, for one of the few times in his career, felt he needed to send a message to his kids that everything was going to be okay.

“I know yesterday many of you may have watched TV and maybe saw some things that were concerning and maybe even scary for you,” he said in the YouTube video.

Raffel told them violence is never how to handle their problems and quoted Mr. Rogers: "When you see scary things in the news -- look for the helpers."

“I've always been very upfront about things. And so, when something goes down, I try to just be honest with kids when I talk to them and, again, trying to be sensitive, trying to be aware that parents have different ways of what they want their kids exposed to, but I try to teach it as a life lesson,” said Raffel. “And I try to bring it back to what we try to teach.”

Watching an assault on the Capitol is shocking, but for Nicole Frazer and the other social studies teachers in her department, the pro-Trump mob was predictable.

“It was overwhelming,” she said. “As it's going on, part of it was just kind of like, of course, this is what's happening. This is what they've been saying the whole time.”

She teaches government and history at Jefferson High School in Rockford along with Lukas Clevenger.

“Our first reaction as we're sitting there watching it, it's going to be that whole, ‘What do we do tomorrow? Like, how are we going to bring this up?’” said Clevenger.

He was in the middle of teaching a unit about the Civil War, which provided a context to events he could have never fathomed he’d have to discuss as a first-year teacher.

He pulled up the picture of a man walking the halls of Congress holding a Confederate flag.

“The kids I think were mostly shocked than anything that they had never even thought about it that the Confederates never made it into D.C. with that flag, but it was able to just stroll into the building yesterday,” said Clevenger.

Lessons on the Election of 1800: the first peaceful transfer of power; and the War of 1812: the last time a violent mob breached the Capitol, suddenly take on new relevance and urgency.

Mikel Andrade got home from work on Wednesday and didn’t think it was real.

“At first I didn't believe it. I thought it was like, some fake news or something,” said Andrade.

He’s a senior at Jefferson High School. He thinks political violence in America like this could be more common as he gets older.

“To be honest, I feel like it's gonna impact a lot of us young people,” he said. “We're gonna see violence, they're gonna see it more normally.”

His teachers couldn’t hold as much discussion about it as they’d like to -- a consequence of their blended in-person and remote classes during the pandemic. Nicole Frazer’s in-person U.S. History class has five students, compared to 28 in the remote course.

She used resources from the PBS Newshour to guide her students through the events of January 6 and what the pro-Trump extremists did at the Capitol. She also stepped back and explained not only why Congress was there, but also how baseless claims of election fraud were denied in court. It also became another lesson on media literacy.

“It's really important for the students to understand that when they're reading something, the language that's being chosen is being chosen for a reason,” said Frazer. “It's trying to get you to understand or trying to reach a certain group of people.”

Another one of their social studies colleagues dove deeper into the role of white supremacy and domestic terrorism in the day’s events.

Between the pandemic and the attempted siege of the center of American Democracy -- educators have had to figure out how to explain unprecedented events more than they ever imagined over the past year.

But in 2021, in the age of social media, students are going to hear about it. And teachers want to be there to help them process what’s going on -- and look out for those helpers.