The brazen mob-led attack on the U.S. Capitol last week forced a sudden pivot from planned lessons in some Hawaii classrooms to discussion of the violent siege.
In Cindy Reves’ AP English class at McKinley High School, a planned Thursday discussion on the book, “Into the Wild,” shifted to a spontaneous hourlong dialogue about the previous day’s events in Washington, D.C.
“A bulk of my students said they wanted to talk about current events,” Reves said. “Most shared how they’re feeling: sad, disappointed, embarrassed for our country.”
President Donald Trump’s supporters, some armed, stormed the Capitol building on Jan. 6 as Congress was preparing to certify President-elect Joe Biden’s election win. At least five people died, including a Capitol police officer who was struck in the head with a fire extinguisher.
Across the state, teachers gave students time to share reactions to the incursion and used the violence to discuss topics such as media literacy, racial inequity in policing and even the drawing up of legislative districts.
Debate wasn’t limited to just English or social studies classes either. Joseph Manfre, a math teacher at La Pietra Hawaii School for Girls, said his students overwhelmingly wanted to discuss the siege.
They began by analyzing Vice President Mike Pence’s letter spurning Trump’s demands to throw out electoral votes, then discussed legal ways votes can be influenced, such as drawing up district lines to benefit one political party over the other.
“I did not plan on gerrymandering to come up in the conversation,” Manfre said. He showed his students a video explaining the process and had them work on a sample exercise. “There’s a whole political dimension to the application of math in the real world,” he said.
By introducing such topics, Manfre said, he’s empowering his students to be critical thinkers and to understand that “even rules and laws may be certified and made, but there are flaws in things that are concrete.”
Some teachers also found themselves needing a moment to breathe after the images and footage of the chaos.
“I kind of needed space to process it, maybe even more than (my students),” said Christina Torres, an 8th grade English teacher at Punahou School in Honolulu.
Torres used the attack as a way to study the contrast in policing between the Black Lives Matter protests last year and the Capitol riot — during which U.S. Capitol Police were severely outnumbered and overtaken.
“Most shared how they’re feeling: sad, disappointed, embarrassed for our country.” — Teacher Cindy Reves
She tied the day’s events to the book her middle schoolers are currently reading, “To Kill a Mockingbird,” and how racism and racial inequity still exists today.
“I’m not trying to show them (news) images and say, this is what you’re trying to take away, but a framework of how we can talk about these things,” Torres said. “One of the reasons why our country is so divided is we’ve been so scared to talk about these issues as a nation. It’s led to all these issues gunked up inside us.”
With her students representing a mix of political perspectives, including some who supported Trump in the 2020 election, Torres said she was mindful to keep discussion open and give students space to ask questions.
Yet even her Trump-supporting students remarked on the scarce level of protection in the U.S. Capitol the day of the riots.
“‘Even if I disagree with the election, I think it’s wrong to go into the building and do that,'” she recounted them as saying.
Many of these difficult conversations are taking place within the confines of pandemic learning. Hawaii Department of Education classrooms are still mostly virtual. Turning on the video camera is now the equivalent of raising one’s hand to voice an opinion.
Reves said only three students were sitting in her McKinley High classroom, while more than 20 joined remotely. About a third of her students turned on their cameras to share their reactions, she said.
On the other hand, Manfre’s classes at La Pietra consist of about six kids on average and the school is mostly in-person, so the 90-minute classes allow themes to “marinate” among his students in a tight-knit setting.
For Hawaii students who’ve visited the U.S. Capitol on school trips, watching the building get ransacked was like a punch in the gut. In a Zoom interview on Friday, some expressed a mix of shock and dismay.
“It’s just super shocking to see our Capitol being stormed like that,” said Alexis Joy Viloria, 17, a Maui High senior who visited the building in 2016 on a tour with her middle school media class.
“These people claimed to be patriots but they’re trashing the very symbol of being a patriotic American – of being American, and being for democracy,” she said.
Her classmate, Czerena Bayle, said she worries about the future of the country and a peaceful transition of power between administrations.
“A lot of us just want to know, what does this mean for the future and what’s going to happen after this?” she said.
Guidance from Hawaii school administrators on how to handle these subjects has ranged from more removed speech to outright encouragement.
Punahou president Mike Latham circulated a message to the school community that referenced “another dark chapter in an extremely challenging time” as he encouraged staff to “empower our students to engage in thoughtful and meaningful discussions of difficult subjects and controversial ideas.”
The Hawaii Department of Education has not issued specific guidance but a spokeswoman referred to Board of Education policy that states “opposing points of view shall be considered a normal part of the learning process” and that discussions be grounded in an “objective, factual basis.”
The DOE in on social media also condemned the attack, saying educators “must continue to engage our students in important conversations around respect, racial equality and social justice.”
Top-level DOE officials have not held back on their personal views on social media.
“As a woman of color, I’m going to call this what this is … White, male privilege and racism to the ugliest, most extreme! You will NOT make us feel unsafe in our nation,” superintendent Christina Kishimoto wrote in a tweet the day of the attack.
U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos was the second Cabinet-level member from the Trump administration to resign Thursday over the attack, calling the actions by the violent rioters at the Capitol “unconscionable.”
“Impressionable children are watching all of this, and they are learning from us,” her resignation letter stated.
Other Hawaii teachers are using this opportunity to reinforce the importance of media literacy.
“There’s so much disinformation that comes out so quickly,” said Sarah Milianta-Laffin, a STEM teacher at Ilima Intermediate. When she heard some students repeat false rumors that the Capitol insurrectionists were disguised antifa members, she asked them to check their media sources.
“Middle schoolers are exactly at that age where it’s almost created for them,” she said of memes and falsehoods that can be spread across Internet channels.
“They want to create and be social. They have a firm grasp of technology, but don’t have the media literacy to be able to differentiate (between fact and falsehood),” she added.
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