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How NC educators will teach Capitol riots in history class

In the days after January 6, Jimmy Fernandez-Schendt knew his students at Carborough High School were expecting an explanation.

His students watched angry American citizens descend on the U.S. Capitol to stop what they saw as a stolen election by force. The bloody and chaotic scene was eerily similar to the government coups they learned about in the AP comparative government course.

“I think they were clearly shocked,” Fernandez-Schendt said. “Because even in our path that led up to it, it was really hard to understand that something we learned in a different country could happen in our own.”

Fernandez-Schendt said he was able to discuss the rebellion without fear of repercussions or backlash from community members. But he teaches in Carborough, a mostly progressive community – and he knows that’s not the case for many teachers across the state.

As the first anniversary of the uprising in the US Capitol approaches, North Carolina teachers struggle to put the event into the narrative of American history. They navigate the task of teaching their students about this historical event while protecting themselves from criticism or hostility from parents and community members.

Their concern about the rebellion’s education is unfounded. In North Carolina, there have been more than one occasion when teachers have been criticized for introducing controversial materials into the classroom.

In 2015, third-grade teacher Omar Corey became the subject of a volatile community discussion when he read a fictional story called “The King and the King” to his students at Evland.

The book, which tells the story of a prince who finds his prince charming, was intended to teach his students same-sex marriage. Many parents were angry at the prospect of their children discussing relationships or LGBT issues at school.

Most recently, in September, North Carolina Republican lawmakers pushed a bill through the legislature that would limit how teachers discuss racial concepts in the classroom. Despite Governor Roy Cooper’s objection to the bill, communities across the state held rallies in support of the legislation. Some district school boards have even submitted their own anti-racist race theory policies.

Determine what happened

Brian Gibbs, a professor in the University of North Carolina School of Education, said the debate over teaching insurgency can start at the most basic level — even just categorizing and determining exactly what happened.

“Let’s look historically at other incidents similar to this, which are named after different things,” he said. “And let’s wrestle through this definition about what we mean by protest, riot, uprising, rebellion, massacre. And then we get to January 6th, let’s look at rebellion. What do we mean by that?”

Gibbs said that these designations place different people as the perpetrators or victims of the event, and that could become a topic of debate.

The teacher’s job is to present information in the most objective way possible, said Tamika Walker Kelly, president of the North Carolina Teachers’ Association. Middle-ground teaching — not praising or condemning rebellion — she said can help teachers avoid any backlash from community members or parents.

“This means getting a variety of source material or making sure we also let our students know that this topic hasn’t been sorted out,” she said. “It is evolving.”

But Gibbs said that although presenting facts to students may be the safest option for a teacher in terms of protecting his reputation, there is a danger in leaving rebellion under interpretation.

He said the rebels had already begun to classify themselves as social and political activists. They began to pick up language from the civil rights movement and claim that they were simply fighting for their rights.

“I think there’s another danger about the idea that students can conclude that the rebels were good, that they were right, and that they were oriented toward justice in terms of how they did it,” he said.

present the facts

Randy Dunbar, an American history teacher from Kernersville, Forsyth County, attempted to teach Rebellion from the most objective situation possible. Dunbar said he knows there are many rebellion attendees from the district in which he teaches.

Instead of outlining the moral of what happened on January 6, Dunbar asked the students to watch footage from the event and draw their own conclusions.

“I try to teach them to look at things and check facts,” Dunbar said. “And I gave them websites they could go to and check the facts. I tell them, you know, they don’t necessarily believe everything you see.”

Luke Hoelman teaches civics in the pine fir language of western North Carolina. He said Mitchell County is largely conservative, taking an approach similar to Dunbar by presenting the facts and allowing students to draw their own conclusions.

Hoelman said he believes his students can learn about the negative impact of riots, even if they don’t explicitly know the seriousness of what happened. He said he did not believe that many of his students, even the most ardent supporters of the Trump presidency, would come to the conclusion that the rebels were acting with a sense of patriotism.

“I don’t think they’re going to draw that association, necessarily, at least most kids won’t,” he said. “So, I don’t think it’s dangerous to talk about it.”

Walker Kelly said that a general mistrust of social studies teachers has created a culture of fear among teachers. She said that if a teacher was constantly worried about getting under fire for what he was saying in class, he wouldn’t be able to give him the best instructions.

“If I guess my professional experience about the things you need to know, you won’t get the best education you need,” she said. “Or you won’t be exposed to the things you need to know in order to be a thoughtful global citizen in our society.”

UNC Media Hub is a group of students at the Hussman School of Journalism and Media who create integrated multimedia packages covering stories from all over North Carolina.

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