How Oklahoma teachers talked about the Capitol riot with students
Watching the news from his social studies classroom, Taft Middle School teacher Eric Parker realized he’d have to scrap the next day’s lesson plan.
A mob was storming the U.S. Capitol. Rioters, supporting President Donald Trump, violently disrupted the U.S. Congress on Wednesday as members certified Democrat Joe Biden’s victory in the November General Election. At least five people would die as a result of the attack.
The next morning, Parker created a slideshow of pictures from the melee and added discussion prompts for his eighth-grade students.
“I feel I have a literal obligation as a social studies teacher to have these kinds of conversations with students,” he said. “I expect social studies teachers to be talking about this right now. If they have any appreciation for what we’re supposed to do with social studies teaching or if they care at all about the future of these students, they’re talking about this today.”
Parker said he wanted to establish an honest description of events for his students and a safe space for them to share their thoughts. Most had heard of what happened, but some only knew bits and pieces, he said.
Parker’s students, most of whom are Black and Latino, noted a difference in the police handling of the deadly riot and more militant responses at Black Lives Matter protests over the summer.
Parker, who is Black and Native American, said he and his students were baffled how a predominantly white mob could enter and leave the Capitol so easily.
Protesters nationwide who demonstrated against racial inequality have said they experienced a much stricter crackdown from law enforcement than what America witnessed in Washington. Little more than a dozen from the mob were arrested Wednesday. More than 80 have been arrested in the following days.
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“They were just really amazed at how this was allowed to happen when they see daily injustice,” Parker said. “It was a lot of processing for them, for me as well. I still look at the images just dumbfounded.”
Students from Frederick A. Douglass High School, more than 90% of whom are Black, were angry the police response seemed so unequal, said Mauri Hubbard and D’Andre Foster, both history teachers and heads of the school’s Law and Public Safety Academy.
At the same time, the students were noticeably more engaged in class while discussing the unrest in Washington, Hubbard said. Apathy has been prevalent through months of virtual learning, but she saw students were eager this week to tackle conversations on racial inequality, white privilege and national politics.
Foster said it resonates with students to have these discussions with teachers who come from a similar background.
“I appreciate the experience because me and Ms. Hubbard both grew up in this community in northeast Oklahoma City,” Foster said. “I think it hits home in a point of commonality and understanding their perspectives.”
Union Public Schools teacher Betty Collins said her eighth graders also recognized a difference in the police response as they watched national news.
Collins, who teaches U.S. history for the Tulsa school district, pulled up live coverage of Wednesday’s Congressional proceedings, figuring it was an opportunity to illustrate the legislative branch. When rioters stormed the Capitol, she found herself explaining a very different event, one for future textbooks.
“I just had to be honest with them and told them that what they were witnessing was not the way democracy in our country was intended to work,” said Collins, who had been teaching for weeks about the peaceful transition of power.
By Wednesday night, 3,000 educators received prompts for classroom discussions from the Oklahoma City Memorial & Museum. The materials encouraged conversations on peaceful protest and enacting change without resorting to violence.
Executive Director Kari Watkins said she saw disturbing parallels between the riot and the 1995 bombing of the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building. Both used violence in pursuit of government change.
Watkins said she was particularly troubled to see an Oklahoma flag among the crowd breaching the Capitol’s security line.
“To watch an Oklahoma flag be waved like we all stood behind that was painful for me,” Watkins said. “What Oklahoman doesn’t understand the horror of domestic terrorism? We’ve lived it. We know it. We drove by it every day. We understand it. We of all people should have an understanding of the senselessness of violence.”