Saturday, October 9, 2021

It's Time for a Return to an Elected Boston School Committee

As a Boston Public Schools (BPS) parent, Citywide Parent Council (CPC) Representative, educator (former social studies teacher and current teacher educator), and Dorchester resident, I've long advocated for an elected school committee. I am not alone, as many parents (like my colleague on the CPC Suleiko Soto and fellow Dorchester parent Matthew Shochat), students, and former elected school committee members (such as Jean McGuire) have been demanding this for years. This movement has culminated in a ballot question this fall, asking the residents to vote on returning to an elected school committee here in Boston.

Boston is the only municipality in Massachusetts without an elected school committee due to a home rule petition and bill passed by the state legislature in 1991. Of course, many people remember the Boston Busing Crisis of the mid-1970s, which was a situation made worse by the actions of the all-white school committee at the time (I recommend watching this or reading this, which provide an excellent background). However, the move to a mayoral appointed Boston School Committee had nothing to do with the busing crisis and it did not occur until about 15 years later. In fact, in the early 1990s, it was parents of color who were the strongest opponents to an appointed school committee (including Black political leaders like John D. O'Bryant, Charles Yancey, and Bruce Bolling). In contrast, a white parent-led door-to-door campaign in favor of the mayor having control was effective and the measure narrowly passed in a non-binding referendum

Above: My daughters, who are Boston Public School students, when told what Question 3 was, said, "We should be able to vote for the school committee!" (they have attended school committee meetings in the past and know how important they are) and made these signs.

Yet, in the years since, the appointed school committee has not been the panacea that its supporters claimed it would be. There was turmoil in the early years, unpopular decisions in the 90s and early 2000s (see here, here, here, and here), years of unanimous votes based on the mayor's wishes, and several problematic recent decisions and incidents (see here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here). The community may already understand the importance of this issue, as there seems to be widespread support among both voters and city council candidates. Even former mayor Ray Flynn, who pushed for the change, expressed regrets only a few years later.

Above: Boston is the only municipality in Massachusetts without an elected school committee.

To be honest, any structure has disadvantages and it would be naïve to think changing the structure alone would inherently produce more equitable access for students to high-quality learning (related, I am also concerned about the amount of dark money flowing into school committee races nationwide). Regardless of structure, the reality is that educational equity comes from district leadership, the work of teachers and administrators, and funding choices made by the city and state. To be fair, Boston has made important educational improvements over the past few decades, including making the city's exam schools (see also here) more equitable for students of color, dramatically expanding the number preschool seats, and having increases in its students' scores on national standardized tests. But these changes have come despite not having an elected school committee, rather than because of having an appointed one. It is likely those changes would have happened regardless; Boston has significantly changed in many ways (including the city's wealth) since the 1990s. Moreover, the Boston City Council is the most diverse in its history, and structures can be put in place to ensure that an elected school committee would similarly represent the diversity of our city.

Above: Jean McGuire was the first African American woman to be elected to the Boston School Committee. She opposed ending the elected school committee and supports its return. Read her thoughts here.

There is a long history of democratically elected school committees in Massachusetts. Boston voters elected their first School Committee in 1789. The Commonwealth mandated that each community elect its school committee in 1826 (during the era of Horace Mann's education reforms). Since then, school committees have served as citizen oversight of our public schools. For me, this is an issue of democracy, equity, and racial justice. If the other 350 municipalities have elected school committees in Massachusetts, so should the one where I live, especially since this is a city where people of color are the majority and 85% of our students are students of color. Since 1991, Boston's residents have been disenfranchised on this aspect of democracy. For this reason alone, we should restore an elected school committee.

Ludlow High School (above; what it looked like in the 1990s) had not had any major reservations since it was built in 1962. As a high school student, I worked with my peers to influence the elected School Committee and Board of Selectmen to change that. As a teacher and union member in the Framingham Public Schools (below), I witnessed how the elected school committee was often responsive to parents and voters in the community.

My support for Yes on Question 3 is also based on my experiences living and working in three different Massachusetts communities. I have seen stark differences between communities with elected and unelected school committees. I grew up in Ludlow, which is a suburb of Springfield. When I was in high school, our school building was in great disrepair. My classmates and I witnessed members of the Board of Selectman make clear that they wanted to keep property taxes low and would not support borrowing to make renovations. As a result, students in town formed a movement to pursue change. Many seniors were 18 and we voted as a block to elect pro-renovation candidates to the board of selectman and school committee. This led to changes in leadership, and the town would later approve a multi-million dollar renovation of the building. 

My next experience was as a teacher and union member in the Framingham Public Schools, where I was a high school history and government teacher for eight years. For two of those years, I served as the Political Education Chair for the Framingham Teachers Association. In that role, I led protests related to stalled contract negotiations and a campaign to reduce class size. While we did not always see eye-to-eye with school committee members, I knew each of the members and they would almost always respond to and work with the teachers union (the district eventually settled our contract and added language about reviewing class size yearly). More importantly, in our conversations, they would often cite the concerns of parents and voters in how they made the decisions, as that is who they were ultimately accountable to. 

Meanwhile, I was raising my family in the Dorchester neighborhood of Boston without an elected school committee. As someone with a child about to enter school, I deeply opposed the changes that were proposed to the district's school assignment process, which would move from a large number of choices within three zones to a home-based system that would result in parents having fewer choices (based on an algorithm that proclaimed to be race-neutral). Along with many others, I knew that these changes would negatively impact Black and Latinx families the most, but would also make the districts' schools more segregated. I wrote letters opposing the plan with no reply from school committee members, attended community meetings, testified at hearings, and met with fellow parents. I closely examined the work of Quality Education for Every Student, who had similar concerns. We then all watched as the unelected school committee unanimously approved the change despite protests (several studies have shown that our suspicions were correct and the district has experienced increased segregation as a result). 

After my daughter entered BPS, I was motivated to run to be the Citywide Parent Council representative for her school (the CPC is the umbrella organization for all of parent councils in the district and the officially recognized voice of all BPS parents). As a CPC rep., I saw again and again how us parents were relatively united on most issues (from changing the food services vendor to stopping schools from being closed and demanding tents for outdoor lunch during a global pandemic), but the school committee often hesitated to respond or outright voted against our stances. Moreover, we were almost never visited by school committee members, with the exception of a couple years ago when the chair came to lecture us on his preferred agenda (where he made clear that the appointed school committee provided "harmony" and that he was a "city finance guy, not an education guy."). My time as a CPC rep. has been five years of feeling voiceless and powerless (and I think most of my fellow CPC reps. would agree). In contrast, whenever I called or e-mailed my district or at-large city councilors, I have always received replies within days. Several city councilors have visited the Citywide Parent Council to work with us on various BPS and education-related issues. In fact, my daughters' school was not approved to expand to include a 6th grade, which would have had a devastating effect on our school community (especially since many secondary schools in Boston begin at grade 7 and parents had for years been left struggling to find school options for one year; we would routinely have a large exodus of students to K-8 schools in 4th grade for this reason). We wrote letters to and protested at school committee meetings. However, it was not until parents in our community reached out to our city councilors and they became involved, that we finally were given a meeting with the superintendent's office and received word that our school would get its needed expansion

While an elected school committee will not solve all of our educational problems in Boston, it can only help add a level of accountability through the return to democracy. Democracy is messy, but it is the best form of government we have. This is true for the Boston School Committee, as well.

The time is now for us to return to an elected school committee in Boston.

Monday, September 27, 2021

Teaching Using Critical Family Histories

Above: Genealogical research has become a popular past time for some people, but, done with a critical lens, it also offers an important way to understand social power and privilege leading to a more accurate understanding of the present for students.

Most historians know that senior citizens love doing genealogy. Over the years, I have visited many libraries and archives that hold state and national records to do research, and I have always been impressed at how many folks in retirement are there scouring Census and municipal wedding records trying to know more about who they are and where their families come from. With the recent popularity of DNA ancestry kits, more middle aged and young adults are getting also involved in researching their family's past (related, here is an article on how DNA ancestry tests work better for white people). This has been made even easier in recent years with more records becoming digitized and many can now be easily accessed from the comfort of one's home.

However, in my recent book with Kaylene Stevens on teaching history for justice, we suggest that ancestor research, especially when it involves critical historical analysis, can be a powerful tool for younger people to also engage in history. More importantly, when used in the classroom, it can help make history more relevant to their lives and helps students understand a more complex and honest story of their family's past.

Above: Many people have long been interested in researching their family histories and there are many books to help. There are many resources for white genealogists, but it is often harder to find resources for people of color's ancestors. Blackpast has a nice set of resources for African American genealogy. The National Indian Law Library lists these resources for Native genealogy. Family Tree Magazine lists these resources for Latinx genealogy. Christine Sleeter has compiled these resources for Asian American genealogy.

What are Critical Family Histories?

As Christine Sleeter described it, critical family history is a tool for understanding how one's family history relates to larger social power relationships and cultures (here is a special issue of the journal Genealogy on it). While her work focuses primarily on its use by white people, I would like to describe how it can benefit all students within the history classroom (it also can be a way to get around prohibitions on teaching race and racism that have emerged recently in politically conservative states).

For white students, critical family histories can serve as a place to consider how their families may have struggled and achieved accomplishments overtime, but also how systems were in place to ensure their success and accumulation of wealth and social stability. Sleeter wrote, "White people, especially those of middle class status and above, tend to think of ourselves and our stories in individualistic terms. But since who we are involves not just the work of individuals, but also how individuals’ lives were shaped by local culture and power relationships across generations, ... this illuminates the social contexts of family lives, and that would help to unearth memories we have lost."

For students of color, critical family histories can serve as a place to understand how their family's stories have been shaped by the realities of oppression, but in a way that uplifts by providing examples of resistance, survival/survivance, and accomplishment. It can help explain to students why ancestors made certain choices (sometimes forced), and allows students to draw connections between their family's past and their present. It is important for teachers to also be mindful that the only times that students of color often learn their histories is when topics involve their ancestors' oppression (Black students often only see their ancestors in the curriculum through enslavement and segregation. Indigenous students see their ancestors through white colonization. Asian American students see their ancestors through Japanese incarceration during World War II or poor treatment during the building of the Transcontinental railroad. Latinx students see their ancestors through undocumented immigration in the past half-century). The point of critical family histories is to not only teach about historical oppression, but also fill in the gaps of perseverance and success between those difficult moments.  

Above: Images from the same historical periods of European immigrants entering the U.S. at Ellis Island and African Americans working as sharecroppers on what were formerly plantations of enslaved people. Rarely do white people think about how their ancestors' immigrant experience related to sharecroppers' lives during that same era. Understanding these and other groups' interrelated historical experiences is at the heart of critical family history.

Usually when people construct family trees, they locate as much information as possible about their ancestors without thinking much about historical context or social structures. Like any family tree project, critical family histories begin with the individual and starts working background, collecting information, drawing connections, and tracing family histories. However, unlike traditional family histories, each step of the process must also involve a contextualizing  of ancestors' experiences with the events and social structures of the time. 

For instance, if a white student is researching about their grandparents who were born after World War II, it is essential that they look at the social policies and practices at the time. For instance, if they learn that their family moved from an inner city to a suburb in the 1950s, it is important to also examine local redlining practices (here is a great website that maps the inequity of redlining) and describe how it may have played a role in giving certain groups advantages over others. When a student is researching their great grandparents who immigrated from Europe, they should also examine the impact of the 1924 and 1965 Immigration Acts, and how first created the concept of so-called "illegal immigration" and that Europeans arriving before it, came with relatively few restrictions (and it dramatically restricted immigration from Asia, Latin America, and Africa).

Critical Family History Questions and Process

When engaging in critical family histories, Christine Sleeter suggests students should be guided by the following questions: 

  • Who else (what other groups) was around? 
  • What were the power relationships among groups? 
  • How were these relationships maintained or challenged over time? 
  • What does all this have to do with our lives now?

She also offers a process for helping engage in critical family histories, which involves several steps:

Step 1 is to expose students to critical frameworks (such as the Historical Context Questions Framework and the Hidden 4 P's of Immigration), so they better understand how power dynamics and social structures operate. I recommend reading books on how concepts of race, racism, and whiteness have changed over time and led to certain groups gaining power and privilege over time (here, here, here, here, here, here, here, and here are few excellent books to excerpt).

Step 2 is to have students engage in oral history interviews with their relatives. Have them ask family members to bring old photos, records, letters, artifacts, etc. This will often help students begin creating a list of "clues" that need further researching. Students may want to make digital scans of these items, so they can preserve them for themselves and family members. Also, realize that some students may be adopted or may not have much information on their families for a host of different reasons. I suggest giving those students different options for the project (especially if looking into their family history may cause duress or harm), including working with a classmate on their family history or researching the family of a famous person.

Step 3 is to have students take whatever relevant evidence that they have received about their family's past and then construct a family tree. There are a few good websites that can help students manage family trees and some offer some free access to certain records and documents (here, here, and here are some popular ones; some websites are run by religious groups or share family trees with other members-so you will want to let your students and their parents know that, so they can think about confidentiality). 

Step 4 is to begin searching vital records to learn more about the people in the family tree (it would be helpful for students to get from family members as many names, birth and death dates, and home locations of relatives as possible). Birth, marriage, death, and immigration records often reveal additional information about relatives and events. In this step, students often uncover more members of the family tree by finding connections in the public records (the Census can be especially helpful as it shows who is living in the same household and includes the names of family members and shows their relationship). Here are some great places to gain free access to individual records: U.S. (more here and here), Canadian, and Mexican Census Records, West Coast and Ellis Island Immigration Records, American Indian Federal Records, Federal Slavery Records, Federal Freedman Bureau Records, Japanese American Relocation Records, Chinese Immigration National Archives Guides, Jewish Global Records, Grave Records, Newspaper Archives (also here), Land and Deed Records, Bureau of Land Management Records, or even putting ancestors names in Google or other search engines (this may reveal unconventional family documents or stories). Many communities also have historical societies that can help locate information or documents.

Step 5 is to search for additional resources that give context to the students' ancestors' experiences. This is the most important step, as it is what adds the "critical" to family history. I suggest before proceeding to this step that teachers explicitly teach about some important oppression-related historical concepts that may arise as students research their ancestors, including settler-colonialism, slavery, segregation/redlining/employment and education discrimination, anti-immigration policy, and the role of race and class in military drafts. This would also be an important place to have students research major events of their ethnic/racial communities. 

Above: The Nakai family, who were Japanese Americans living in Berkeley, California in the 1940s (top; my mother-in-law is the child on the bottom left) and the Salinas family who were Mexican Americans living in Kansas City, Missouri in the 1980s (bottom).

For instance, if a student is Japanese American, it would be important for them to learn about Japanese American incarceration during World War II (they may or may not have learned about it from their family, as many Japanese Americans are still unable to share about their experience), which was an event that impacted the entire community, even if certain members were not imprisoned by the government. However, it would also be important for the students to research other important components of the Japanese American experience (and Asian American experience more broadly), such as Angel Island, Asian exclusion acts, discrimination of Japanese American farmers, kibei or returning for education in Japan, survival of Japanese American communities and creation of the Japanese American National MuseumImmigration Act of 1952, and redlining housing practices), but this should be done in tandem with the students asking about the experiences of other ethnic/racial and social groups groups during those same periods (for instance, how did other Asian American, Black, Indigenous, Latinx, and white people experience World War II? What aspects were similar or different for Japanese Americans?). Be sure to avoid essentializing experiences. For example, teachers will often problematically teach the experiences of a group as a monolith. For example, there has been no one Latinx experience in U.S. history-for each group, it varies based on ancestors' country of origin, geography, and period. 

Step 6 is to have the students "go public" with their critical family history findings. This can be done by having students create a report or presentation on their family emphasizing the critical and contextual findings. I recommend that white teachers first model this by sharing their own family histories modeling how to discuss the role of privilege or power in their own family stories. Teachers of color may want to pair with a white colleague sharing their stories together to help white students see how historical experiences often contrast based on race. The purpose of sharing is not to have everyone find oppression in their stories, but rather provide a more honest and complex contextualization of family histories. It is important that teachers continually ask students to return back to those critical frameworks as their lenses, which will help them see their families' histories within a larger and more complex social context.

If done well, critical history projects can be incredibly powerful for students. They can evoke a sense of pride in students (including white students) by learning of all that their ancestors did (much of it positive), but also adds important context and reveals power dynamics, making it more truthful and helping students understand how the structures that governed their ancestor's experiences influence their lives today and in many ways continue in the current day. 

Example: My Own Critical Family History

Above: (Left) My great grandfather (with hat; as a child standing behind his tenement in Holyoke, Mass.), whose family immigrated from Québec in Canada and (Right) my great grandmother (on right, in an family portrait taken in Chicopee, Mass.), whose family immigrated from Galicia in Poland.

As a white person with ancestors from French Canada and Poland, I was long told that my ancestors struggled as a result of their difficult choices to immigrate to the U.S. (which is certainly true in many ways), but engaging in critical family history helped me understand how my family also enjoyed certain advantages and privileges that influenced my opportunities in the present.

My great grandparents were French Canadian immigrants who took trains from Montréal, Québec to Holyoke, Massachusetts in the 1890s (my great grandfather actually grew up in a tenement building right next to the train station). Like many farmers in Québec, my ancestors struggled during a major economic depression in the mid- to late-1800s and made the same choice as 900,000 other French Canadians who moved to New England to work in the factories (as well as logging and farming industries). Holyoke was a paper mill town where they found dangerous and low paying jobs and faced discrimination from the Anglo and Irish populations that had already settled there.

However, that is only part of their story (and might have been the only one revealed, if my family history only focused on my ancestor's experience without a larger social context). When I traced my family history through Québec genealogy records, I found that the first Martel (My family lore said that my great grandfather changed the spelling of our last name to avoid debts, which I was able to partially confirm through various records) was a person named Honoré Martel. He was a soldier in the French Army from Paris who fought in the Caribbean and Canada. He would marry Marguerite Lamirault, a woman from Paris who came with the filles du roy or King's daughters (a program created by Louis XIV to ensure a long-term French settlement in Canada). This was the first evidence that I had that my French Canadian ancestors benefited from systems that privileged white people. My 8th great grandfather had participated in the killing and taking of land of Indigenous people, including the Abenaki, Atikamekw, Huron-Wendats, Mohawk, and others. My 8th great grandmother came as part of a settler-colonial project to permanently inhabit those same peoples' land. This was a troubling part of my family's past, something I needed to directly confront as my part in a settler-colonial system that still exists and that I still benefit from today.

Above: A FOLC redlining map showing where my great grandfather grew up in Holyoke and then moved to a farm in Ludlow.

Fast forward to the 20th century. My great grandfather Donat Lapointe lived with his family in a part of "The Flats" of Holyoke called Frenchville. Most of his neighbors were French Canadian immigrants who work in the factories there. They attended a francophone Catholic Church called L'Église-du-Précieux-Sang (Precious Blood Church). They played in the back lot of their tenement (the only picture that we have of his childhood is of him with siblings and cousins there). However, French Canadians began moving out of Holyoke in large numbers in the 1920s. After getting married, my great grandfather bought a farm in the neighboring town of Ludlow, where French Canadians created their own new church called Église-Saint-Jean-Baptiste (Saint John the Baptist Church). In fact, by the New Deal, the area that my grandfather had grown up in was redlined in a process where the map was literally colored red which meant "hazardous." As the French Canadians moved out, Polish, Greek, Russian, and Italian immigrants moved into the area. In the 1950s, Puerto Rican migrants settled in that same area. This was another troubling aspect of my family's history, as they participated in the "white flight" of the era. In this process, my family benefited from a system of whiteness that allowed them to own a house and land after one generation, where Black and Latinx residents were essentially redlined from their suburb of Springfield, Massachusetts. Additionally, with the movement of white people to the suburbs, places like Holyoke were given less government resources to maintain and improve their communities. Highways, like Interstate 91, 291, and 391 were built through Holyoke and Springfield (dividing neighborhoods), so people like my great grandfather (who by the 1950s worked at a Westinghouse Factory in Springfield in addition to maintaining their farm) could drive to work from the suburbs.  

This same story repeated for my Polish ancestors, who fled poverty in Galicia in the early 1900s and immigrated directly to Ludlow where they worked in factories. While the work conditions were poor (they may have participated in the 1909-1910 Ludlow Strike led by Polish immigrants), the factories generally practiced employment discrimination against the area's African American population. Much like my French Canadian relatives, they benefited from changing definitions of whiteness and owned land and had stable employment within a generation. Moreover, my Polish grandparents were able to help establish a Polish Catholic Church in Ludlow, where they were able to preserve their religion, culture, and language (Polish is still spoken there), and no one accused them of being disloyal to the United States (unlike my wife's family's experience when they formed Japanese American communities in the San Francisco Bay Area, as it resulted in a very different treatment by white people in the area).

Example: My Former Students and Critical Family Histories

Above: Students from Framingham High School at graduation.

As a former teacher in the Framingham Public Schools, which is an immigrant community just west of Boston (that has a very similar New England factory town story to Holyoke), I would have my students interview their family members and research their family's immigration, forced migration, or Indigenous histories. White students were fascinated to learn most families came before 1924 without restriction, which troubled the "my family came here legally" narrative. Many traced their roots to the mass Irish, Italian, or Eastern European Jewish immigrants to the area in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Others were descendants of the first white people to settle in the town in the 1700s, or the smaller African American community that developed in the late 1700s and early 1800s, with a few students' parents being members of the Nipmuc or Wamponoag tribes. Many of my students' families had migrated from Puerto Rico to work in the town's farms in the 1950s and 60s. The most recent wave of immigrants came from Brazil in the 1980s and Central America and East Africa in the 2000s. For many, this project was their first time hearing of their families' struggles to come to New England.

Many of Latinx and Asian American students learned of the sacrifices their parents made (sometimes forced to come undocumented) due to 1965 immigration changes (one student even learned that his family came here in a container ship-risking his life). Puerto Rican students often heard stories of their families not being seated at local fancy restaurants along Route 9. Some African American students learned about their grandparents or great grandparents moves to the North during the Great Migration, but also that they could only find housing in certain areas just outside downtown. One student relayed a story that his father told him about being a stowaway on a container ship from Brazil, where he risked his life to come to the United States. 

White students would often learn about the sacrifices that their families made when they immigrated from Italy or Ireland. However, they also learned about how the town had long had racial divisions between the north side and south side (which was divided by two main highways, Route 9 and the Massachusetts Turnpike) due to racial covenants and other racist housing policies and practices. Students who were descendants of the first settlers in Framingham learned how their ancestors participated in numerous acts of violence toward Native people. They learned that an important act of Native resistance, where often recorded in the town history through white narratives (such as the Nipmuc Uprising traditionally called the Eames Massacre or the numerous acts of resistance by Tantamous). Students grappled with the ways that these events led to a town where their people benefited at the expense of others.

For my students and myself, critical family histories helped us understand how we were advantaged and disadvantaged by different forms of oppression, how the complicated histories of how our ancestors experienced the world frame our present, and how we can use that knowledge in the future to seek more fair and just outcomes from everyone in our communities. As students continued to learn U.S. history through the remainder of the year, I saw how they know could imagine where their ancestors appeared within the historical periods that we were studying, but it helped give them lenses for understanding other peoples' ancestors experienced those same events.

Saturday, July 31, 2021

Teaching About the Capitol Insurrection

Above: Images from January 6, 2021, when a group of people participated in an organized insurrection of the U.S. Capitol with the goal of overturning the free and fair 2020 Presidential Election and ensure that Donald Trump remain in power.

I often use this blog to write about ways that social studies teachers can help their students connect past and present events in their classrooms. However, it has taken me over six months to write about teaching the Capitol Insurrection. While we all had to teach about the event in the days after it happened, I needed more time to reflect on the events of that day and have waited for more information to come out before writing about it. 

With the hearings of the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol recently beginning, it seems like the right time to suggest approaches to teaching about it with students. With the start of the next school year quickly approaching, many teachers will need to address questions about the hearings from students.

Above: Trump speaks to a rally to "Stop the Steal" just before encouraging attendees to "fight like hell." After forcing their way into the building, insurrectionists walk throughout the Capitol Building searching for members of Congress.

For most Americans, the Capitol Insurrection was deeply troubling. It was the first time in the United State's history that a mob attempted to stop a peaceful transition of power after a free and fair presidential election (What is a free and fair election?). Even before the nation's Civil War in 1860, those who opposed Lincoln's election accepted the outcome (granted, many states would later secede from the Union). In fact, a record number of Americans voted in the 2020 Election with Joe Biden receiving 7 million more votes and 72 more electors in the Electoral College, and while there have been numerous investigations, there have been no legitimate examples of wide-scale voter fraud (however, Donald Trump had searched for ways to delay the election, pressured state election officials to change results, demanded the vice president to stop its certification, asked the Justice Department to intervene, considered plans to seize election materials or evoke martial law, and would eventually refuse to concede or attend the inauguration; simultaneously, there was a coalition working to prevent these attempts to thwart democracy).

Moreover, the lack of response by the federal government to pro-Trump insurrectionists in comparison to the excessive response faced by largely peaceful Black Lives Matter protesters in the prior summer was concerning. Many students will likely point out that we have just experienced both a global pandemic that disrupted our way of life and collective uprisings for racial justice over the past year, which seem to partially explain why Donald Trump lost re-election (especially since he had the lowest polling numbers of any president in modern times).

Difficult History and Avoiding False Balance

In teaching the Capitol Insurrection, social studies teachers may fall into the trap of "bothsidesism," also known as false balance. Especially in light of numerous speech silencing laws in conservative states aimed at teachers, and social studies teachers in particular, which include prohibiting the teaching of race or racism or bringing any political topics into the classroom, they may be rightfully worried. Teachers may feel compelled to present the Capitol Insurrection as a two-sides debate to avoid upsetting students or parents (maybe asking, "Were the insurrectionists justified in their riot?", as if they were the Patriots during the American Revolution). I strongly recommend against this for several reasons. It is important that students learn an honest examination of the events and what it means for the nation.

In fact, this is not a two-sides issue. Instead, a relatively small minority of Americans supported the Capitol Insurrection. The vast majority of Americans think it was a riot or insurrection and that the insurrectionists need to be prosecuted. While this is certainly a political issue, it should not be a partisan one (even if some politicians want to use it to mobilize voters). If teachers are to present this through a "false balance," then they will leave students with the impression that Americans are evenly split on the event (granted, in the months since, conservative media has downplayed the event, we have seen a disturbing increase of support for the insurrectionists among Republican voters, and right wing groups are planning a September D.C. rally in support of the insurrection and portraying the insurrectionists as "political prisoners"). 

We do not present a false balance with other events in the past. For example, we should not ask students: "Were the Confederates justified in rebelling during the Civil War?" or "How could white supremacists have kept segregation laws?" I would argue that the Capitol Insurrection is no different. As the words in the Constitution state, "We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defence, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty." The Capitol Insurrection directly contradicted the purpose of the United States (It is also important to note that a good number of those who breached the Capitol were white supremacists, antisemites, neo-Confederates, neo-Nazis, and right-wing extremists; similar groups were also involved in the "Unite the Right" rally a few years earlier).

Instead, I would suggest that teachers approach the Capitol Insurrection as "difficult history" or "hard history" in the present (or now, near past). Gross and Terra have argued that difficult histories "present and surface fundamental disagreements over who we are and what values we hold." They involve events that students (and everyone) may find troubling, because they conflict with the common freedom-quest narrative template often portrayed in U.S. history and illuminate dark and troubling aspects of human behavior. However, left unexamined, they also may contribute to future events that are equally troubling; citizens need to understand difficult or hard history, so they can prevent similar events in the future.   

Here are some helpful resources on teaching hard history in the past (similar advice would apply to current events or "developing" history).

What Makes History Difficult? (Phi Delta Kappan) 

Tips for Teaching Difficult History (Canadian Museum of History/Musée canadien de l'histoire)

Teaching Hard History (Southern Poverty Law Center) 

Teaching Hard History Podcast (Learning for Justice)

Tackling Tough Topics (  

Here are some helpful resources for teachers on teaching the Capitol Insurrection:

Using History to Teach the Insurrection with Yohuru Williams (Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour)

How to Teach About the Capitol Riots (EdWeek) 

Leading Conversations About the Capitol Insurrection (Learning for Justice)

Resources for Teaching the Capitol Insurrection (Facing History and Ourselves)

Teaching About the Capitol Riots (iCivics)

Above: Members of Congress hide under desks and chairs in the Senate Chamber and law enforcement engages in a standoff with insurrectionists at the door of the House of Representatives Chamber.

Inquiry Questions for the Capitol Insurrection

To help students understand the complexity of what occurred during the Capitol Insurrection and what it means within the larger context of U.S. history, I would suggest asking the following inquiry questions: Why did a group of thousands of Americans refuse to accept the outcome of a free and fair election and engage in an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol? What does this event mean for our future as a nation?

Below I have compiled several overview sources followed by several supporting sources grouped around four main concepts: increasing support for authoritarianism, the media and political propaganda, failures of federal security agencies, and the aftermath. Students could use these sources in their explanation for how this event could have happened and model ways that historians might explain these events to citizens in the future.


Here are some resources for introducing the event to students. They include timelines of events, histories of insurrections in the United States, and primary sources from the "Stop the Steal" rally beforehand and the Capitol Insurrection itself.

NOTE: Some of the sources shows acts of violence and hate, and involve disturbing language, and may not be appropriate for younger students.

Timeline of the January 6 Attack (National Public Radio)

Timeline of the Capitol Insurrection (New York Times)

Timeline of Donald Trump During Capitol Insurrection (USA Today)

Capitol Insurrection Terminology (Associated Press)

Capitol Insurrection Terminology (Washington Post)

A History of American Insurrections (Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour)

Differences Between Historical Black Resistance and Capitol Insurrection (The New Republic)

Speeches at the "Stop the Steal" Rally (Politico)

Transcript of Donald Trump's Speech at the "Stop the Steal" Rally (National Public Radio)

Sources from the Capitol Insurrection Part 1; Part 2; Part 3 (George Washington University's National Security Archive)

Sources from the Capitol Insurrection (Public Broadcasting Service's News Hour) 

Sources and Lesson Plans for the Capitol Insurrection (New York Times) 

Testimony of Capitol Police Officers at House Hearings (National Public Radio) 

Interviews with Insurrectionists (CNN)

Tracking Threats to a Free and Fair 2020 Election (Politico)

Timeline of Trump's Second Impeachment (New York Times)

Historians Perspectives on the Capitol Insurrection (National Geographic Magazine)

Concept 1: Growing Support for Authoritarianism

Above: A graph from Matthew MacWilliams's dissertation at UMass Amherst showing the correlation between support for Donald Trump and authoritarianism within South Carolina voters.

Perhaps a product of increasing partisanship (what some political scientists and sociologists call tribalism), Americans, and especially those with conservative political views, have a declining trust of democratic institutions (which threatens the Constitution itself). This decline has been occurring for sometime, the candidacy of Donald Trump may have played into those shifting views, and those changes share commonalities with other nations that have experienced failed democracies. Political scientists have been documenting this decline for sometime and below are several reports on these studies (for a good analysis of this, see "How Democracies Die" by Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt). Some political scientists, including Matthew MacWilliams at University of Massachusetts Amherst (see graph above), have argued that Donald Trump offered for these Americans a "strong man" who would go against conventional democratic norms to achieve the policies that they demand. This increasing authoritarian view has been particularly strong in a demographic that some political scientists and sociologist label as Christian nationalists.

Authoritarian Populism in the United States (Center for American Progress)

Social Science Research on Support for Authoritarianism (Washington Post)

Trump Supporters and Authoritarianism (Politico)

Authoritarianism and a Threat to U.S. Government (WBUR) 

How to Live with Authoritarians (Foreign Policy)

Concept 2: The Media and Political Propaganda

Above: Trust in the 2020 Election results was much lower for Republicans compared to Democrats well before election day. Rhetoric from Donald Trump and commentators on conservative news networks may have influenced this.

Over the past 50 years, the U.S. media has become more partisan in how it presents information (others have described it as less objective). There is strong evidence that the commercial success of Fox News and other partisan outlets has exacerbated this phenomenon. We also know that the news media has a major impact on people's psychology and how they understand their world and make sense of current events. Many Americans are now able to choose news media that only conforms with their preexisting political beliefs and ideologies. This leads to essentially a news "echo chamber" with little exposure to conflicting political opinions. Additionally, with more Americans getting their news from social media posts (that often include misinformation), these media echo chambers are becoming more evident (albeit in some subtle ways). Moreover, Donald Trump's media behaviors (along with local-level Republican leaders), including his ability to control news cycles and his use of social media, helped to spread not only encouragement for the insurrectionists, but misinformation that fueled their actions.

Cable News and Partisan Thinking (MIT News)

Impact of Media on Partisan Thinking (Harvard Gazette)

Social Media Influence on Capitol Insurrection (Just Security)

Online Chatter Before January 6th (New York Times) 

How the Capitol Insurrection Was Planned Through Social Media (Vox)

Social Media's Role in the Capitol Insurrection (WBUR)

Misinformation, Trump, and the Capitol Insurrection (Vox)

Misinformation and the Capitol Insurrection (Politico)

Concept 3: Failure of Federal Security Agencies 

Above: U.S. soldiers stationed at the Capitol Building after the insurrection and before the Inauguration of Joseph Biden.

There was a substantial amount of planning and public chatter on social media that were clear warning signs of what was to occur at the Capitol. Yet, the leadership of the Capitol Police, Secret Service, and other federal security agencies were not prepared for what was to come and officers were directed to not use more aggressive defense tactics. Journalists and historians are still trying to understand why this security failure occurred, and we will learn more as investigations continue. However, there was an important bipartisan report released in June 2021, which helps explains numerous bad decisions on the part of federal security agencies.   

Capitol Security Response (National Public Radio)

Summary of the Bipartisan Capitol Security Report (New York Times)

Security Lessons from the Capitol Insurrection (Brookings)

Visual Guide to the Insurrection (British Broadcasting Corporation)

Report on Capitol Security (U.S. Senate)

Concept 4: The Aftermath

Above: House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy appoints Rep. Jim Jordan and Rep. Jim Banks to the House Select Committee on the Attack on the Capitol on July 21, 2021. Both voted against certifying the 2020 Election results in the hours after the siege and both committee appointees were later rejected by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi.

As with many historical events, it is as important to study what happened after the Capitol Insurrection, as what happened during the Capitol Insurrection. In the immediate aftermath, Republican politicians (with the stark exception of Donald Trump) generally had a somber tone and blamed the president for the Capitol Insurrection. However, over the past six months, there has been an intentional downplaying of the events and stonewalling Congressional investigations (there has also been a slight decrease in registered Republican voters, as well as people describing themselves as Republicans). The result of the Republican Party continuing to repeat "the big lie" that Donald Trump actually won the 2020 Election has had damaging effects in the months after the Capitol Insurrection, as it continues to divide Americans and prevents the nation from reckoning with the events of January 6th. Moreover, Republican state legislatures and governors have used "the big lie" to curtain people's voting rights (in an attempt to give themselves unfair advantages in key states), which will not only impact future elections, but may lead to many voters, and especially voters of color and low income voters, being disenfranchised.

Trump's Big Lie Was Bigger Than the Election (Washington Post) 

Statement on the Capitol Insurrection (American Political Science Association)

Five Years of Lies Led to the Capitol Insurrection (USA Today) 

Political Donors and the Capitol Insurrection (Brennan Center)

The Big Lie and Voting Rights (The Guardian) 

The Big Lie and Future Republican Candidates (Washington Post)

Voting Rights After the 2020 Election (The Guardian)

Voting Laws Roundup (The Brennan Center)

Did Trump Damage Democracy (No)? (Brookings)