There’s no syllabus for what happened Wednesday.
While a mob was storming the United States Capitol, teacher David Stedman was midway through his second-period Advanced Placement government class at Mead High School.
As Stedman worked, several students from his previous class returned, full of excitement about the news from Washington, D.C.
“I hadn’t looked at my news feed because I was in the middle of teaching,” Stedman said.
What he saw next was “absolutely unimaginable,” Stedman said. “This is something that is beyond serious.”
Even for adults, the images of a mob storming the Capitol were disturbing enough.
But what about the kids? On Wednesday, they wanted answers and reassurance, and they wanted them immediately.
A teacher for 29 years, Stedman recovered from the shock and did what any good teacher would do: He changed the lesson plan. Wednesday’s class had begun with an examination of the certifying process for electoral votes.
By Thursday, his class was discussing the events leading to the riot and parsing President Donald Trump’s speech to what had been an assembly of protesters.
“We used that speech as a launching platform for discussion,” said Stedman, who also produced a three-minute video that sought to explain Wednesday’s events.
“I have told parents that for the last four years, I don’t know if what’s going on is good for our country, but for an AP government teacher, it’s money,” Stedman said.
In Spokane and the rest of the nation, social studies teachers have become the educational first responders to national and world historical developments.
And they must do so with calm professionalism, all while confronted with a pandemic, the challenges of hybrid learning and a polarized political climate.
By Thursday morning, Ferris history and civics teacher Mara Bischoff was receiving emails from parents who admonished her not to “spread propaganda” about Wednesday’s events.
“My response is that I just want to tell them the truth,” said Bischoff, who planned to examine the distinction between peaceful protests and Wednesday’s invasion of the U.S. Capitol.
“I would never want to send any propaganda to our students; I want them to question things and look for answers,” Bischoff said.
However, they also got a pep talk from the top, encouraging teachers to do just that.
“Students across America are watching and tomorrow teachers will have to address what is happening in D.C. today,” American Federation of Teachers President Randi Weingarten tweeted as events unfolded.
“Good luck to every educator, whether in person or remote.”
State Superintendent of Public Instruction Chris Reykdal was even more strident.
A former history teacher, Reykdal emphasized in a message Thursday that “our young people are watching these events unfold and they are looking to us for contextualization.”
“Educators and families are answering questions and providing reassurance to our students – even as they are making sense of the events themselves,” Reykdal said.
Reykdal closed with a challenge to educators: “Yesterday’s events make abundantly clear that our schools must engage and empower students, from an early age, with opportunities to participate in civil conversations, examples of effective civic engagement and tools to find peaceful solutions to community problems.”
Teachers have been trying to do just that for decades, though never in such trying circumstances.
“We’ve been talking about the challenges to the (2020 presidential) election, and these are unprecedented,” Stedman said. “We’re discussing these sorts of things daily in here.”
Ideally, those discussions are free-wheeling yet respectful, and the participants well-informed, yet civil.
But recently, Bischoff likens the exercise to walking a tightrope, with the added burden of distance learning.
She encourages her students to find trustworthy news services and examine them critically, while taking a skeptical view of social media.
However, she said that most of her students are well-informed. “It’s important,” she said. “In my civics class, they’re seniors and a lot of them voted.”
Likewise, the students in Stedman’s classes run the gamut of the political spectrum.
“But one of the things that has been encouraging to me, is that I have students coming into class wearing MAGA hats and Trump shirts,” Stedman said. “But now some of them are saying that the president should stop being a sore loser.”
Local journalism is essential.
Give directly to The Spokesman-Review's Northwest Passages community forums series -- which helps to offset the costs of several reporter and editor positions at the newspaper -- by using the easy options below. Gifts processed in this system are not tax deductible, but are predominately used to help meet the local financial requirements needed to receive national matching-grant funds.
Subscribe to the Coronavirus newsletter
Get the day’s latest Coronavirus news delivered to your inbox by subscribing to our newsletter.