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Teaching social studies in Lincoln as history unfolds in D.C.
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Teaching social studies in Lincoln as history unfolds in D.C.

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Jake Bogus’ Twitter feed lit up Wednesday afternoon just before his seventh-period class — a mob was breaching the U.S. Capitol, history unfolding in real time.

He called his assistant principal and coordinator at Schoo Middle School and asked for permission to let his eighth grade social studies students watch the events from the CBS news feed.

Then he briefly explained to his students what was happening, and told them the events unfolding in front of them were a “flashbulb moment.”

“You’re going to remember where you were and how you felt,” he said.

Across town at Park Middle School, eighth grade social studies teacher Jason Krueger was at lunch when he saw the mob breach the Capitol.

When class began, he briefly explained what was happening, told students to watch the news and talk with their parents when they got home.

At Northeast High School, Cheyenne Hartshorn was starting a unit on “Hotel Rwanda” with her human geography students, unaware that current events were about to push their way into her classroom. 

At East High, government and politics teacher Michaela Schleicher had a livestream of Congressional certification of the electoral votes playing in the background during her plan period when she heard officials begin to talk about being evacuated.

And Schleicher — like Hartshorn and Krueger and Bogus and every other social studies, government and civics teacher in Lincoln and across the country — knew she had her work cut out for her.

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“You can’t ignore an event like (Wednesday),” she said. “This one will stand out in my brain for a while.”

This was a seismic event in the nation’s history — the first time intruders had breached the seat of U.S. government since 1814, and the aftermath would continue to unfold when students walked into class Thursday.

Krueger said the job of social studies teachers is to help students become informed citizens, and during events like Wednesday, to help them understand what happened and come to their own informed opinions.

But how to do that in an increasingly polarized, partisan world? How to discuss the role of the president and lawmakers and media? To make sense of the citizens who scaled the Capitol walls, broke its windows, ransacked its offices and roamed the halls?

They do it by relying on the structures they've already put in place for their students, said Jaci Kellison, Lincoln Public Schools social studies curriculum specialist.

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It’s why they talk so much about media literacy skills, how to evaluate sources of information, to look at multiple sources and compare information. It’s why they practice civil discourse, learning to discuss issues with those you may disagree with, she said.

What happened Wednesday — and the events leading up to it — offered a lesson on the Constitution.

“To have something like this unfolding, it’s the perfect opportunity for students to see those foundational civic processes in action,” Kellison said. 

Thursday's lessons unfolded from Wednesday night planning sessions, teachers exchanging ideas and resources on Twitter and other platforms.

Bogus said he used a synopsis of events that Moore Middle School teacher Steve Orton shared on an online educational platform because he thought it was so good.

For high school teachers, the timing was challenging. They’d just started a new semester with a room full of students they didn’t know and who didn’t know each other.

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The relationships necessary to navigate tough discussions aren’t there yet, and having half the students on Zoom each day makes it even harder.

Those are among the reasons Hartshorn — who teaches human geography, ninth grade civics and a criminal justice class — decided to hit the pause button.

On Thursday she explained what happened — about half her students didn’t know about it — and then posed five questions and asked her students to journal about them.

Their responses, she said, could help them begin to process what happened, and she could learn more about those students before beginning a discussion. She has a number of students of color and there’s an element of race running through this, she said, especially comparing the police response to Wednesday’s mob and Black Lives Matter protests.

“It was a balancing act for me,” she said. “Not out of fear, just out of wanting it to be productive and insightful.”

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She started a discussion with her ninth grade civics students Friday and decided to wait until Monday to discuss it with her human geography class, wrapped into a discussion about “Hotel Rwanda” that will give students an option of talking about something less personal if they prefer.

At East, Schleicher started with this: Students’ opinions would have absolutely no bearing on their grade, this was an open forum. Then she got things started: What were their thoughts and questions about what happened?

The discussion went well, she said, and she was impressed with her students. They listened. They fact-checked. They helped find other sources of information to inform the discussion.

They talked about words — coup, riot, protest — and how they change the interpretation of what happened. They didn’t just read others’ interpretations of the president’s speech at a rally before the crowd moved toward the Capitol, they pulled up a transcript.

Krueger took a similar approach with his eighth graders at Park: a short overview, a recap of the Georgia runoff election, and past presidential elections where, despite heated results, power was transferred peacefully. He posed a question, encouraged students to back their answers with evidence, to share their thoughts and feelings.

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Many students compared what happened to the Black Lives Matter protests and how differently they appeared to be handled by police, he said.

Other teachers said that came up in their discussions as well.

“The lack of police presence completely flabbergasted some of them,” Schleicher said.

Students also had questions about the president’s social media accounts, whether the breach was planned, why the National Guard wasn’t deployed earlier.

On Friday morning, students in Hartshorn’s first-period civics class went over the basics of what happened and how it made them feel.

Embarrassed, said one student: People already assume if you support Trump you’re a racist, a spectacle like this just reinforces that idea.

Afraid, said another, that such events will move to different states.

It’s important, Hartshorn told her students, that they understand what happened. As ninth graders they’re too young to vote, but not to be involved.

“Someday this will be in your kids’ history books.”

FIVE STORIES FROM AN UPSIDE-DOWN YEAR:

Reach the writer at 402-473-7226 or mreist@journalstar.com.

On Twitter @LJSreist

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Local government reporter

Margaret Reist is a Lincoln native, the mom of three high school graduates now navigating college and an education junkie who covers students, teachers and policymakers inside and outside the K-12 classroom.

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