After the Capitol Was Stormed, Teachers Try Explaining History in Real Time

Historians in the News
tags: teaching history, Capitol Riots

To explain the tumultuous events of recent days, Tracy Merlin used an analogy her second-grade class would understand: the eternal struggle between dog people and cat people.

“Let’s say that half of the country thinks dogs are the best, and half of the country thinks cats are the best,” said Ms. Merlin, who teaches in Broward County, Fla. “But then it just turns out that the dogs won the election.”

“Do you think that people can still like cats and that maybe there can be some conversation?” she asked. “They can still like cats,” ventured Ander, 8, his blue headphones clamped over his ears.

Ms. Merlin scanned the sea of little heads floating in their individual squares. “Do you think it’s OK for the cat people to break into all the pet stores when they’re upset?” she asked.

“No,” Ander said. “Because that’s illegal.”

A riot at the U.S. Capitol. The second impeachment of Donald J. Trump. And, despite it all, a transfer of power. The events of the past few weeks have been mind-boggling for many adults.

How, then, to explain them to students, be they preschoolers meeting on socially distanced circle rugs or college students peering anxiously into seminar videochats?

Across the United States, educators have rerouted their syllabuses toward the news. They have turned to science fiction, Shakespearean tragedy and the fall of Rome in search of parallels to help their students process the often frightening and surely historic events.


College students have needed help framing these turbulent weeks, too.

On Wednesday, the morning of the inauguration, 180 students logged on to Steven G. Noll’s introductory American history class at the University of Florida. The lecture topic was post-Civil War Reconstruction.

Professor Noll, 68, easily plucked out uncomfortable parallels to the present.

“Words matter,” he said. What were once called “riots” that culminated in the killing of newly freed and enfranchised Black people are now called “massacres,” he said.

He showed a picture of a stone monument in Louisiana, erected in the memory of three “heroes,” who in 1873, the monument said, “fell in the Colfax riot fighting for white supremacy.” Those rioters killed 150 Black people.

Read entire article at New York Times

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