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When teaching the Jan. 6 insurrection, NC teachers walk a fine line

Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6.
Jose Luis Magana
AP, via NPR
Supporters of President Donald Trump climb the west wall of the the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, 2021.

The days after Jan. 6, Jamie Fernandez-Schendt knew his students at Carrboro High School would expect an explanation.

His students had watched enraged American citizens descend upon the U.S. Capitol to forcefully stop what they perceived to be a stolen election. The bloody, chaotic scene was eerily similar to the government coups they’d learned about in their AP Comparative Government course.

“I think they obviously were shocked,” Fernandez-Schendt said. “Because even in our own course leading up to that, it was really hard to fathom that something that we learned of in a different country could play out in our own.”

Fernandez-Schendt said he was able to discuss the insurrection without fear of repercussion or backlash from community members. But he teaches in Carrboro, N.C., a predominantly progressive community—and he knows this isn’t the case for many educators across the state.

Almost a year after the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, North Carolina teachers are struggling to place the event within the narrative of American history. And they’re navigating the task of teaching their students about this historic event while protecting themselves from criticism or hostility from parents and community members.

Their concern about teaching the insurrection isn’t unfounded. In North Carolina, there’s been more than one occasion in which teachers have come under fire for bringing controversial subjects into the classroom.

In 2015, third-grade teacher Omar Currie became the subject of a volatile community debate when he read a fairytale titled “King and King” to his students in Efland, N.C.

The book, which told the story of a prince who found his prince charming, was meant to teach his students about same-sex marriage. Several parents grew outraged at the prospect of their children discussing relationships or LGBTQ issues in school.

More recently, in September, Republican legislators in North Carolina pushed a bill through the legislature that would limit how teachers can discuss racial concepts in the classroom. Though the bill was vetoed by Gov. Roy Cooper, communities across the state held rallies in support of the legislation. Some county school boards even introduced their own anti-critical race theory policies.

Brian Gibbs, a professor at the UNC School of Education, said controversy over teaching the insurrection can start at the most basic level—even just labeling and defining what exactly took place.

“Let’s look historically at other incidents which are similar to this, which were called different things,” he said. “And let’s wrestle through this definition about what we mean by a protest, riot, uprising, rebellion, massacre. And then we get Jan. 6, let’s look at insurrection. What do we mean by that?”

Gibbs said these labels place different people as the perpetrators or victims of the event, and that can become the subject of debate.

Tamika Walker-Kelly, president of the North Carolina Association of Educators, said it’s a teacher’s job to present information in the most objective manner possible. She said teaching from a middle ground—neither praising nor condemning the insurrection—can help teachers evade any backlash from community members or parents.

“That means pulling in a variety of source materials or making sure that we are also letting our students know this topic is not settled,” she said. “It’s evolving.”

But Gibbs said that even though presenting students with facts might be the safest option for a teacher in terms of protecting their own reputation, there is a danger in leaving the insurrection up to interpretation.

He said insurrectionists are already starting to label themselves as social and political activists. They’ve started co-opting language from the Civil Rights movement and claiming that they were simply fighting for their rights.

“I think there’s another danger around the idea that the students can infer that the insurrectionists were righteous, that they were correct, that they were justice-oriented in terms of how they went about doing this,” he said.

Randy Dunbar, a U.S. history teacher from Kernersville, N.C., has tried to teach the insurrection from the most objective stance possible. Dunbar said he knows there were several insurrection attendees from the county in which he teaches.

Rather than assign morality to what happened Jan. 6, Dunbar has students watch footage from the event and draw their own conclusions.

“I try to teach them to look at the stuff and fact check it,” Dunbar said. “And I’ve given them websites they can go to and fact check it. I tell them, you know, don’t necessarily believe everything you see.”

Luke Hoilman, a civics teacher in Spruce Pine, N.C., said the county where he teaches is largely conservative. He takes a similar approach to Dunbar by presenting facts and letting students come to their own conclusions.

Hoilman said he has faith his students can recognize the negative impact of the insurrection, even if they aren’t explicitly taught the danger of what took place. He said he doesn’t believe many of his students, even the most ardent supporters of the Trump presidency, would reach the conclusion that insurrectionists were acting on a sense of patriotism.

“I don’t think that they would draw that correlation, necessarily, at least most kids wouldn’t,” he said. “So, I don’t think it’s dangerous to talk about it.”

Walker-Kelly said the general distrust of social studies teachers has created a culture of fear among educators. She said that if a teacher is constantly worried about coming under fire for what they say in the classroom, they can’t provide their best instruction.

“If I am second guessing my professional expertise about the things that you need to know, then you are not going to get the best education that you need,” she said. “Or you’re not going to be exposed to the things that you need to know so that you can be a thoughtful, global citizen in our community.”

At UNC's Media Hub, students are hand-picked from various concentrations in the UNC Hussman School of Journalism and Media work together to find, produce and market stories with state, regional, and at times, national appeal.
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