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In Capitol riot, educators see a teaching moment

Hofstra University Professor Alan Singer in 2014.

Hofstra University Professor Alan Singer in 2014. Credit: Barry Sloan

Alan Singer, a professor of teaching at Hofstra University, was on a virtual call with his 16-year-old grandson when a mob of rioters loyal to President Donald Trump began storming the U.S. Capitol Wednesday afternoon.

The boy, Gideon Weiner, of Brooklyn, asked questions aloud, Singer said.

"How could something like this happen in the U.S.?"

"Would Black Lives Matter protesters have been able to do this?"

"What kind of president is Donald Trump?"

So Singer, a former social studies teacher who trains incoming K-12 teachers, began writing out a lesson plan to share with educators that could help them guide their students in a critical discussion of current events Thursday.

District leaders across Long Island reached out to their teaching staff Wednesday night and early Thursday, encouraging them to discuss the historic events with students at all grade levels and providing them with resources and support. Educators said the most important factor was to "create a safe space" in the classroom to share differing viewpoints.

Interim Commissioner Betty A. Rosa, Vice Chancellor T. Andrew Brown and the Board of Regents issued a statement addressing the importance of teachers’ roles following what happened.

"Teachers are also there to explain to their students that we are so much better than this as a nation; that we will never solve our problems through violence," read part of the statement.

"It’s crucial to teach about this right away," Singer said. "Kids are learning about American society and government firsthand, they’re nervous about the COVID vaccine, they’re anxious about online learning and dealing with the isolation — and in the midst of all this, they see a riot attacking the United States Capitol."

The lesson Singer created for grades 7-12 begins with a newspaper article about the events, includes open-ended questions, followed by an activity using the timeline, and a classroom discussion.

"We had a similar situation after 9/11: a disaster happened, and students were just frightened," Singer said. "You have to give them a chance to voice their concerns and opinions, and to look at materials so that they can base their opinions on evidence."

Malverne Superintendent Lorna Lewis was among the district leaders Thursday to email her teachers urging them to "put all of [Wednesday’s] lessons into context."

Lewis said teachers shared with her that it was difficult to explain to students the Capitol police response to the angry mob.

"Our district is 50% Black and 20% Hispanic or Latino," Lewis said. "I think the thing that really is difficult for us to explain is the fact that the Black Lives Matter movement in the summer was met with such harsh responses from law enforcement authorities. They question why people who behaved the way they did at the Capitol were not met with that level of response."

"We haven’t figured out how to explain that because we as adults don’t understand it."

In Port Washington, Superintendent Michael Hynes also emailed his staff early Thursday to support those who would choose to discuss the events.

"It’s potentially a minefield when you talk about hot-button issues, but they’re incredibly important, and I believe educators are able to create a safe space to engage in those conversations. To put our heads in the sand and not address them would be a significant disservice to our students," Hynes said.

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