While the riots at the U.S. Capitol left many people aghast, Eric Brayden saw a learning opportunity.
Brayden, a government, economics and geography teacher at Capital High School, said last week’s assault on the Capitol, led by supporters of President Donald Trump, gave him an opportunity to tie some of the lessons he was teaching directly to a historic moment. But he said he sensed apprehension about the topic from some students in his government class — particularly from those who supported Trump during the election.
Not that he was surprised.
“Every time there is an event like this, especially one that is so visceral it makes students’ social media feeds, it’s not uncommon that there is not a lot of discussion at first in class,” Brayden said.
Eventually, hesitation gave way to discussion, and the overriding theme was disapproval. Brayden added many of his students distinguished how police reacted to last summer’s Black Lives Matter protests compared to the Capitol riot.
Brayden expressed pride in his students’ participation on such a sensitive matter.
“I am really proud of the students who felt they were safe enough to express those sorts of vulnerable feelings,” Brayden said. “That’s tough to do, sometimes.”
Many history, government and social studies teachers in Northern New Mexico have found a way to tie the riots into the curriculum they are teaching students throughout the year. The moment even led to the creation of a student forum by Joaquin Martinez, the chairman of Academy for Technology and the Classics’ history department, as he held a virtual discussion with a group of 35 students, teachers and administrators Monday.
Martinez said the goal was to help students better understand what Wednesday’s events meant, adding it’s important to educate them about how government works and arm them with the knowledge to discount some of the disinformation that he has seen.
“The goal of our forum is to teach them about the facts and how our Constitution works, and then allow them to express opinions that are based on those facts — not opinions that are presented as facts,” Martinez said.
Cadence Gonzales, a sophomore at ATC, told the audience she was surprised how many people attended the forum. She said she was doing a reading for a class while watching rioters invade the Senate chambers and the moment shook her.
“We saw democracy being attacked, we saw undemocratic processes in place with senators refuting the people’s choice,” Gonzales said. “The people’s vote is very sacred to our democracy, and when something becomes undemocratic, it becomes un-American.”
For Mandy Montoya, a history teacher at Peñasco Middle and High School, the lesson plan for her New Mexico history class Wednesday morning proved to be prescient. She discussed the Chimayó Rebellion in 1837, in which Northern New Mexicans revolted against Mexican Gov. Albino Pérez, and told her students such uprisings still happen today.
A few hours later, she had proof.
“It just shows that history kinda repeats itself,” Montoya said. “That was how we ended the class, and I hadn’t gotten any notifications and I still hadn’t seen the news. But then, I got a couple of notifications and I turned on the news after that.”
The following day, Montoya talked about the events in Washington during each of her classes, noting it wasn’t the first time the Capitol had been breached — the British attacked the building during the War of 1812. Her class watched some videos of the lockdown, President-elect Joe Biden’s response and how other countries viewed the insurrection.
“We talked about how it’s not something we haven’t seen before — just not by Americans,” Montoya said.
Will Rushing, an economy and government instructor at Monte del Sol Charter School, said it was important for him to present students with the facts from the incident and not necessarily present both sides of an argument. He said he was compelled to uphold the state’s content standards, and those are the values enshrined in the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
Rushing added he welcomes the exchange different viewpoints, but this wasn’t the time for that.
“Those [values] were so flagrantly violated [Wednesday] that it is the duty of educators to speak those truths — that the action of this president and the actions of this president’s apologists within other branches of government are unconscionable and inexcusable,” Rushing said. “We should not ‘both sides’ this.”
But Martinez said he found engaging students across the political spectrum in discussions during Trump’s presidency easy, in part because he used facts to help guide dialogue. He also said it was important to break through some of the political rhetoric that often dominates discussion.
“All I had to do was look at the Constitution, look at Supreme Court cases and place that as a litmus test against what this administration was doing,” Martinez said. “There were times when they were following the rule of law and we could say, ‘Maybe you can agree or disagree with this policy, but it was lawful.’ ”
Brayden said as encouraging as some of the classroom discussion was, he was equally excited by the responses he received from former students.
He was bombarded with text messages and emails as they expressed their opinions on what happened and looked to him for his view on the riot. It was an unusual position for Brayden, who said his goal is to facilitate conversation about a subject rather than give his take.
However, that students engaged him made Brayden hopeful he was achieving his mission.
“My goal is to help kids be engaged beyond just the time they’re in my class,” Brayden said. “I don’t know if satisfying is the word, but it was empowering to me that a good number of kids reached out to me and have been thinking critically about this.”