How The Capitol Siege Rewrote Lesson Plans In LA Schools

Members of the National Guard take a rest in the Rotunda of the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., on January 13, 2021. (Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

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When a pro-Trump mob attacked the U.S. Capitol two weeks ago, teachers in L.A. watched the violence with their students in mind. At the urging of school administrators, they planned for a real-time civics lesson.

Between the violence at the Capitol, the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Joe Biden, and the pending impeachment trial of outgoing President Donald Trump, there's been plenty to talk about. And the spate of historical events has reignited debate over whether civics gets the attention it deserves in school curricula.

One thing that became clear in interviews over the past week is that students have lots of questions and are engaged in the debate.

Don Luong, an 8th grade history teacher at Gage Middle School in Huntington Park, dedicated all of his lessons in the week after the siege to analyzing the attack, trying to make sense of it.

"I have my own personal opinion, yes," Luong said. "But as a history teacher, I want them to have their own opinion and back it up. That's what it comes down to."

During the first Zoom lesson of the week, Luong asked students to parse the differences between a protest, a riot and an insurrection.

For example, he said, if students started randomly throwing paper and chairs around the classroom, that might be considered a riot. But if they got together before school and planned to create chaos in class, that could be an insurrection.

With those definitions in mind, the students watched a news montage of the Capitol siege and tried to classify what they saw. Most called it a riot.

Protest, riot, or insurrection? Civics and history teachers used images like these to discuss the January 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol. (Roberto Schmidt/AFP via Getty Images)

Then, for comparison, they repeated the process, watching footage from Black Lives Matter protests in 2016, after the police shootings of Philando Castile in Minnesota and Alton Sterling in Louisiana. Finally, Luong showed a clip from the HBO miniseries John Adams, of a British tax collector being tarred and feathered.

Luong says he and his fellow teachers collaborated on this lesson addressing current events, in part, because it gets students' attention.

"The students are way more engaged in it than before," Luong said. "And as teachers, you're always trying to pull from things that students are engaged in."

A STUDENT'S VIEW

Kahlila Williams, a senior at Girls Academic Leadership Academy in Midcity, was disappointed that her social studies class only spent the beginning of class debriefing the attack. She agrees with Luong that most students want to talk about politics.

"We could've had a whole, week-long conversation about it, honestly," Williams said. "Especially if you're in the Gen-Z generation, you have something to say about this."

And it's not just because students have questions. Williams said she and her classmates need space to emotionally process the violence and racism they likely saw on social media.

"Our mental health is already messed up," Williams said. "You can't expect us to focus when there's all this stuff going on. You have to, as an educator, say to yourself, 'What do my students need right now?"

Nearly all of the teachers that LAist spoke to for this story have watched students grow more politically active in recent years — in part because of recent events in Washington, but also because of Black Lives Matter activism and other racial justice movements.

Protests over police brutality and systemic racism have fueled students' interest in civics and political movements, teachers say. (Chava Sanchez/LAist)

Still, a 2019 report from the Center for American Progress, a left-leaning think tank in Washington, D.C., suggests that civics education isn't getting as much attention as it could be.

In California, nearly half of the students that take the AP Government exam don't pass. Plus, the state only requires one semester of civics education, compared to a full year required by a handful of other states.

"Although most states offer civics courses in middle school and high school — and some even mandate civics projects — since 1998, overall test scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) civics exam have persistently shown that less than 25% of students are proficient in the subject," the report reads.

Plus, federal funding targeted at civics education has declined over the years. A recent budget only allocated millions for the subject, compared to billions typically spent on STEM programs.

IS CIVICS EDUCATION IN DECLINE?

Brent Smiley, a middle school history teacher at Sherman Oaks Center for Enriched Studies, pushes back on the idea that the civics ed curriculum has deteriorated.

"I reject that notion," Smiley said "It used to be just rote memorization."

Now, he said, teachers have more flexibility, and with the help of the internet, can connect current events to the curriculum. In his class, they talked about the attack on the Capitol in the context of other wars and insurrections the U.S. Constitution has weathered. Civics is just built into those conversations, he said.

"These are the lessons that are alive, right in front of us, as we're living it out," Smiley said. "It's all trying to explain that model of being a good citizen and understanding that we do have shared goals."

Still, Smiley's view on the state of civics education is hardly a consensus among teachers.

Dranae Jones, a social studies teacher at King Drew Medical Magnet high school in South L.A., does feel like civics has been deemphasized, especially in comparison to subjects tested more often.

"If you don't know how the country runs, how are you going to be an effective member of society?" Jones asks. "Are you going to go to work, come home, sit on your couch and watch Netflix? Or are you gonna get in the game and complain?"

One lesson Jones teaches her students is determining how and where to voice your complaints — a point that was lost, she said, on the pro-Trump insurrectionists.

"You have a bunch of individuals storming the Capitol who were screaming, 'My vote counts,'" Jones said. "Yeah, but majority rules. If you don't understand that, your social studies teacher failed you."