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'I Was Up All Night': Pandemic, Racial Justice, Insurrection and the Teachers and Students Working Through It All

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'I noticed when you look at the crowd on the news ... it’s almost all white people — white supremacists,” said 10-year-old Mikhayah Watson. 'I’m a little scared that our country is in this type of chaos.” Mikhayah attends school from his home in Oakland on Sept. 16, 2020. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

By 8:30 a.m. the morning after an angry mob stormed the U.S. Capitol with Confederate flags, Fairfield-Suisun Unified School District teacher Mary Vanasit had prepared a 45-minute lesson on the topic for her third graders.

“What do you notice?” she asked, 15 minutes into the class, as she worked through a slideshow comparing images from the insurrection with those from Black Lives Matter protests this summer.

“The white guy looks pretty happy because he’s taking something,” a student named Ava said of a photo showing a white man grinning and waving as he hoists a lectern emblazoned with the seal of the speaker of the House of Representatives.

“The Black guy feels sort of anxious because he’s getting sprayed with something and turning away so he doesn’t get it in his eyes,” she went on, describing the second photo.

A screenshot of a slide from Mary Vanasit's lesson on Jan. 7 — the day after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol. (Courtesy of Mary Vanasit)

Vanasit closed by thanking her students for opening up. “It's something hard to talk about,” she said. “But is it important — when things like this happen, should we ignore it and pretend like it didn't happen? We shouldn't, huh. Because is anything going to change if we ignore it?”

She posed a final question to the kids: “How can we change the world with each other?”

Throughout her class, Vanasit navigated things smoothly, offering support and empathy. But the discussion shook her. “It was extremely sad and gave me goosebumps,” she said later.

Between the pandemic and the killing of George Floyd, the past year has brought plenty of trauma into the lives of students. This week, California educators once again find themselves looking for ways to support kids while managing their own emotions.

In Hayward, seventh grade teacher Donovan Hall woke up anxious about facing his students on Zoom. “I just didn't trust that I could kind of keep that contained,” he said.

Hall, who teaches a class focused on academic and personal development at Impact Academy, worried about his ability to guide students through this moment. “I’m a Black man and seeing how people are talking about it and kind of connecting it to Black Lives Matter and connecting to Black people in general, it brings up a lot of just hurt and pain,” he said.

He knew one way to support his students was to be honest about his own emotions, “and let them know, ‘This is important to me, but right now I'm not ready to process it. That's OK.’ ”

Hall and his co-teacher ended up dividing their class into two groups: One talked about the attempted coup, and the other, led by Hall, intentionally did not — they played a game instead.

One of Hall’s eighth grade students, Leandro Galvez, opted to join the group discussion and said it helped him process the events. “I feel frustrated, I feel angry, I feel sad,” he said.

The way law enforcement handled the insurrection by the pro-Trump mob only confirms his belief that white privilege exists, he said, though it doesn’t make it any easier to make sense of the concept. “We all have red blood,” he said. “That means we’re all people. We shouldn't be fighting with each other.”

This is the kind of reaction principal Blain Watson of Locke College Preparatory Academy in Watts anticipated from his students, whose pain and outrage is still raw in the wake of George Floyd’s killing.

“Students of color, communities of color have a lot of doubts about the establishment," said Watson, "about whether the government supports us or not." He went on to explain that after seeing Trump supporters able to enter the Capitol and fly a Confederate flag, he worries his students are in danger of losing all faith in government.

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“I was up all night thinking about the responsibility my colleagues and me have to make sure that 20 years from now, when kids look back, they’ll remember the response to these events as something that was responsible and maintained emotional integrity,” he said.

For both Watson and Hall, the next step is to help students move beyond exploring their feelings about the state of our country, and on to what they can do about them. Watson plans to convene a deeper discussion of what the events mean to this Black and Latinx community in the week ahead.

Similar conversations are happening among teachers who work with much younger students. In Oakland, Montclair Elementary School teacher Jamila Brooks planned to work with colleagues to develop lesson plans that deepen the teachable moment they initiated with students this week.

For Brooks, that began Thursday morning with a poll of her 29 fifth graders, asking if they knew what had happened in the nation’s capital the night before.

“I knew we were going to talk about this today,” one student posted in chat.

“You are living in what people will talk about and study many years from now,” Brooks told them, drawing a connection to American history they’re studying.

She showed students a series of photos of the mob at the Capitol building and students took turns describing what they saw.

“I noticed when you look at the crowd on the news, not to criticize, but it’s almost all white people — white supremacists,” said 10-year-old Mikhayah Watson. "I’m a little scared that our country is in this type of chaos.”

Brooks reassured the kids it’s OK to feel scared. “A lot of us do,” she said. “What’s important is that we’re all safe.”

To create a space for calm and healing, Brooks ended class by inviting her students to find their favorite stuffed animal, then lit up as she watched them wrap their arms around a teddy bear, a pink unicorn and a lamb named Shelby, their smiles returning to their faces.

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Resources for teaching about the attack on the U.S. Capitol (EdSource):

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