East social studies teachers

East High School social studies teachers Amanda Pustz (top left), Jeremy Buehl (top right), Brad Vonck (bottom left) and Cesar Martinez (bottom right) discuss how they approached teaching their students after a historic day.

As millions watched a mob of President Donald Trump’s supporters break into the U.S. Capitol building Wednesday and disrupt certification of the presidential election results, the East High School social studies team was having its weekly planning meeting over Zoom.

Scheduled at 1:30 p.m. Wednesday, it gave them the chance to watch together and discuss what it meant for the classrooms they’d be in front of the following day.

“We were sort of processing the events as it was happening and at the time immediately recognizing we have to plan for this,” social studies teacher Amanda Pustz said Thursday afternoon.

For history teachers around the United States, Wednesday forced them to scrap their lesson plans for the next day. History was happening in front of them, and they needed to help their students navigate how they were feeling and what it meant — while also navigating those emotions themselves.

“At this point in my career, it’s kind of ingrained in my identity that I am a social studies teacher,” Memorial High School teacher David Olson said Thursday. “The events of the nation and world are my classroom and are my curriculum.

“It is hard for me to watch news and not think about how I will address it with students or how I will help people make sense of it.”

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Olson, who used a photo of U.S. Capitol police with guns drawn in the House of Representatives chamber as the Zoom background Thursday, was helped Wednesday by his 9- and 11-year-old daughters sitting nearby asking questions. It gave him an idea of what his students might want to discuss the next day.

“Being a teacher requires being a student,” Olson said. “As I was watching television all day yesterday, I had to anticipate, how am I going to address this with students? What are the things that I’m seeing that might look confusing?”

Jeremy Buehl, who has taught at East since 2007, called it “surreal” to watch events unfold Wednesday, but also had to ask himself how much students would know about what happened.

“It’s an event unlike anything I can ever remember seeing,” Buehl said. “Sometimes... when you’re a social studies teacher and you’re a nerd about history, it’s like, are kids actually going to hear about this at all?”

He confirmed Thursday they had heard about it, and Buehl said even in a virtual learning setting “they were willing to talk about stuff today.”

One of the most common topics students wanted to discuss, according to the teachers, was the seemingly disparate police approach to Wednesday’s riots compared to the Black Lives Matter protests over the summer, even here in Madison.

And while they had those conversations, Pustz also pointed out that when history is happening in real time, there aren’t always answers to questions like why the police preparedness "at the very least was inadequate."

“We talked about how sometimes it’s hard to totally interpret an event while it’s happening,” she said. “Recognizing that how we feel and how we see this event today on Jan. 7, 2021, might be different than how we’re going to see it Jan. 7, 2022, or Jan. 7, 2031.

“Letting the kids know this is an unfinished assignment so to speak, because we’re living it, so we don’t have all of the answers.”

What to teach

Before Wednesday’s events, Olson had planned Thursday’s discussion to be about political parties — their establishment and development over the years and how they’ve changed.

It’s not the first time in Olson's teaching career there’s been an event that required him to cancel what he had planned for a class period, mentioning a series of events in recent years as examples: Trump contracting COVID and the Parkland shooting, to name a few.

“When I think of comparisons in my career, it’s what are times when you know you need to not only drop whatever you thought you were going to do, but you anticipate that this news event will take the whole period and still leave things left to be said,” Olson said. “To be honest, I’ve unfortunately had a number of those events in the last four years.”

To prepare, Olson spent part of Wednesday evening on Twitter, following the “#sschat” conversation that provided resources for teachers around the country who had to get ready to face students the next day. Normally a weekly internet discussion on Monday nights, there was an “emergency chat” Wednesday that featured links to videos or explainers that could help guide teachers in planning lessons for a variety of student questions.

After two “really good but exhausting” class periods, Olson described the pervasive mood as a “mix of confusion, of worry, anger, frustration.”

His first class needed more of a rundown of what happened, while the later class watched an eight-minute video outlining the events, leading the discussion to be more about the fallout from what happened. He was prepared for most of the questions in both situations, including whether Trump would remain president for the remaining two weeks of his term.

“I was ready to go in talking about the process and limits of the 25th amendment, the process and limits of impeachment and removal,” Olson said. “Talking not only about how it happens, but also the political climate and its likelihood for either of those.”

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The group of East teachers left their Wednesday meeting with a loose plan in place, but were texting throughout the evening figuring out how to adjust and be ready for morning classes. They sent links and potential materials to each other. As a group that doesn’t rely on a textbook for their usual curriculum, they had experience with where to look for pieces of information to share with their students.

“The beauty of us teaching now is the internet exists,” Buehl said. “It’s simple to go and find things. A lot of people are making simple, digestible content that you can go and find.”

Mostly, though, the teachers said they left it to their students to help guide the conversations and ask whatever questions they needed to.

“I just left it up to the students,” said East teacher Cesar Martinez. “You’re living through history, you want to talk about it, get some input. I think they were all just sitting, processing.”

Perspectives and emotions

For Pustz, the events were also a reminder of the importance of processing for herself — a lesson that’s been taught repeatedly over the last year through the pandemic and uprisings over racial injustice.

“An event like this creates emotion for everyone,” she said. “I think that’s one thing that sometimes gets pushed to the side or buried, but teachers have to navigate their own emotionality in order to get a lesson done, sure, but also in order to make the kids feel safe.”

At the same time, she and other teachers have opinions on current events. Transparency about those perspectives, something the East teachers have stressed from the beginning of the school year, is key to helping students feel comfortable sharing and understanding that the perception of history can change with time.

“I just personally try to be very transparent, not to make it about me but so that they know where I’m coming from and then ending that always with, ‘But understand just because I’m your teacher and we’re on a Zoom call and thus you’re seeing my face most of the time, that doesn’t give my perspective any more value than yours,’” said Brad Vonck. “Trying to model but not force people to go the same route as you.”

It’s also emotional, in another way, for history buffs to watch events that will be discussed in classrooms for decades unfold in front of them and their students.

“The nerdy part of me feels some exhilaration because I know this is important,” Olson said. “The part that’s frustrating is I feel like the way I’m able to help my students best is not only allow them to ask questions but provide context for them, to help them understand important historical events.

“It’s hard to do that in real time.”

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