Tom Richey, a teacher in Anderson, South Carolina, is hesitant to call the Jan. 6, 2021 attack on the U.S. Capitol an insurrection when he’s in his classroom.
“If a teacher were to come into a mostly Republican community talking about the January 6 insurrection, that’s a politically charged term,” Richey says, despite the fact that the 2023 report by the bipartisan House Select Committee charged with investigating the violence refers to it as such. “I don’t approve of anything that happened on January 6, but I think for a teacher to use a term like insurrection in a classroom setting would be unnecessarily partisan and inappropriate.”
Richey is far from the only teacher wrestling with how to discuss Jan. 6 with students as the country approaches the third anniversary of the attack. Because there is no standardized history curriculum in the United States, there is no nationally required curriculum on Jan. 6. Teachers have to figure out how to link it to what they’re already teaching, whether as part of planned lessons on how the Electoral College works, different forms of protest, or post-Civil War era violence, or devote a class period to talking about it.
There’s been increased scrutiny of how history is taught in the aftermath of the 2020 murder of George Floyd. Some conservatives argue there has been an increased focus on identity, sexual orientation, and race in the classroom that vilifies white people and sours young people on America. Some liberals, on the other hand, have pushed for more intersectionality in lesson plans and a deeper reckoning with the painful parts of U.S. history. At a time when there have been efforts to ban AP African American Studies in Florida, states are enacting laws designed to restrict how teachers talk about LGBTQ+ topics, and book bans are on the rise, many of the educators TIME spoke to say Jan. 6th falls into the category of topics that can be a political minefield.
Marlon Williams-Clark, a teacher in the Tallahassee, Florida, area, does not bring up Jan. 6 anymore in his classes after a parent complained about him in 2021 because he sent students a link to information about what an insurrection is. He ended up in the school’s human resources office, he says, and had to send an apology letter to families. He has no plans to try to bring it up again due to “pressure that is coming from the state.” Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who is running for President in 2024, has made part of his platform cracking down on teaching that can be framed as “woke” or “indoctrination.” (Many of the most popular curriculum websites also explicitly call the attacks an insurrection, including Facing History & Ourselves, which offers a lesson stating, “Insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent the certification of the 2020 presidential election results.”)
Many of those who do still bring up Jan. 6 in the classroom say they try to relate it to other moments in history. One fertile area of inquiry: the early days of the United States. Richey has brought up Jan. 6 when he’s discussing the Whiskey rebellion (1791-1794) and Shays’ Rebellion (1786-1787). The common theme, as he sees it, is “people who feel that they have been overlooked by the government, feel that there is some kind of process that is worked against them” and “feel that they want to be heard in some way, even if it’s not the most constructive way to be heard.” He hopes his students will consider how that kind of sentiment is handled in a democratic republic.
Bob Fenster, a teacher in Hillsborough, New Jersey, also focuses on this time period. He assigns his students to read a 1787 letter that Thomas Jefferson wrote to John Adams’ son-in-law, arguing that rebellion occurs from time to time and that people should protest if they feel like their rights are being violated. The letter famously states, “The tree of liberty must be refreshed from time to time with the blood of patriots and tyrants. It is its natural manure.”
Fenster says students usually bring up Jan. 6 when he asks them to list rebellions in American history where people felt they had to rise up against the government. “We don’t even have to discuss, in that context, whether they’re right or wrong,” Fenster says. He asks students to consider, “What do you do about people who are misinformed, but genuinely believe in what they’re doing?”
Students and teachers draw parallels to more recent history, too. In the Boston area, while Jenny Staysniak was discussing social contract theory—the idea that citizens can challenge their government if they don’t think it’s fulfilling its duty to serve the people—students brought up as examples Martin Luther King, Jr. and the 1963 March on Washington participants, and the Jan. 6 insurrectionists. “In the case of the insurrection, there were laws and protocols that were broken, that were violated in a way that was unacceptable not just to the rule of law, but also to social norm,” Staysniak says she told her class. “Yes, we can challenge the government, and we can say our social contract has been broken, but there are still avenues through which civil disobedience is acceptable and it’s not.”
Matthew Bunch, a teacher in Miami Dade County, tells his students that Jan. 6 is different from other forms of nonviolent protest because it threatened constitutional processes. “You have a method by which you express your satisfaction, dissatisfaction with government, and it’s voting,” he says. “To use your protest to violently threaten the process of voting is not tenable in a democratic society.” In Asheville, North Carolina, Tracey Barrett has students read parts of the House Select Committee’s final report on Jan. 6 so they can see an example of Congress’ oversight powers. They discuss Congress’ role in certifying the Electoral College and how those who stormed the Capitol were trying to stop that process.
By the time many U.S. history teachers are back from Christmas break, they’re already onto the post-Civil War era of Reconstruction in their curriculum, and they say there are natural ways to tie that time period to the events of Jan. 6th. Several teachers told TIME that they show the photo of Delaware man Kevin Seefried carrying a Confederate flag through the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 (he was later sentenced to three years in prison). Abigail Henry, a teacher in Philadelphia, sees showing that image as a way of preparing students for life after college: “My Black students are sometimes very unprepared for the racism they’re going to experience when they leave Philadelphia,” she says. Earlier this year, when Rabiya Kassam-Clay showed the photo to her Los Angeles U.S. history class, a debate ensued between a student who argued that the flag was a symbol of “Southern heritage” and another who said it was a symbol of “white supremacy.”
Zinn Education Project, a website with downloadable lessons and articles about history topics, calls Jan. 6 “an attack on the United States Capitol by an armed white supremacist mob, determined to block the democratic process” and suggests teachers note examples of white mob violence against Black Americans in the Reconstruction era. Among the suggestions is a link to a lesson that guides students on how to design their own reparations bill “to help them reflect on what a path toward justice might look like today.”
Shari Conditt, a government teacher in Woodland, Washington, expects to discuss parallels to Jan. 6 when she’s reviewing the definitions of rebellion, insurrection, and protest and ask students whether there are modern movements that could be associated with these definitions. Sari Beth Rosenberg, a teacher in New York City, has linked Jan. 6 to the Memphis riots of 1866, when white residents attacked the local Black community, burning down their homes and schools.
In Asheville, N.C., Barrett singles out the 1898 Wilmington Massacre, a coup in Wilmington, N.C. in which white supremacist soldiers and police helped kill at least 60 Black men in response to the election of a Reconstruction-era multiracial government. She explains to students that the Wilmington coup wasn’t widely talked about for years because it was dangerous to acknowledge that the people in power had taken over the government by force. She tells students that it’s important to talk about the events of Jan. 6 because “not talking about fascism can make it easier for it to occur and to recur.”
Similarly, Rosenberg emphasizes to students that they don’t have to be an elected official to make a difference in this country. She mentions “the regular people that stood up to protect our democracy,” from Capitol Police to whistleblowers who testified during the House investigation of the attacks. She says she wants her students to remember: “It takes all of us to keep this democracy.”