‘This is what I teach’: Capitol violence takes focus in school lessons

MADISON, Wis. – For students, memories of big moments in history often take place in the classroom.

In his 11th year at James Madison Memorial High School, social studies teacher David Olson watched the violence at the U.S. Capitol play out with his students in mind.

“I couldn’t not watch and think of my role as a teacher,” Olson said. “I teach AP U.S. government, politics. This is what I teach. Watching this, my mind kept thinking of, what are the things I need to help students understand? Where are the places students I know are going to have questions?”

The world is his curriculum, and when that gets chaotic, he shakes up his lesson plan, too. In his classes Thursday, he and his students dove into what’s on everyone’s minds and screens.

“I tried to explain this really is one of those moments, this is one of those historical moments that will stick with you,” Olson said. “My students, and me, are sad, confused, frustrated, angry.”

“It’s incredibly powerful as a learning experience,” said Heather Lott, a former Madison West High School teacher.

Lott is now chair of the Dane County New Teacher Project, offering resources to teachers new to the job. She said it’s already been a draining time for teachers.

“This was a really hard day on the heels of a really hard year. They know a lot about how to teach in crisis. They’ve been doing it a lot,” she said. “Imagine this being your very first year teaching.”

Lott said the Capitol chaos is an opportunity to start a discussion with students.

“What does it mean to be American? What does it mean to be a person in this world that can get along with other people and promote peace and have discourse that’s hard and important without it breaking into something violent and devastating like we saw yesterday?” she said. “That’s every teacher’s job.”

It’s a job other adults can take on, as well.

“We’re all teachers. Children are watching grownups to see how we’re responding to this,” Lott said. “It’s OK to talk about, that was wrong. The politics aside, this was wrong. That’s all right to say.”

In his two classes Thursday, Olson made sure to answer questions about topics such as political processes and media literacy but also offer a safe haven amidst some of the world’s chaos.

“My job was to help students process what it is they need to know, be able to express themselves if that’s what they wanted to do and just to have a safe place to ask questions and learn from each other,” he said.