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Lesson Plans

How to engage students in civil discourse following events at the U.S. Capitol

January 6, 2021

Full Lesson


In this resource, teacher David Cutler of Brimmer and May School in Mass. shares three civic actions educators can take with their students in light of Wednesday’s events at the U.S. Capitol building.

Directions: Read the NewsHour summary (watch this 8-minute video which recaps the events) and discuss the meaning of civic engagement and the importance of civil discourse with your students. If you have time, you may also want to listen to this story from NPR that covers talking to students about the events of January 6. 

Summary of Wednesday’s events from NewsHour:

A mob of violent pro-Trump protesters overwhelmed security at the U.S. Capitol and broke into the building on Wednesday, January 6, halting proceedings where Congress was poised to count the votes cast by the Electoral College. The mob opposed President-elect Joe Biden’s victory in the 2020 election.

Some Republicans in both chambers declared that they would object to the counting of some states where President Donald Trump lost his closest races to Biden. But before insurrectionists entered the building, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell delivered a rebuke to the idea that Congress could or should attempt to overthrow the election.

Earlier, Trump spoke at a rally where he urged supporters to march to the Capitol to demand that the results be overthrown. After rioters forcefully entered the building, he tweeted a recorded message telling people to “go home now,” while repeating false claims about the election.

The votes for President-elect Biden were formally counted in the early hours of January 7, marking the last step in Biden’s election win before his inauguration on January 20.

From teacher David Cutler: 

Here are some ideas to get started teaching your students about the importance of civil discourse during a moment like this:

1. Encourage students to speak with political leaders

Weeks before Wednesday’s lawless spectacle at the Capitol, I assigned my juniors and seniors in government to share ideas on how to bring polarized sides to the discussion table. Students wrote papers, created podcasts, slideshows and cartoons. My student Alex Boch interviewed Mass. Republican Gov. Charlie Baker, a popular governor in a heavily Democratic state.

PODCAST: Student chats with Gov. Charlie Baker about how to foster productive political discourse, and how to tackle fake news

2. Encourage students to share voices online

Another student, Karly Hamilton, who serves as editor-in-chief of our school newspaper, wrote a powerful opinion article about how to embrace civility.

“Instead of butting heads to prove which perspective is supposedly ‘right,’ we need to learn how to appropriately engage with others. In an academic environment, much of that involves responding to alternative viewpoints with respectful inquiries instead of forceful statements,” Hamilton wrote.

More than anything, just let students know that you are there for them and that you care. That way, you can’t go wrong.

The Gator also published an editorial, expressing similar sentiments. “In a particularly draining year, it is imperative that we, the Brimmer community, keep our wits about us as we await the announcement of our next President,” the editors write. “If we lead by example and treat others with respect and kindness — as our Core Values suggest — we will be able to engage in civil and informative discourse.”

Karly and I ended up writing an opinion piece together, “Teaching government amid false claims of voter fraud,” for NewsHour EXTRA’s Educator Voice column, which I highly recommend.

3. Bring in Academics, Authors to Discuss History and Politics

After the pandemic hit last spring, I didn’t shy from contacting historians and authors more knowledgeable than myself to address students. My history students also had the chance to discuss the past with Pulitzer Prize–wining author Eric Foner and Senior National Security Archive Analyst Peter Kornbluh.

PODCAST: Historian Eric Foner Zooms with Students

Later this week, I plan to reach out to both authors one more time to help provide my students with context for what’s happening in their world today.

You would be surprised how willing academics are to speak with young people, and how easy they are to contact. Along these lines, try Googling where academics work or teach to find an email address. I have also found success reaching out on social media, especially Twitter.

More than anything, just let students know that you are there for them and that you care. That way, you can’t go wrong.

For NewsHour EXTRA’s lesson plan on Wednesday’s insurrection at the Capitol, click here

David Cutler teaches American history, government and journalism at Brimmer and May, an independent school in Chestnut Hill, Mass. His writing has appeared in the National Association of Independent Schools, PBS NewsHour, Edutopia, The Atlantic and Independent School Magazine. Follow David on Twitter @spinedu.

If you would like to contribute to Educator Voice blog, please send your idea to Vic Pasquantonio at

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