Gemma Defee’s AP government class had discussed James Madison’s Federalist No. 10 and his warnings about factions shortly before last week’s breach of the U.S. Capitol by supporters of outgoing President Donald Trump.
But when pro-Trump insurrectionists stormed the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 as Congress met to count the electoral votes establishing Joe Biden as president-elect, Defee and other Oklahoma government teachers suddenly had a new lesson to plan.
“I understood the gravity of what was going on. As tragic as the situation was, it’s a historic moment, especially from a teaching perspective,” Defee said. “It’s absolutely something we need to be informing our kids about, specifically in regards to what America is and how we’re a nation that needs to be unified and not divided.”
Defee, who heads the history faculty at Harding Charter Prep in Oklahoma City, talked about the event with her students all day Jan. 7, answering their questions and discussing what happened from a historical perspective.
“We talked about fascism, we talked about what was going on in the Senate at the time and how it was so pivotal with the electoral college votes. We talked about how America is a union,” Defee said. “We also talked about the Democratic view versus the Republican view versus the view of those people that were supporting Trump at the time, and why those three things are very separate.”
Defee’s students had plenty of questions after the conversation, like how the 25th Amendment works, key differences between the Black Lives Matter protests and the U.S. Capitol riot and what the charging process could be for those involved in the violence.
“I tried to round it out and be as comprehensive as I could, to explain the seriousness of what was going on and why this was such a big deal,” Defee said. “It was also a great teaching moment from a historical perspective to ram home some of the things we’ve been talking about all year and why government is so important.”
In her ninth year at Harding Charter Prep, Defee said her school has a diverse student population that is encouraged to think independently and ask as many questions as possible. She said her overall goal is to help her students become good citizens.
“I had many conservative students that were very upset with the president and very upset with his rhetoric,” Defee said. “Our students take a rhetoric class junior year, so they know the power of language.”
‘Politics is compromise’
David McGuire, an AP government teacher at Duncan High School in southwest Oklahoma, said that while the events at the Capitol came as a shock to the adults around him, his students were not as surprised.
“As a teacher, you thought it would be a historical day as you do every four years with the counting of the electoral votes, but when something like that happens, you can’t believe what you’re seeing or hearing,” he said.
McGuire said his government class doesn’t just look at events from a historical perspective, they also look at why or how something happened and try to predict what will happen in the future.
“My AP students have always done a good job throughout the year of breaking down things and looking at it from a different perspective,” McGuire said. “Not only are you looking at what happened, you’re also comparing it to the things that have happened over the last 12 months with the pandemic, and you’re comparing it to the things that have happened over the last 12 months with racial and social issues and injustices.”
He said his students did a great job of not only talking about what happened, but also about how they can eventually be part of a solution.
Zachary Lilley is a senior at Duncan and is in McGuire’s AP government class. He said the class is always having lively discussions, so he knew what he was walking into when he went into class the morning after the riot.
“We tried to compare that to other situations like riots and protests that have happened in the last couple of months,” Lilley said. “You see very different outcomes compared to what we saw the other day.”
Lilley said he and his classmates drew parallels to other events they’ve studied in history and in current events, such as race riots of the 60’s and the Black Lives Matter protests from over the summer. He said something that stood out to him Jan. 6 was how little response the U.S. Capitol riot received by a Capitol police force that appeared to lack organization.
“When looking at events in history books or in black and white videos, it’s obvious who’s right and who’s wrong. Time is the obvious fact checker, I suppose.” Lilley said.
McGuire said the students in his class are passionate about their perspectives, but he said they try to remain thoughtful when talking things out.
“That’s an encouraging thing for our country. Sometimes you get worried about the direction,” McGuire said. “This has opened the eyes up to (the fact) that extremism is not a solution, no matter which side of extremism you believe in, and that there has to be a middle ground and compromise. One of the things I tell my students is, ‘Politics is compromise.'”