Doug Emhoff, Kamala Harris, Jill Biden, and Joe Biden stop at the Lincoln Memorial Reflecting Pool to honor 400,000 lives lost to COVID-19 in the United States the night before the inauguration. Credit: Joe Biden Facebook page

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Before President Joe Biden’s inauguration, Marian Mohamed braced her high school students for good and for bad.

Kamala Harris would become the first woman of color to serve as vice president, a milestone that allowed many students to imagine themselves for the first time in the highest ranks of power. 

But the students––and Marian––were also concerned about more violence in the nation’s capital.

Her ninth and tenth graders at Eden Prairie High School were relieved their teacher assigned them to watch the inauguration, so they wouldn’t have to skip class to do it. No further political violence came from the heavily-guarded capital city. Students  enjoyed the memes that emerged from the festivities on social media. And they’re already excited about President Biden’s first 100 days and wondering what he will do, she said.

Current events have taken center stage in many Twin Cities classrooms in a history-making month, as teachers help students process an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol, a second impeachment for former President Donald Trump, and the inauguration of President Joe Biden. Many students hope that Biden’s inauguration will usher in a less turbulent era, but others worry it will create a backlash or even war. 

Living through the Trump administration and witnessing the insurrection have made Marian’s students more politically engaged—and sparked lively discussions that can be all too rare in remote learning.

“It felt like all my kids were back in my classroom, but we were all on Zoom,” Marian said. “But we were talking so much more because it was hitting something in them.”

One of her students, who is Somali American, has always talked about becoming an immigration lawyer when she grew up. But now, seeing Harris—a Black woman and a daughter of immigrants—become vice president, that student wants to become a politician.

“In the past we were kind of lost without hope,” said Marian, who teaches AVID, a college and career readiness program for students who need extra support. “And now they’re feeling pretty hopeful.”

The disparate police response between the Capitol insurrection and the George Floyd protests wasn’t lost on Marian’s students, some of whom live in south Minneapolis. They also criticized the school administration for responding more quickly to events at the Capitol than to the police killing of George Floyd, she said. 

“A student of mine said, ‘Ms. Mohamed, if I had walked up to the Capitol in that moment, or a group of us 9th graders walked up to the Capitol with that same energy, my body would be on the ground,’” she said. “It’s hard for us to hear that. It’s a hard pill to swallow. They’re seeing the hypocrisy of everything that goes on.”

Some of Marian’s students, whose families—like hers—immigrated to the United States drew parallels between what their parents had left in their home countries and events at the Capitol. 

“It’s an eye-opener,” she said. “The unstable realities of the countries that a lot of immigrant families leave behind, we’re seeing in this country.”

Students were eager to dissect what led up to that moment, what would happen during the inauguration, and where the country will go from here, she said. 

“We always hope for an ‘aha’ moment in learning,” she said. “And this is just an ‘aha’ moment that’s kind of bittersweet.”

‘They want solutions’

At Burnsville High School, Coudjo Amegbleame is a cultural liaison and an 11th-grade advisor. His high school juniors have never really known a government other than Trump’s—they were too young to understand politics when Barack Obama was president. They’re fed up with people being treated differently based on race, and hope that change can come now that Biden is president.

Coudjo, a millennial more politically seasoned than his Gen-Z students, cautioned them that while presidents come and go, the underlying systems remain the same. That’s where efforts toward change should be directed, he tells them.

“Almost all of them are tired of hearing that things are the way they are because of this, that, and the other,” he said. “They want solutions.”

His students were dismayed at Trump’s response to the insurrection at the Capitol, he said. 

“They wanted to focus on what it means to be a president,” Coudjo said. “They didn’t think a president could sit around and watch people essentially attack the country. Everything they’ve heard so far in their adolescence has been that America protects its own, and the most powerful man in the world sits back and incites it.”

While his students hope for change under a Biden administration, Coudjo said, he’s helped them see the throughlines that connect the attack on the U.S. Capitol to other events in American history to help them understand that the insurrection at the Capitol was not an isolated event. 

His students’ curiosity and desire to make change gives him hope, he said.

“If there’s anything that can ever help this world, it’s going to be the children,” he said. “But before that happens, it’s on adults to shape their individual world and not hinder it.”

‘They don’t want to be sheltered’

In Maryam Abdulahi’s English and language arts classes, some students described the inauguration as a baptism or a christening. Some were excited about the music and poetry performances at the inauguration. And others weren’t interested.

Her seventh graders at Coon Rapids Middle School hold diverse political views that often mirror what they’ve heard from their families. She encourages them to explore their own feelings about current events in their journals and keeps classroom discussions centered on facts. She also worries that as a Somali American teacher, parents will think that she comes to the conversations with an agenda. In class, she aims to keep discussions centered on facts, while allowing students space to process their feelings in their journals.

“It’s amazing how much they know and how much they want to engage with what’s happening,” Maryam said. “They don’t want to be sheltered.”

Some kids’ journal entries start out saying they don’t really know or care what’s happening, she said. But as they write, they unpack thoughts and feelings they didn’t know they had.

In part to help kids process current events, she scuttled a unit on a British poem and replaced it with lessons about the Civil Rights movement: the Children’s March, the bombing of a Black church in Birmingham that killed four little girls, Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Letter from Birmingham Jail.”

“I didn’t say to them, ‘There’s always violence,’” she said. “I wanted them to see there have always been people who don’t like progress. But I knew they were connecting the dots.”

‘They’re making connections’

Qorsho Hassan’s fourth grade students at Echo Park Elementary School logged in to their remote classroom on January 7 with a lot of questions. They wanted to discuss what happened the day before in the nation’s capital.

The previous day, they’d watched a mob of mostly white insurrectionists storm the U.S. Capitol building in an attempt to overturn an election. The president had egged them on, and after many hours he told them, “We love you, you’re very special.” Five people died. And this horrified Qorsho’s fourth graders.

“They were very aware of Trump’s words,” Qorsho said. “One of my students very candidly said, ‘Miss Qorsho, how do you love hatred? How do you love hate?’ And we really sat with that.”

Qorsho, the 2020 Minnesota Teacher of the Year, cultivates a learning environment where her students can raise questions about problems in their lives and the world. She shares her own feelings, and states clearly that she doesn’t have all the answers. 

One fourth grader wanted to know more about who built the Capitol. In her research, the student discovered enslaved people played a major role in the building’s construction. Some kids felt empathy for the custodial staff at the Capitol who had to clean up the mess the mob left behind. One student expressed dismay at how law enforcement treated white insurrectionists, while police did not extend that level of humanity to Dolal Idd, a 23-year-old Somali American killed by Minneapolis police in December. They understood the fear that Capitol Hill staffers must have felt locked down in the Capitol, comparing that lockdown to their own experiences with fire drills and active shooter drills.

Adults often belittle children by assuming they are ignorant of world events, but that’s not true, Qorsho said. “They’re aware. They’re making connections.”

In the days leading up to the inauguration, her students expressed worry that as Joe Biden took the presidency, a backlash or even a war would ensue. They were worried they wouldn’t be able to speak their own language, or that white people would turn against Black people, Qorsho said.

The day of the inauguration, Qorsho’s students weren’t in school; as Rosemount–Apple Valley–Eagan schools prepare classrooms to return to in-person learning, they had the day off. But their response to the insurrection gives Qorsho hope for the future.

“My students really emphasized to me that they will rise by lifting each other, they’re constantly affirming each other,” Qorsho said. “And because I have such a multicultural classroom they are essentially celebrating and uplifting each other’s differences without even realizing it. And that’s what I want for our country.”

Becky Z. Dernbach

Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.