CHICAGO – Benito Juarez Community Academy civics teacher Daniel Michmerhuizen starts every class with bell ringers.
Bell ringers are writing prompts, tailored to the day. He might ask his students to write about their weekends, or about an assignment that’s due soon. He puts on quiet music while they write for 10 minutes and invites them to read their answers aloud if they feel comfortable.
“It builds community,” Michmerhuizen told me Sunday. “It builds authenticity. It builds their willingness to share their thoughts in class.”
Last Thursday, the day after the deadly assault on the U.S. Capitol, Michmerhuizen asked his students to write their concerns, questions or feelings about the previous day’s events.
Michmerhuizen has been teaching high schoolers since 2000. He taught during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks and dozens of school shootings around the nation. He’s watched teenagers process trauma for two decades. Benito Juarez serves a student body that is 94% Latino, in a community that has been hit hard by the illness, death and economic hardships brought on by the novel coronavirus. One of his students lost her mom to COVID-19 on Christmas Eve.
I called him because I wanted to hear what the past few days have felt and sounded like in a classroom.
My kids have told me how their teachers discussed the Capitol attack. My daughter’s environmental biology teacher delivered a poignant message about striving for a time when we debate solutions, not facts. Without an agreed upon set of facts, how can we combat climate change, deadline viruses, the social problems that plague and harm us?
I’m so deeply grateful for the educators helping my kids, anyone’s kids, through what have been some of the hardest days of their lives — a pandemic, the killing of George Floyd, social unrest, last week’s bloody attack.
None of that stuff fits neatly into a lesson plan. But learning to process and discuss it all is critical to kids’ development and humanity.
“Sometimes life is bigger than the lesson plan,” Michmerhuizen told me.
He teaches five classes of freshman. Some of his classes wanted to talk about Wednesday’s events for the entire period. Some wanted to move on after a few minutes.
“I want to give them space to talk through things and process them, but also not be anxiety-inducing,” he said. “They’re so inundated, sometimes they actually just want a break. Sometimes they’ll tell me, ‘Can we just not talk about that?’ They just want some normalcy.”
Most of them wanted to talk about what happened at the Capitol. Michmerhuizen said the bell ringer responses fell into four categories.
One: “I’m angry that people did this. This is our nation. This is our country. How can people call themselves patriots and then do that?”
Two: “Why weren’t the police ready for them like they were ready for us?”
Many of Michmerhuizen’s students joined demonstrations, or had family members join demonstrations, last year to protest police brutality and support Black Lives Matter.
“They all vividly remember this summer,” Michmerhuizen said. “It wasn’t a theme of, ‘I wish they would’ve hurt them like they hurt us.’ It was like, ‘Look. They showed restraint. Why couldn’t they show us restraint?’”
Three: ”‘They seem really angry like we are. They seem really frustrated like we are.”
Four: “We need to make this better. If we made the government better to where everyone was heard, nobody would have to protest.”
Michmerhuizen said three and four brought him to tears.
“I expected the anger,” he said. “I expected the frustration, and I wanted to give voice to that. But for a 15-year-old to go to a place of empathy? To go from natural anger to solution-oriented thinking and empathy? That blew me away.”
Dozens of articles have been written about how to talk to kids about the attack on the Capitol. I’ve read several. I’m eager for the guidance. One thing that comes up over and over: Listen more than you talk.
“A lot of times I say, ‘I hear you. I understand you. That’s a really good point,’” Michmerhuizen said. “If you really want all voices to be heard, you have to treat all voices equally. You can’t gush over the kids who says an answer you agree with and then marginalize the kid who says something you don’t agree with.”
Which isn’t the same as refusing to challenge his students.
“I’ll ask, ‘Why do you think that?’” Michmerhuizen said. “What evidence do you have?’ ‘What led you to that opinion?’
“I tell them the first day of class, and sometimes they’re upset about it, ‘We’ll never have a debate in this class,’” Michmerhuizen said. “Generally debates are about winning. Discussions are about learning. We need to learn how to hear each other.”
Last week’s news wasn’t written into the freshman civics curriculum, Michmerhuizen said, but it fit with the question he frames the school year around: “Who has power and how do they use it to influence the world around them and issues that we care about?” That leads them to lessons on elections, money, activism, legislators.
“I honestly believe part of the reason we are where we are as a country is for so long social studies in general and civics in particular were ignored,” he said. “Beyond the knowledge of government, we need the ability to discuss government.”
For Michmerhuizen, that means teaching his students they have a voice in their government and in their nation. Last week left him optimistic about how they’ll use it.
“The empathy and the hope were the unexpected parts,” he said. “The parts that gave me chills and tears in my eyes. They have so much passion to make things better, and they’re not beholden to some of the in-the-box thinking that we were at their age.
“On top of being resilient,” he said, “they’re hopeful and they’re aspirational. They want to make a difference.”
To Michmerhuizen and all the educators guiding students to these discussions, through these days, toward empathy and hope and solutions: Thank you. Nothing about last week is easy to talk about — very little about the past 10 months has been.
When you nudge our kids to do so anyway, and to fire up their critical thinking skills and imaginations and hope for a better way forward, you do all of us, and our future, a great service.
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