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Inauguration Day Is A Teachable Moment, But Not All Kansas City Schools Let Students Watch Live

A screenshot of the inauguration of President Joe Biden. A Black woman in a yellow coat reads a poem she wrote as a sign language interpreter translates.
Biden Inaugural Committee
Amanda Gorman, the first Youth Poet Laureate of the United States, reads a poem at the inauguration of President Joe Biden on Wednesday, Jan. 20, 2021. The Biden Inaugural Committee provided a live stream of the ceremony geared to students and other young Americans. Many English teachers are planning to discuss Gorman's poem with their students.

Lee’s Summit asked elementary teachers to wait until after the inauguration to share clips with their classes. Blue Valley suggested it might be better if students watched at home with their families.

Kevin Adkins spent Inauguration Day teaching his eighth grade students about the transition of power.

“I think the instinct to shy away from these moments of history as they happen does a disservice to our students,” said Adkins, who teaches U.S. history at Harrisonville Middle School. “It is our job as educators to put into context these moments so our students grow into better understanding of the world.”

Adkins and other Kansas City area teachers tuned in Wednesday to watch President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris take their oaths of office. Many educators wanted their students to see Harris, the first woman, the first Black person and the first Asian American to ever hold the office, be sworn in. The Biden Inaugural Committee even set up a separate live stream for young Americans with age-appropriate content, like a history of White House pets.

In Olathe, incoming Superintendent Brent Yeager emailed resources and discussion questions to teachers last week.

“The Library of Congress’s rich collection of primary sources could position students to conduct a comparative examination of inauguration ceremonies,” Yeager wrote. “In addition, providing students with current events leading up to the inauguration could help provide context for why aspects of the ceremony may look different.”

Yeager then pointed teachers toward Newsela, a resource that provides texts by reading level, starting in second grade.

But other districts told teachers not to stream the inauguration live, especially if they teach younger students.

“Thursday at our Elementary Principal Team meeting, we made a collective decision to not show the upcoming inauguration live. While we recognize the historical significance of this event, national security agencies have reported that there are possibilities of protests or other disruptions. In order to protect the emotional well-being of our students, we do not believe it is prudent nor necessary to show the event live,” an elementary principal in Lee’s Summit wrote in an email to teachers.

The principal, who was not identified in the email, asked teachers to let them know if they planned to incorporate the inauguration into their lessons later so that they could prepare for possible contact from parents.

A spokeswoman for the district emphasized that the decision only pertained to live streaming of the event, and only to elementary schools.

“The district's guidance to principals was to ensure that lesson plans, instructional materials and classroom conversation were wrapped around any inauguration viewings so that the experience is most valuable for students,” Katy Bergen wrote in an email.

Blue Valley also instructed elementary teachers not to show the inauguration live, though middle school social studies teachers could watch with their classes, as could high school teachers, though doing so was discouraged in an email to building administrators.

“We know this presents the opportunity to share current events with students and we appreciate the interest teachers may have in doing so. It is also very likely that teachers are feeling pressured to teach key information and concepts during class. In this day and age, there are numerous opportunities that exist outside the school day for students to watch the inauguration with their families. Therefore, encouraging students to watch outside of school is the most optimal choice.”

A spokeswoman for Blue Valley said the guidance for this inauguration was the same as in past inaugurations.

But there’s no denying that the political climate has changed over the past four years. Now former President Donald Trump did not even attend the inauguration after his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to disrupt the transfer of power.

Brett Coffman said teachers are still figuring out how to teach what happened two weeks ago.

“Districts are clamping down on some of the political rhetoric,” said Coffman, who taught social studies for 17 years in Raytown and Liberty schools and now works as a consultant for the University of Missouri-Kansas City. “I think that’s going to continue. There will be teachers that push back on that. I know that they are already.”

These days, Coffman helps provide professional development to Missouri teachers. He said there are lessons in the inauguration applicable to all students, even those who are very young.

“Part of teaching social studies is using that imagery, those symbols we saw today, like the flag and the Capitol building to create a relationship between the students and the democratic principles,” Coffman said.

Coffman suggested middle school teachers draw on Biden’s speech or Youth Poet Laureate Amanda Gorman’s poem about challenges the U.S. is facing. High school students, Coffman said, are old enough to talk meaningfully about the symbols of equity and inclusion in Wednesday’s ceremony.

“A lot of school boards say in their policies that teachers need to be impartial in their political speech in the classroom,” Coffman said. “But that doesn’t mean you just exclude these important events in your school.”

Elle Moxley covered education for KCUR.
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