January 2021

On January 6, 2021, a violent mob of self-proclaimed supporters of President Trump invaded the U.S. Capitol in an attempt to prevent Congress from certifying the 2020 presidential election results. Much of the nation—and, in fact, much of the world—watched the mob tear its way through the Capitol building with a mixture of shock and disbelief. Questions abounded. Many wondered if they had just viewed an event unprecedented in the history of the United States.

In the hours and days that followed, historians and other scholars took to social media, TV and radio programs, newspapers, and online news media websites to provide historical context for the events of the January 6 insurrection. They compared and contrasted the 2020 presidential election with past contested elections in U.S. history. They detailed the nation’s long history of anti-democratic mob violence and explored its parallels to the Capitol riot. And they offered their varied answers to the question at the forefront of so many Americans’ minds as they viewed the carnage at the Capitol: Is this who we are?

In this lesson, students will work together to explore six different excerpted articles from historians and scholars who, in the days after the Capitol riot, sought to provide historical context for the events of January 6. Students will identify historical evidence and analyze secondary source arguments in their selected excerpts. They will assess whether the Capitol riot was unprecedented in U.S. history or shared deep links with past contested elections and anti-democratic mob violence. Finally, the lesson concludes with students reflecting on the role that studying history plays in understanding their world in the present.


Students will:

  • Identify the argument in a secondary source.
  • Summarize a source’s use of historical evidence.
  • Analyze current events in their historical context.
  • Consider the role of historians in understanding the present.
  • Assess how studying history can affect their preparedness for civic participation.



Analyzing Your Source

Sharing Findings

The Point of Studying History

Additional Articles by Historians (Optional) 

Note on Remote Learning

This lesson can be completed in a remote learning environment. We recommend doing a class video session to introduce the activity, and using a virtual whiteboard to record students’ brainstorming ideas. Student pairs can review their assigned source and complete “Analyzing Your Source” by using group chat sessions or virtual hangouts. During the jigsaw portion of the lesson, assign students to group chats or breakout rooms to share their source with other members of the group. Be sure that each source is represented in the breakout session. Finally, the teacher can lead a virtual class discussion to conclude the lesson after students have completed the jigsaw activity.

Resources on Teaching about Controversial Issues

Before you begin this lesson, you may want to review our resource guide, Teaching about Controversial Issues: A Resource Guide. It is important to establish guidelines before beginning this lesson. You may also find it helpful to reach out to parents beforehand to let them know how you plan to approach this topic impartially and respectfully.

In the Classroom

1. Activate Prior Knowledge

Put the question, “How can history help us understand the present?” on the board. Invite students to come up to the board and write down any words, phrases, or questions that come to mind. Encourage students to add to the ideas of their classmates. 

Ask students what they know about the violence at the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021. Where are they getting their information about these events? Do students believe it is a significant event in the history of the United States? Why? Tell students that many people in the United States want to understand both the causes and significance of the Capitol riot. Tell students that historians are also considering the events and their connections to U.S. history. 

2. Analyze Sources 

Tell students that they are going to examine six interpretations of the events by different historians. Have students pair up, and assign each pair one of the six sources. Tell students that they will be responsible for understanding their source and sharing about it with classmates who did not read the same one. In pairs, students should read the source they were assigned two times, and complete “Analyzing Your Source.” 

3. Jigsaw

Once the pairs have completed “Analyzing Your Source,” form new groups of six students. Make sure that all six sources are represented in each group. Distribute “Sharing Findings.” Within these groups, have students take turns sharing information from “Analyzing Your Source.” Students should record information about each source as it is presented on “Sharing Findings.” After all the sources are presented, groups should discuss similarities and differences they notice across the six sources. Have each student record key ideas that come out of their conversation.

4. Concluding Discussion 

Reconvene the whole class. Did the historians argue that understanding U.S. history can help explain the events of January 6, 2021? What key ideas were presented in the sources? What were the most significant similarities and differences of the sources? How did these articles by historians add to students’ understanding of these events? What questions would they ask any of these historians about the events of January 6, 2021? Record students’ questions on the board.

Time permitting, you may want to distribute “The Point of Studying History.” Have students read the quotation from historian Daniel Immerwahr silently to themselves. After a minute, have one student read it aloud to the class. What do students believe Immerwahr means when he says, “The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it”? What does it mean to be prepared to live in a country? Do they agree with him when he writes that history gives students the “intellectual tools…to change or conserve” their society. What does it mean to “change or conserve” society? What are ways to “change or conserve” society?

Extra Challenge

1. Persuasive Writing 

Have students use the following quotation from Daniel Immerwahr’s Op-Ed in The Washington Post as a writing prompt. 

“The aim of history class isn’t to get students to love or loathe their country. It’s to prepare them to live in it.” —Historian Daniel Immerwahr, The Washington Post, December 23, 2020

Have students draft a short, evidence-based, persuasive essay in response to the question: “What does it mean to be prepared to live in a country?”

Students should cite evidence from the sources they have examined for this lesson, and reference what they have learned about history and from their own personal experiences. You may also require students to find and cite additional sources.

2. Conduct Additional Research

Assign or have students choose one of the historical events discussed in the sources. You may want to focus on specific past elections or broaden the assignment to include other events. Have students prepare a short presentation to deliver to the class or create a short video/YouTube presentation in which they recount the history of their assigned event, analyze how Americans responded to it at the time, and assess its historical significance. You may want to have students identify two (or more) images, political cartoons, or newspaper headlines to support their presentation of their assigned event.

Photo credit: Blink O’fanaye, (CC BY-NC 2.0)

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