Mr. Oberfield wrote the names of the major players on a chalkboard:
“Trump - President”
“J. Biden - ex V.P. [and] candidate”
“H. Biden - son”
“Zelensky - Pres. of Ukraine”
“And Sondland,” Josh Oberfield said to his 12th-grade Advanced Placement Government and Politics class at William Penn Charter School. “Who is he?”
“He is the United States ambassador to the European Union,” a student at the Quaker school in Philadelphia answered.
Oberfield told his students Tuesday that they would be diving into the weeds of the House impeachment inquiry. As the first public hearings start Wednesday, he wanted students to understand the historic moment about to play out in front of them.
» LIVE UPDATES: Highlights from Wednesday’s public impeachment hearing
A whistle-blower has alleged that President Donald Trump pressured Ukrainian leaders to investigate former vice president and 2020 Democratic candidate Joe Biden and his son Hunter, spurring the impeachment inquiry.
The rapidly unfolding events have presented challenges for classrooms trying to teach and process the news — from students grappling with gaps in their still-developing understanding of politics and foreign affairs (like why the U.S. provides military aid to Ukraine in the first place) to teachers fielding questions without injecting opinion and steering students toward credible sources.
Teachers are aware of the opportunity they have to create a classroom where students feel free to discuss political views, respectfully disagree with others, and form a political identity.
The 13 students sitting in a semi-circle in the Penn Charter classroom are also part of a generation that has become increasingly politically active. They are growing up during a partisan era where students are leading the charge on issues like gun violence at the March for Our Lives and climate change with the global Climate Strike.
The teenagers in Oberfield’s classroom have heard about the impeachment inquiry from Snapchat, TV news, and dinner discussions with parents. For class, Oberfield, 45, assigned two readings: An opinion column from USA Today and an NPR story detailing “what you need to know” about the impeachment inquiry.
It’s important, Oberfield said, for students to have a shared set of facts to base their discussion on, as well as some guiding questions.
His first question: “Why is there an investigation — what’s the crime?”
Anne Flemming, 17, raised her hand. She likes to pay attention to the news, participates in mock trial, and goes to protests.
“By using his power of the presidency and withholding military aid for something in return that will help him win the presidency, or he hopes will help him win the presidency, is I think both an abuse of the powers of the office and misusing the office for improper purpose or personal gain,” Flemming said, “because he is using his power as president of the United States over a smaller country like Ukraine trying to help him dig up or create dirt on his opponents.”
Later in the class, Gavin Zavorski, 18, offered a dissenting view.
“Democrats have been trying to impeach Trump, for whatever reason, since he’s got into office,” Zavorski said. “He’s been on the news more than any president ever. But it also has to do with who is running the media.... There are not many Republican news sources. And the ones that are are looked down upon, regardless.”
These discussions are playing out in other classrooms, with teachers in the region saying they are integrating political news with the history curriculum, and it’s energizing students.
At Parkway Center City Middle College, veteran English teacher Maureen Boland said her high school students even jumped on Google Classroom to chat with her and their classmates during a debate.
“I’m a veteran teacher, and I know how I can make this work in the classroom and have it connect to the curriculum,” she said. “It feels like, if we’re educating kids, we should have to teach this. For me, what’s the point of a public education if we’re not teaching kids to be citizens?”
Tim Lengel, a teacher at the Haverford School on the Main Line, said students in his 12th-grade government and politics class asked so many questions that he reframed his course around the impeachment inquiry.
“This is more or less blowing up my plans for the semester, honestly,” he said.
Bill Hawthorne, who teaches honors civics and AP government at Pottsgrove High School in Montgomery County, planned to teach a section on mass media this spring, but bumped up the lessons due to the impeachment process.
“They need help understanding essentially what the media is telling them, and how they’re doing so,” Hawthorne said. “The kids are more than inquisitive about it. They want to understand.”
The main question Hawthorne’s students have been asking is “will the president be impeached,” he said. To address that, he’s focused on teaching students the process: What an impeachment inquiry is, what the roles of the House and Senate are, what it takes to have articles of impeachment issued.
"Students want to know your opinion, which is a slippery slope,” said Joe Paone, who teaches government to seniors at Norristown Area High School. “I usually bring the conversation back to ‘what do you know about what’s going on so far? What have you heard?’”
Even students who won’t be old enough to vote next election are paying attention.
“Do you talk about this among your friends?” Chichester High School teacher Bill Delaney asked his honors American government class Tuesday.
“Yeah," students responded.
They spent the class period discussing the impeachment inquiry, the difference between bipartisan and partisan, and why it is important to be politically informed. Students also brought up topics like student loan debt, health care, and climate change.
“We teach government, and we see you guys talking about it. We see you guys taking an interest in it. It makes us feel good,” Delaney, 50, said to his students. “Because, as I told you, I’m old. You guys are going to be taking care of me in the future. I want it to be in good hands.”