Even the most informed news consumers are having a hard time keeping up with the barrage of impeachment-related information in the last couple of weeks. Many teachers are asking themselves whether they should avoid this controversial subject in class. But given this unique moment in the nation’s history, and the opportunity to engage students as citizens-in-training, it is worth considering the facts, and what students can do.
Just over a third of American adults can name the three branches of government: the executive branch (the president and his administration); the legislative branch of Congress, divided into the House of Representatives and the Senate; and the judiciary (the courts). Understanding the news about impeachment requires knowledge about the separation of powers among the branches, the importance of government oversight and accountability, and concepts like “checks and balances.” That means it is good to start with the facts.
Teachers should clarify key terms for students, explaining what the impeachment process is and what it entails. They can discuss the few times in history it has happened, and what we can or cannot learn from those cases. Of the two more recent examples, neither president was removed from office by impeachment — Richard Nixon resigned, while Bill Clinton continued to serve as president. How might the process play out now? Outlining the possibilities would be a good class activity.
Middle and high school students can research these questions for their history, social studies, or even language arts class, and get the conversation going based on this shared knowledge. Imagine, for example, a project in which students listen to the Nixon tapes and make the case for and against impeachment in that historical context. Students might research impeachment’s constitutional context as a congressional power and how the Founding Fathers saw this process as a safeguard for democracy.
Teachers might worry about taking on such a controversial political topic, either because they don’t have time for it in a packed regular curriculum, or because they worry about the discussion getting out of hand, possibly angering parents and administrators. But there are ways to treat this as a learning opportunity rather than a political smackdown, especially because many students may raise the news in class and look to teachers for clarification.
Schools are the main place where young people can learn to be good citizens: how to follow and understand the news, differentiate facts from fakes and propaganda, and develop an informed opinion. In class they can learn how to argue in a civil way, and practice ways to make their voices heard.
The new generation is already informed and involved in issues they care about, from marches against gun violence to climate strikes. Teachers can build on their engagement to help them understand and connect their lives with current events, especially when those events are so significant and likely to go on for a while, as will the news about the impeachment inquiry.
The news coming out of Congress and the White House is fast and important. This presents a challenge to teachers, but also an opportunity to get students talking about what they heard and think, and what they might do. If students all find themselves agreeing on the current issue of impeachment, teachers can offer opposing points of view, as long as they are based in facts, and ask students how they would argue back in a respectful way.
Many resources exist, like a guide on thinking like a historian from Penn education professor Abby Reisman, to help teach history and politics.
As is true even beyond teaching about impeachment, students will get the most out of lessons if they also have a chance to delve into their own research, develop their own opinions, and voice them. They can identify their representative in the House, and what is their position on impeachment. They can look for ways to share their views with their House member or senator, such as calling or sending a note through their websites, or finding out if their legislators plan to hold a town hall during the congressional recess happening right now. If representatives are not holding a town hall, students can reach out to request one.
These activities could take up whole class periods, or else inform quick check-ins as the news unfolds. The best goals for such news-based mini-lessons is to keep students informed and engaged — transforming news that can be overwhelming, even numbing, into a relevant issue in which students feel they have a stake and a say.
Sigal Ben-Porath is a professor of education at the University of Pennsylvania and a former high school teacher. She is the author of Free Speech on Campus (Penn Press, 2017).