Topic A or Off the Topic?
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, December 16, 1998; Page B1
Ray Anderson, principal and teacher at Arlington's H-B Woodlawn secondary school, came to work yesterday loaded with newspaper clippings about this week's impeachment vote in the House of Representatives.
He was planning to photocopy the stories for the 24 students in his U.S. history class. They are studying how certain laws have been used for partisan purposes over the years, and Anderson is having them examine the Clinton impeachment debate as a prime example.
As the Clinton scandal reaches a historic phase this week, many Washington area high school teachers are welcoming the opportunity it provides to make their classes livelier. They say that although the impeachment of the president would be a sad moment for them as Americans, they cannot imagine a juicier way of introducing concepts of constitutional law to adolescents.
"Some of them are very much into it," said Kara Wood, a government and history teacher at Meade Senior High in Anne Arundel County.
Wood has assigned her students to rewrite the four impeachment articles against President Clinton into simpler language and to tell her which ones they consider the most serious. Like several other teachers, she also is encouraging her class to follow coverage of tomorrow's House impeachment debate.
Teachers seem to fall into two groups: those who see the impeachment story as a splendid way to buttress their lessons, and those who think it is too complex, too salacious and perhaps too off-the-point for their students. Government and history teachers instructing older teenagers generally seem most willing to delve into the issue, while teachers of younger children try to answer their questions about the scandal but gently move them back to other topics.
"We don't spend a lot of time with it," said Brett Steiner, an eighth-grade civics teacher at Washington Irving Middle School in Springfield. "I talk about the process, but there is stuff I am not going to address and I let the parents deal with."
William Jerow, who has three ninth-grade civics classes at Northern High School in Calvert County, said his students "will come in and ask questions. They want to know what you think about it." But his course, he said, is mostly "the nuts and bolts of the Constitution." Impeachment is more arcane, he said, and "a difficult topic for kids to relate to."
Faye Dixon, coordinator of the Law and Legal Services Academy at Eastern High School in Northeast Washington, said teachers at her school haven't let the headlines intrude on their lessons. But they will probably devote some time to the president's troubles if the Senate holds an impeachment trial, she said.
Silver Spring writer James Grady said he is so convinced of the educational advantages that he plans to keep his son Nathan, a fifth-grader at Piney Branch Elementary School, home with him to watch the House impeachment vote. "It seems a shame not to plug them into history that is happening right in front of them," he said.
At Washington-Lee High School in Arlington, the sophomores in Natalie Root's Advanced Placement U.S. government course have studied Federalist Paper No. 66 to deepen their understanding of what the founders considered impeachable offenses. She said many of the 57 students, who are divided into three classes, at first equated impeachment with conviction but have conquered their confusion and are now examining the role of political parties in the debate.
Andrew Furlow, a 15-year-old in the class, said he and his classmates, living in heavily Democratic Arlington, tend to oppose impeachment but enjoy discussing it. "It gives us a chance to express our opinions," he said.
Wood said her ninth-graders at Meade High also began the school year with some distorted views. Their principal sources of information were very short news bulletins heard on music radio stations and MTV, or headlines read in a convenience store checkout line. "The biggest surprise to me was how many students thought that the president was going to be impeached for adultery," she said.
She and other teachers have persuaded their students to add some daily newspapers and evening news shows to their information diet. Andrew Furlow said he has even begun to watch C-SPAN, preferring its coverage of the House Judiciary Committee debates to the infrequent and anchor-loaded network TV broadcasts.
Root said she is happy with the result. "This not only reinforces the curriculum but provides the students with a phenomenal opportunity to see this notion of checks and balances in operation," she said. "It tends to show all the applications, and it becomes very real for these kids."
Anderson keeps a grip on the discussion. Lately his class has been examining partisan use of the Alien and Sedition Acts of 1798, with references to the Clinton mess. "But when they start to get into sexual practices," Anderson said, "I bring them back to the topic."
© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company