Topics include the Constitution, the impeachment process and the different roles played by the House and Senate, the separation of powers and the presidents who have been impeached (Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson) and those who came close (Richard Nixon). In some classes, students participate in mock impeachment trials, arguing both sides and deciding Trump’s fate.
Lesson plans and tips for teaching impeachment are starting to flood the Internet, including this one from the iCivics website.
“All too often, we look at history as these singular events that happened long ago. We sometimes try to connect many of those events to the present, but we fail to realize sometimes that the events that are unfolding around us every day are historic, too,” Westpfahl said. “They are shaping our present and our future, and they almost always have some connection to events that happened in the recent past or have deeper roots further in the past.”
Marie Heath, assistant professor of educational technology at Loyola University Maryland and a former social studies teacher, said teachers should use the moment for living history lessons.
“This isn’t about touting a political opinion — it’s really tied to your obligation as a social studies teacher,” Heath said. “Students should know that history is happening right now and we have an opportunity to be part of it. We are in it, and we can shape it.”
For many students, this is the first time they will hear more than a mention of impeachment in class — and for some educators, it will be the first time teaching about it, because it is not a subject commonly taught in depth. They are working to keep politics out of their lessons.
Jason Pusey, a seventh-grade social studies teacher in Edina, Minn., sent a letter to parents explaining why he was teaching impeachment, making clear that he had “focused mainly on process” and “not so much on substance.” It said, in part:
Dear Families,Not only do we study history in social studies we also live through it. As you (hopefully) know we started the year by trying to get an understanding of how the U.S. government works, talking about (Constitutional) things like the three branches of government, separation of powers, and checks and balances. It is a lot to take in and can seem removed and abstract. That is until current events brings those checks and balances to the top of every newspaper, the beginning of every news broadcast, and every other twitter post (at least in my feed). I took time at the beginning of each class over the past couple of days to talk about what is going on regarding the announcement by Speaker Pelosi of opening an impeachment inquiry. Most students had “heard” about it, but most were mistaken about what it actually meant at this stage. I feel that 7th graders should have an accurate idea of what is going on in the world around them, understanding the historical implications of recent developments, and be able to correctly talk about it with peers and family.
Some teachers are jumping into impeachment simulations in the classroom, with students arguing both sides. In Chatham Central High School in rural North Carolina, teacher Aedrin Albright had her 10th-grade civics students research the subject and then debate and decide Trump’s fate in class, according to the Associated Press.
“Your job is to try to persuade your classmates in here to come to your side, to your understanding,” the AP quoted Albright as saying. After the debate, more students opposed impeachment than supported it.
Even teachers who don’t often focus on current events in class are diving into impeachment, including Jennifer Hitchcock, who teaches 12th-grade Advanced Placement Government at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Va.
She wrote about teaching impeachment for the iCivics website. Hitchcock said she has avoided using unfolding current events for the past four years or so because her objectivity could be called into question when details are still up in the air — that is, unless one of her students asks a direct question. She found a way to incorporate the impeachment debate into a lesson on good governance, and she described what happened in class as events were happening in real time.
She wrote about using the whistleblower complaint filed with the Intelligence Community Inspector General (ICIG) that detailed Trump’s controversial phone call with the president of Ukraine:
The week of September 23rd was seamlessly folded into a unit in which we had spent a ton of time discussing good governance, or governance that promotes virtuous living. We previously talked about Plato and Aristotle and settled in over the Federalist Papers for a meticulous deliberation. In my students’ AP Literature class, they read “1984” and “On Tyranny.” We tested on Constitutional Foundations, and then had time to do a deeper dive into what would be the impeachment inquiry. Like everyone else, I scrambled to pull together a current events lesson rooted in what we already discussed in previous classes. So we went back to the Federalist debates. On Thursday, I pulled the IGIC whistleblower complaint cover letter around 11:00 am from the Internet. I read it, I annotated it, and I pulled together a lesson. And I felt like I had left enough space for the story to develop, thus preempting my fear of politically-dangerous prognostication. So we talked predominantly structure. Students made great connections, asked compelling questions, and walked away with a better understanding of how our government is structured — the reasons why institutions were created as they were.By 2:25 pm, it all fell apart. The whistleblower document itself was available, and I had the surreal experience of spending about 30 minutes learning alongside my last class period. Now I know how reporters feel when they’re reading breaking news, live on the air. Nonetheless, I felt really good about what transpired from an instructional perspective. There was a lot of learning taking place, both for me and my students. Indeed, most of the school day was spent educating myself right alongside them. This can feel unnerving when you can’t predict where the news is taking you, but sometimes unfolding and momentous events demand immediate attention. In this instance, it just felt like the right thing to do. Interestingly, my students were frustrated by some of the structural realities. For example, they wondered why vice presidents can pardon presidents (iCivics resource alert). It’s a fair question, so I helped make connections to the historical relationship between presidents and vice presidents — particularly before the 12th Amendment, which changed the way we elect both executive officers. Students also expressed frustration around the lack of transparency of the potential transgressions that make it difficult to see illegality of actions clearly on all sides. I am sure more will arise as the story develops. It was quite a surreal week.
The website for the University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education has detailed advice for teachers, including this from Sigal Ben-Porath, a political science professor and an expert in civic education:
Dig into the factsStudents are reading the headlines. Ben-Porath suggests helping them dive a little deeper by exploring questions like:What are the powers of the presidency related to foreign policy?What is a whistleblower? Why does the law protect them?How does impeachment work?What is Congress’s oversight role of the executive branch?What does it mean when the president is impeached?What are the different roles played by the House and the Senate in an impeachment proceeding?What happened in the impeachment cases of Andrew Johnson, Richard Nixon, and Bill Clinton? For this final question, don’t just look at the historical record, since it can present a settled narrative. Shocking surprises can feel inevitable. If students read what people defending and attacking these presidents wrote at the time of those impeachment proceedings, they will have a better understanding of how chaotic and unpredictable key events in a nation’s history can be. Here’s a guide for creating such a lesson.Get people talkingDon't just lecture. The impeachment inquiry is dominating the public discourse. Reflect that with a whole-classroom discussion.“Classroom discussions get people thinking and practicing different civil roles,” Ben-Porath says. “They are a way for students to learn to engage and debate without fighting.”Want more ideas for keeping a discussion flowing? Try this guide from Penn GSE Dean Pam Grossman.
Heath offers a planning template for teaching emerging (and contentious) current events and offers the following strategies for teachers who want to tackle impeachment through various lenses: emotional, historical, geographical, civic. She said teachers could take 10 to 15 minutes at the start of class each day for a week to discuss impeachment and ask students to create a wish list about the process.
“‘How do you wish Americans would respond to this impeachment news? How do you wish you could respond to this news?’” she said. “Ask them what they see happening and what they’d like to see instead. In doing this, you’re teaching students what impeachment means — even if we don’t all agree — and the skill set needed to investigate it. It’s important we let them know from an early age that they have a role to play.”
This is not the first time Westpfahl’s students have learned about news events in real time.
“As a social studies teacher, I think it is important to step back from ‘regularly scheduled programming’ when breaking news of significant and historic proportions happen,” he said, adding that he has scrapped lessons when news broke that a new pope was chosen; when riots erupted in Ferguson, Mo., after the fatal shooting of Michael Brown; when former president Ronald Reagan died; and during the mass shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
“Not all break-ins for special lessons are happy, but I feel they’re important, and my students appreciate that I’m providing them a space to discuss, ask questions, vent or just internalize,” he said.