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.
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.
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.