How Schools Are Using The Trump Impeachment Inquiry As A Teachable Moment

 (Isabel Seliger for NPR)

For the fourth time in history, Congress is considering impeaching the president of the United States. For teachers around the country, it's an opportunity to explore concepts and skills that are often relegated to textbooks.

We asked social studies teachers from around the country how — if at all — they're using this teachable moment, navigating the nationally polarizing topic and trying to sidestep the often asked question, "What do you think?"

Many educators told us they're embracing the opportunity to bring concepts such as checks and balances to life. Some say they don't have much time to address current events in class because of the amount of material they have to cover in a year.

Still, others may have the time to address impeachment in class but are avoiding the divisive topic because of how polarizing it can be, says Rwany Sibaja, who trains future social studies teachers at Appalachian State University in North Carolina. Despite those potential challenges, "teachers who ignore [impeachment] and don't allow students to ask questions and to be critical thinkers," Sibaja argues, "I think that's sort of a lost opportunity."

Teachers who have the time and choose to tackle impeachment told us they often have to start with the basics, like, "What is impeachment?"

Impeachment is a process

Riley Hanni is a teacher at Centennial Middle School in Provo, Utah, and she says that her eighth-graders had a "very basic" understanding of impeachment. "They thought that [it] meant President Trump was gone tomorrow. And so I kind of cleared that up — like this is a very big process."

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So she and other teachers walk their students through the complicated, two-step process, starting with articles of impeachment, which must secure a simple majority in the House of Representatives to pass. The next step — the one that could actually remove an official from office — is a trial in the Senate.

Anton Schulzki is a government and history teacher at Palmer High School in Colorado Springs, Colo., with more than 35 years in the classroom. He's also the vice president of the National Council for the Social Studies. He has explained to his students that "this is not going to happen overnight. It could take potentially weeks, months before all of this is settled."

In the meantime, he says he's trying to give his students some historical context to these current events. Luckily for him, this isn't his first impeachment inquiry.

The first time was in the late 1990s, when the House impeached President Bill Clinton over the fallout from his affair with an intern.

Sibaja, at Appalachian State, was also a high school teacher back then, and he says his students were engrossed in the sensationalized sex scandal involving the 42nd president.

India Meissel from Lakeland High School in Virginia recalls that her students were "gung-ho" back then to talk about that impeachment and that "the kids just went crazy." But, she says, "I had to be delicate about things that occurred."

Meissel, a past president of the National Council for the Social Studies, notes that a lot has changed since then. A big difference is the rise of Twitter and other social media, which has changed how her students talk about what's going on. "You're a social media generation," she tells them. "My generation was, you waited for the newspaper to come out."

Schulzki, in Colorado, adds that another big difference this time around is how fast events are moving: At times during the past few weeks, "I could take something first period, and by the time I got to fifth period or seventh period, things will have changed dramatically."

For that reason, he says he's trying to stay focused on what the Constitution says about impeachment and help his students process the information they're seeing online.

Media literacy and civil discourse

Media coverage, many teachers told us, is a big part of their lessons on impeachment. Hanni has assigned her students in Utah to give presentations on current events, which must include their sources so that she and the class can evaluate whether they're reliable.

Schulzki says he plans on teaching about news bias from a variety of sources. "I think having students come to class ready to discuss things by giving them articles from all sides of the political spectrum is really important," he explains, "so that they're absorbing everything and feel better prepared to talk about it."

Some teachers are using the impeachment inquiry as a lesson in how to speak respectfully, even when students disagree. Hanni says that in her class, "we never argue, but discuss the different sides of the issue."

Sometimes, she adds, "students start to become an echo chamber, so they repeat the same things over and over again." When that happens, she tries to raise opposing views or find a devil's advocate.

Hearing conflicting viewpoints is essential, Schulzki agrees: "It's incumbent upon the teacher to ensure that all voices are heard within the classroom."

Students often ask their teachers to take part in these class discussions, but many educators told us that their opinions aren't the ones that matter. Meissel says she wants her Virginia students to form their own views: "I want them to look at the problem and not sit there and say, 'Well, Ms. Meissel's older than I am, and therefore she must know.' "

Schulzki says his students have a general idea of where he falls on issues, but, he adds, they are "absolutely free to — and encouraged to — debate those topics and hold counter-opinions to myself."

Like many teachers, Schulzki says there is "no real playbook for how we handle these things." Teachers must use their judgment "to ensure that what we're providing is accurate information." The educator's role, he says, is to provide "a space for the students to explore what's going on and do so in a way that they feel heard."

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For her part, Hanni tells her students that they can find out what she thinks about the issues — but she'll tell them only on the last day of the school year. Without fail, she adds, they always forget.

Copyright 2019 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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