Every day, we make the opportunity to exercise our civic rights, through voting, obeying laws, protesting, or completing jury duty. But it is not that often that we see a civic process like the potential impeachment of a president unfold right before our eyes. This presents an amazing teaching opportunity, but there are a lot of challenges, too.
In a story for Education Week, I outlined the case some teachers are making for digging right into this topic, how they’re responding to some of the tricky bits, and why they think this matters so much. Since the story ran, more groups have compiled resources and tools for teachers, and we wanted to take an opportunity to help share them.
So, teachers, we’ve organized this as your Completely Foolproof Q&A Guide for designing your lessons. Find your question below, a brief discussion of how you might think about it, and then links to some resources.
Wait! Where do I start?
It’s really hard to make much sense of what’s happening without a firm grasp of the process. For all of its silences on hot-button topics, the U.S. Constitution is actually pretty detailed in how it gives the Congress the ability to impeach and potentially remove a sitting president. Your best resources here are the documents themselves.
There are plenty of online resources you can use with students to understand the impeachment/removal process and its origins, including the National Constitution Center’s Interactive Constitution and the Constitutional Sources Project, which traces the development of constitutional thought, and has archived hundreds of different materials.
Want to deepen the historical debate still further? Try Federalist Papers 65 and 66, both penned by Alexander Hamilton as part of an effort to get New York anti-federalists on board with the not-yet-ratified U.S. Constitution.
This makes me pretty nervous. How can I handle this in the classroom?
The University of Pennsylvania’s Graduate School of Education has some good thoughts to get you going. Don’t avoid the controversy, its professors say; instead, remember that controversy tends to drive civic engagement. Encourage classroom discussion, but remember that it’s the teachers’ job to set the rules—like bringing discussions back to the analysis of facts, rather than letting emotion dominate the arguments.
This insight was also shared by the educators in our story. It’s even OK for kids to express partisan views, they said, but teachers should not put their thumbs on the scale, and they should try to ensure that multiple perspectives are shared—both in heterogeneous communities and in those that tilt strongly Democratic or Republican.
And remember that avoiding the topic doesn’t mean that students aren’t going to seek out information elsewhere. They’re talking about it on their own in the hallways and absorbing different messages at home on the nightly news. As one teacher put it in our story: “If not us, then who?”
Put another way, students are going to hear about this topic—and outside of the classroom, what they hear may not be grounded in facts or structured in a way that helps them make sense of it.
I’m a history/geography/global studies teacher. How am I supposed to work impeachment in?
That’s such a great question, and fortunately impeachment is immediately relevant to those fields, not just a pure U.S. Government or Civics course.
For one thing, there is a long line of impeachment agitation against presidents. That includes, of course, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, the two presidents who were impeached but not removed in the 19th and 20th centuries, respectively. (Here’s a Bill of Rights Institute resource for teaching the Clinton impeachment.)
But there are also a variety of other presidents, like Ulysses Grant and even Harry Truman, both of whom never faced formal articles of impeachment but did annoy some lawmakers enough that they introduced resolutions or held hearings to begin the process. Those are worth considering in their historical context—especially with an eye tof any parallels to the current situation.
One of the best artifacts from the Nixon impeachment saga is Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan’s speech. You can find its text of in a number of online repositories and it is also available as a YouTube clip.
Meanwhile it’s worth considering how U.S. territories and states handle the removal of their executives. Puerto Rico’s Constitution contains interesting parallels and diversions from that of the U.S. Constitution, one teacher I spoke with explained. It is also possible, in a World Studies course, to compare how this works in other countries, and whether the checks and balances, evidentiary standard, and removal processes are similar or different from the United States’. (You might try South Korea or Brazil, which removed their presidents respectively in 2016 and 2017.)
How are some other teachers approaching a lesson or unit?
Here’s how Mark Westpfahl, a St. Paul, Minn., teacher, outlined his approach: It’s a three-day middle-school unit that covers the basics of impeachment up through what’s unfolding now on Capitol Hill. (Many of the educators I spoke to suggest that the best lessons combine a historical lesson on impeachment with current events and some comparison with how the process has evolved in the United States.)
Jennifer Hitchcock wrote this account of her lesson for the curriculum group iCivics, complete with some of the guiding questions. My favorite part? When she had to scrap part of the lesson, due to the fast-moving nature of the inquiry, and her desire to give her kids the just-released whistleblower’s letter as a primary source. “This can feel unnerving when you can’t predict where the news is taking you, but sometimes unfolding and momentous events demand immediate attention,” she said. Amen.
I need a list of resources, like an explainer video for my students/the whistleblowers’ complaint/examples of media coverage.
Three professors who wrote a legal casebook on the separation of powers have gotten their publisher to release one section for free. It’s designed for college students but can be used in upper secondary classes as well.
OK, OK, but what I REALLY need is an actual heavy-duty, soup-to-nuts lesson plan.
The Choices program at Brown University has a nice lesson plan that integrates a lot of the ideas above, including primary sources from the Trump impeachment inquiry, some historical supports, and media literacy exercises.
I have a great idea for teaching this! Who can I share it with?
Curriculum and advocacy group iCivics has started the Twitter hashtag #TeachingImpeaching where educators can share links to lesson plans or generally talk about their approaches.
And we have another opportunity for you: As part of Education Week‘s Citizen Z project, we want to collect your best ideas for teaching impeachment—and all of the other aspects of a proper civics education. So please take a few minutes to tell us what you’re working on to build students’ civic knowledge, skills, and attitudes—we may want to feature your work in an upcoming story or video. Send an email to CivicsIdeas@epe.org. Include the following information:
- What’s your good idea? (Please make sure this description takes no more than a minute to explain.)
- What’s your connection to education? (For example, are you a teacher, administrator, after-school educator?)
- Why do you think this idea was successful?
- Where are you from?
Photo: In a letter sent Oct. 8, the White House declared it will not cooperate with what it termed the “illegitimate” impeachment probe by House Democrats, sharpening the constitutional clash between President Donald Trump and Congress.—Jon Elswick/AP
A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.