Social Studies

Teaching Impeachment in Politically Risky Times

By Stephen Sawchuk — October 03, 2019 9 min read
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For the nation’s government and civics teachers, it all comes down to this: The wheels of a rarely used, constitutionally prescribed process—impeachment—have been set in motion. And now those teachers are on the front lines of helping interpret it for the nation’s students.

Whether teachers are prepared or confident in their abilities to do so remains an open question—and their success in that endeavor could shape how the next generation of civic leaders remembers a potentially formative moment in their civic identity.

Impeachment’s rarity means that while teachers do cover the topic in civics and government classes, few have detailed lesson plans on it in their back pocket. Online curricula tend to be historical in scope or decontextualized. Major civics education organizations are now scrambling to put teacher resources together, while even enthusiastic teachers are fretting about how to balance the urgency of the moment against the need to teach already-overstuffed content standards and pacing guides.

Making social studies teachers’ jobs a lot scarier is the extreme partisanship infecting almost everything about presidential politics over the last 10 years.

About the Citizen Z Project

U.S. public education is rooted in the belief by early American leaders that the most important knowledge to impart to young people is what it means to be a citizen. If America is experiencing a civic crisis now, as many say it is, schools may well be failing at that job.

To better understand the role of education in the current crisis, Education Week consulted experts, visited classrooms, and conducted surveys. This article is part of that ongoing effort. Look for more pieces from our Citizen Z project in the months ahead.

On edu-Twitter, the chatter among civics and social studies teachers on how to approach impeachment has been relatively muted, probably a testament to all those difficulties. Still, some are persevering: In Minnesota, St. Paul middle school teacher Mark Westpfahl has already taught a three-day lesson, drawing on multiple current news sources, as well as headlines dating back to President Clinton’s impeachment in 1998. In Puerto Rico, high school teacher María Elena Velásquez drew parallels between the evolving situation on Capitol Hill and the impeachment threat that drove Gov. Ricardo Rosseló from office earlier this year.

And while many of these educators say they understand the impulse to shy away from teaching impeachment, they are united in one belief: Avoiding teaching the topic is every bit as much a political decision as diving right into it.

“My visceral reaction is: If not us, who else?” said Tyler Murphy, who teaches high school U.S. government and history in the Boyle County, Ky., district. “And the ‘who else’ in this current climate we’re in is concerning. There is so much potential for misinformation, especially when we look at social media, where a lot of the quote-unquote news is unfiltered.”

In addition, schools have an opportunity to model good civil discourse.

“School is where students are first learning how to do the work of citizenship,” noted Christopher Martell, an assistant professor of social studies education at the University of Massachusetts Boston. “If a teacher doesn’t make their classroom a place to unpack and ask and answer critical questions about it, then we’re doing a disservice.”

Three Lenses

To be sure, the current context poses some uniquely new issues for teachers. While the Clinton impeachment was plenty partisan, it occurred in an age before social media, microblogging, and a contracting, fragmented news landscape. (At the time, Education Week reported, many educators felt most concerned about how to discuss the charges against Clinton without getting into sordid details about his sex life.)

Now teachers face unprecedented scrutiny as they proceed. Already, hyperpartisan conservative news sites have excoriated the two national teachers’ unions for putting out statements in support of the Democrats’ impeachment inquiry. (Unions typically have little control over what curriculum or practices teachers deploy in their classrooms.)

In interviews, civics educators around the country outlined three specific approaches teachers can take, with the best teaching uniting all three of them.

Background knowledge and civic underpinnings. Impeachment feels like a mysterious process to most K-12 students, none of whom were alive in 1998. But they are not alone: The average American isn’t well-versed in it either. Within hours of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s Sept. 24 announcement that the House of Representatives would pursue an impeachment inquiry of President Donald Trump, multiple news outlets all quickly put out “explainers” for the general public on how it works.

Among the most important distinctions for students to grasp: Only the House votes on whether to impeach a president, but then it’s up to the Senate to hold a trial to decide whether to remove the president from office. Another difficult-to-understand wrinkle: The Senate trial is not a criminal proceeding, so the standard for removing a president is different from convicting someone of a crime—and murky.

Primary sources can be a godsend, the educators said. Unlike other hot-button topics that have been a matter of Supreme Court interpretation—like LGBT rights, the death penalty, and abortion—the Constitution is fairly detailed about the impeachment process. (And its ambiguities are even the subject of one of the Federalist Papers, those famous tracts expanding on Constitutional principles, as any student who knows the lyrics to the song “Non Stop” from the musical “Hamilton” can attest.)

A historical, comparative lens. As a process, impeachment has been shaped by each of the eras in which it’s occurred. One powerful idea is for teachers to have students examine the articles brought against prior presidents, the media reactions of the time, and even the impeachment agitation against presidents like Ulysses Grant, who never ultimately faced a formal impeachment process.

One of the most powerful artifacts from the aborted Nixon impeachment process, said Emily M. Farris, an associate professor of political science at Texas Christian University, is Texas Rep. Barbara Jordan’s famous 1974 opening speech to the House Judiciary Committee, which was considering articles of impeachment. Not only is it beautifully crafted, often cited as one of the best political speeches of the past century, the address lays out a forceful argument for why the president’s conduct warranted Constitutional scrutiny. And it was made by a black woman, an important voice to include as teachers struggle within a discipline that has almost by definition been dominated by white men.

“It is one of the best speeches in American politics, period, and to the extent we need more great speeches and to diversify American classrooms it’s important,” Farris said. “Beyond that, her rhetorical power comes from her turning to the Constitution and to the framers, and outlining why this situation is so important, and why this moment really matters.”

There are opportunities, too, to compare the nation’s process of removing its chief of state to those of its territories or of other countries. The students of María Elena Velásquez, who teaches at a private K-12 school in Caguas, Puerto Rico, investigated the differences between the impeachment of a U.S. president under the U.S. Constitution and that of the territory’s governor under its 1952 constitution.

“The same questions we heard in summer because of the Rosselló situation are repeated,” she said. “How does the process begin? What is the responsibility of the House of Representatives and the Senate? Who presents the evidence? What evidence is valid? Is an impeachment process also a criminal procedure? What is the difference?”

A current lens. This is the one that tends to cause the most anxiety for social studies teachers worried that they’ll be slapped with accusations of partisan favoritism.

“Many of the social studies teachers I work with, whether they are preservice or inservice, are struggling with Trump in general, and how to maintain a level of fairness, and how to moderate classroom discussion that can get quite emotional, because he is a polarizing figure, and your politics tend to frame how you view him,” noted Martell, the UMass Boston professor.

Here again, primary sources can help: The whistleblower’s detailed complaint and the Republican talking points are good fodder for students to investigate, the teachers said.

Taking an approach that deals with the questions of “how” and “why,” and requiring students to focus on evidence, rather than normative questions about motive or whether legislators are making the right call, is one way to keep discussions centered. Teachers can also take steps to alert students to outside partisanship: If teachers want to include media reports, it’s an important time to re-emphasize news literacy practices, given the vast amount and differing forms of media flying at students, said Emma Humphries, the chief education officer of the civics curriculum provider and advocacy group iCivics.

When students inevitably do start to argue along partisan lines, teachers need to avoid putting their thumb on the scale, the educators said, though striking that balance requires both planning and sometimes considerable finesse.

“This is one of the things my students struggled with,” said Westpfahl. “They are infatuated with Barack Obama, and so then you say, ‘What if Obama did what President Trump allegedly did, and they’ll say, ‘Well, he’d probably have a good reason for that.’ And it’s like, ‘Oh, we’re using the emotions again.’”

Students’ natural curiosity can also put teachers in a tough spot.

The impeachment inquiry came fortuitously for Blake Mazurek, a middle school teacher in the Grandville district in Michigan, who was just beginning a unit on the checks and balances among the branches of government. But after the first lesson, which detailed how impeachment is an example of the legislative branch checking the executive branch, a student stopped after class to ask him whether he liked President Trump.

“‘It’s not about me liking the president or not,’” Mazurek told him. “‘This is about the rule of law, and it’s a prime example of how the Constitution is supposed to work.’”

Finding Curricula

Are most teachers prepared to hit the trifecta of approaches the educators have outlined? In truth, they probably fall on a continuum, they said.

In general, said Humphries, it takes a lot of confidence to scratch previously made plans and develop new ones, and teachers’ willingness to do so will be a function of support and experience.

“How does a novice teacher walk into a classroom the next day and do that? And she probably doesn’t, is the unfortunate answer,” she said. “To me, if you’re a social studies teacher and not teaching controversial issues, it is educational malpractice. But if you’re a first-year, alternative-certified teacher who doesn’t have an undergrad degree in political science and history, I don’t know if I want you talking about controversial issues without serious professional development.”

In Minnesota, Westpfahl said his colleagues in middle school history have taken different paths. Some have talked about it briefly with students; others plan to bring it up when they get to Andrew Johnson’s impeachment and the Reconstruction; still others have demurred, pointing to rigid pacing guides, and finally others say they’ll avoid it, unsure of how parents might react. He, too, has noted less sharing among teachers about resources.

“I would have thought this would be a gold mine for, ‘OK, how are you teaching it?’ But I’m not getting much of a response,” he said.

But if it’s done right, this momentous occasion has the possibility to be a revelation, the teachers said.

“When you’re teaching civics and government, it’s so easy for them to see the Constitution as this stale document behind four inches of glass in a marble building in Washington. But it’s something that requires all of us to make happen. It’s still living and breathing,” said Murphy, the Kentucky teacher. “Here we see the Constitution being brought to life. And what happens next is dependent on the moves that not just those in power make, but ultimately that the citizens who have the power in a democratic society make, by holding and voting in democratic elections.”

A version of this article appeared in the October 09, 2019 edition of Education Week as Impeachment: Tricky Terrain for Teachers


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