A controversial ex-president. A complex and opaque legal process. A porn star.
Even though social studies teachers have become experts in discussing extraordinary, politically charged news events over the past several years, the recent indictment of former President Donald Trump by a New York grand jury involves navigating potential landmines—especially given restrictions states have passed in the last three years.
The indictment is currently sealed, but the grand jury was investigating allegations that Trump paid hush money to adult film star Stormy Daniels in exchange for her silence about an alleged extramarital affair. Trump allegedly reimbursed his former attorney, Michael Cohen, for the $130,000 payout to Daniels and falsified business records related to the payment, a misdemeanor, according to published reports. Prosecutors could try to elevate the crime to a felony by showing those records were fudged to cover up another crime, such as a violation of federal campaign finance laws.
So far, it appears most teachers aren’t planning to discuss the indictment with their students, according to an informal Education Week poll posted on LinkedIn. Just 17 percent of the more than 420 respondents said they were planning to discuss the indictment with their students, while another 83 percent said they were not planning on it.
The poll is not conclusive, but it is indicative of some of teachers’ concerns: In comments, some teachers said their students were too young to delve into the issue. But others said the topic “seemed pretty vital.” The results could also reflect the views of teachers of art, physical education, and electives, who are unlikely to have the topic come up in their classes.
Nevertheless, neither the legal complexities or salacious facts surrounding the story should discourage educators from discussing a historic news development with their students, experts say. Trump is the first ex-president in U.S. history to face criminal charges. That is a moment worth guiding kids through, on par with Congress’ multiple attempts to impeach Trump, the January 6, 2021 insurrection, and Rep. Kevin McCarthy’s drawn-out struggle to clench the votes for House Speaker earlier this year.
It’s difficult to completely step around the politics here, said Paula McAvoy, an associate professor of social studies education at North Carolina State University. But teachers can model discussing the topic using evidence, as opposed to partisan perspectives.
“So much politics feels like blood sport,” McAvoy said. “That’s not really a healthy way to have a democracy. One role of social studies now is actually to try to help young people resist the blood sport version of politics.”
Following are tips about how to talk about this news event with students, without seeing your classroom turn into the set of “Crossfire” or getting calls from parents unhappy that their children are googling “Stormy Daniels” at school.
The tips are informed both by interviews with McAvoy and another expert about the indictment, as well as past Education Week stories exploring how teachers can handle previous—and similarly unprecedented—news events.
Teach students how to consume an unfolding news story with lots of unknowns
Because the indictment is sealed, it’s impossible to say at this point whether the charges stem from the hush money payments or from something else entirely. That’s why teachers should avoid launching into a debate about whether the former president should be convicted, or go to jail.
“Unfolding events are tricky because everyone’s operating with incomplete information to some extent,” McAvoy said. “Right now is a moment for helping young people understand what’s happening, and why it’s historically significant.”
Aim to teach students that “sometimes we need to hold back from our own excitement or outrage, and say, ‘I gotta watch how this plays out and pay attention,’” she added.
Don’t avoid the details of the case, but don’t dwell on them either
Yes, this news story involves an adult film star. Students may have to understand that background, but it shouldn’t be central to the discussion, said Dan Krutka, an associate professor of social studies education at the University of North Texas and a founder of the Civics of Technology Project.
Depending on the age of your students, “I think you can [explain] the facts of the case. I think that’s reasonable,” Krutka said. But “you can tell students, ‘We’re not going to get into the specifics.’”
There’s precedence for this, Krutka said: President Bill Clinton’s impeachment in the late 1990s also centered on a sexual affair, including public details many educators and students likelyfelt uncomfortable discussing in classrooms.
Use the indictment to teach students about aspects of the justice system
Teachers can help students understand some of the legal institutions at play in a case like this, McAvoy said, including what exactly a grand jury does.
“Before going into class, I’d be reviewing the nuances of grand jury versus other kinds of juries,” she said. “I would be trying to deepen their understanding about what goes into bringing a charge like this.”
Place events in historical context
Teachers can help students take a big picture view of an event by using primary texts and documents to compare and contrast it with other moments in history, educators told Education Week during the first Trump impeachment trial in 2019.
That applies with Trump’s indictment too. “I might make a connection to Richard Nixon,” who was charged with attempting to cover up his role in a break-in at Democratic headquarters during the 1972 campaign, McAvoy said, and who could have faced a similar situation. (Nixon was pardoned by his successor, Gerald Ford.)
Teach students how to slow down and analyze information to avoid quick, partisan conclusions
Given the many unknowns and the legal complexity, emphasize that this isn’t a moment for hot takes, Krutka said.
“In our current media environment, hot takes and fast takes are the norm, and everyone makes claims right away,” Krutka said. “Classrooms are great places to slow down discussions, take longer views, and wait for evidence to come out,” he said.
Media literacy can and should be embedded into the lessons, experts said. For instance, students might learn to take a critical perspective on what they are reading about the indictment by looking at a site such as AllSides, which is aimed at helping students understand how news organizations with different ideological perspectives might cover the same story, Krutka said.
Tell us here how you are handling conversations or class discussions with students about the indictment of former President Donald J. Trump.