Leadership Symposium Early Bird Deadline Approaching | Join K-12 leaders nationwide for three days of empowering strategies, networking, and inspiration! Discounted pricing ends March 1. Register today.
Social Studies

The Trump Indictment: What Should We Tell the Kids?

Teachers are concerned. Here are resources and approaches to try
By Alyson Klein & Evie Blad — April 01, 2023 5 min read
President Donald Trump listens as Vice President Mike Pence speaks during a coronavirus task force briefing at the White House, Sunday, March 22, 2020, in Washington.
  • Save to favorites
  • Print

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 likely felt 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.

Related Tags:


Jobs Virtual Career Fair for Teachers and K-12 Staff
Find teaching jobs and other jobs in K-12 education at the EdWeek Top School Jobs virtual career fair.
This content is provided by our sponsor. It is not written by and does not necessarily reflect the views of Education Week's editorial staff.
Reading & Literacy Webinar
Science of Reading: Emphasis on Language Comprehension
Dive into language comprehension through a breakdown of the Science of Reading with an interactive demonstration.
Content provided by Be GLAD
English-Language Learners Webinar English Learners and the Science of Reading: What Works in the Classroom
ELs & emergent bilinguals deserve the best reading instruction! The Reading League & NCEL join forces on best practices. Learn more in our webinar with both organizations.

EdWeek Top School Jobs

Teacher Jobs
Search over ten thousand teaching jobs nationwide — elementary, middle, high school and more.
View Jobs
Principal Jobs
Find hundreds of jobs for principals, assistant principals, and other school leadership roles.
View Jobs
Administrator Jobs
Over a thousand district-level jobs: superintendents, directors, more.
View Jobs
Support Staff Jobs
Search thousands of jobs, from paraprofessionals to counselors and more.
View Jobs

Read Next

Social Studies Opinion What I Wish I Knew About Teaching Black History Before I Left the Classroom
Bettina L. Love explains how she struggled to portray Black icons as real people in the early days of her teaching career.
4 min read
Photo illustration of colorful 60's geometric design patterns mimicking screen-printing over historic photograph. - Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., center, addresses a gathering in the riot-torn area of Los Angeles, Aug. 18, 1965. Bayard Rustin, King's aide, is at left.
Vanessa Solis/Education Week + AP Photo/Don Brinn, File + Getty Images
Social Studies Opinion Who’s Improving Black History Education for Everyone? Three Stand-Outs
Recent highlights in Black history education, from the Center for K-12 Black History and Racial Literacy Education’s LaGarrett J. King.
LaGarrett J. King
2 min read
Overhead view of people interacting with colorful books on a table.
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies Opinion I Train Teachers to Teach Black History. Here’s What I’ve Learned
Here’s how I’ve tried to reclaim Black history from the margins—and how you can do the same.
Abigail Henry
4 min read
A group of teachers gather around a textbook excited about the content.
Camilla Sucre for Education Week
Social Studies How Schools Can Prepare Students to Vote for the First Time
Students want more practical information about voting to prepare them for the polls.
3 min read
Image of a parent and child at a voting booth.