Julie Strong has made a point in her high school history classes to build a culture of mutual respect and to use current events as case studies.
The current event transfixing the nation — the impeachment of President Donald J. Trump — is no different.
Lawmakers in the House voted Wednesday, making Trump the third president in the country’s history to be impeached — the others were Andrew Johnson in 1868 and Bill Clinton in 1998. Impeachment is a political process and recent polling shows the country divided on whether Trump should be removed from office.
By grounding activities in the civic underpinnings of impeachment, two Albemarle County teachers are working to make the issues approachable for their students and help their students understand both the process of checks and balances and how to respect their fellow future voters.
“No matter what it is that I’m teaching, helping kids understand the world, particularly as it impacts their own community, has been a passion of mine throughout my career,” said Strong, who teaches government at Albemarle High School.
She said impeachment is a case study in the power of the presidency and the separation of powers and Constitutional issues. As the House of Representatives geared up for this month’s vote, she and other teachers carved out time in class to help students make sense of the moment.
Strong has taught for 30 years and was a student during former President Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974.
“I told them, no matter where you stand in all of this, the fact that you are a senior taking government this year, you will not forget that,” she said.
Strong chose a debate format to help students. Before the debate, students were to read part of the House Intelligence Committee’s report on impeachment as well as the Republican response and then come to class with five arguments in favor and against. The class also reviewed the five constitutional provisions and clauses related to impeachment as well as the draft articles.
Then, Strong randomly assigned them to for and against groups.
For Strong, activities like this are just as much about teaching students impeachment as how to evaluate resources, have conversations and listen to one another.
“At least in my classroom, we’re building a culture of mutual respect and understanding and also the idea to promote empathy,” she said. “This is not about having kids change their mind if they are strongly on a position. But at least to listen and hear and also do some research on both sides of issues, so that they have an understanding.”
Most of Strong’s students will be able to vote in the upcoming presidential election, so teaching them to be good citizens is of utmost importance.
Since the 2016 election, she has noticed that it has been harder to keep divisive political rhetoric outside her classroom, but now she’s even more committed to protecting her classroom culture.
She wants her students to understand the difference between being a political opponent as opposed to being a political enemy.
“And hoping that in their generation, they will do it better and that they will form consensus,” she said. “I think young people, even if they disagree on issues and sometimes very, very passionate, are much more willing to compromise and look for mutual solutions than certainly my generation now.”
Strong said she was comfortable with students leaving class unsure about where they stand on the issue.
“I didn’t expect them or necessarily think that I wanted them to walk out with having made a decision,” Strong said.
The next step in Trump’s impeachment will be a trial in the Senate, which will likely occur in January. Two-thirds of Senators must vote in favor of removal in order for a president to actually be removed from his office.
Strong said the political aftermath of impeachment proceedings and how impeachment affects 2020 elections will be common themes during the second semester.
For other teachers who want to focus on impeachment in the classroom, Strong said it’s important to know your students.
It can be a fraught issue politically, especially in social media echo chambers.
“That’s part of my struggle is getting the Gen Zs to look at multiple sources of news that are not in feeds that are coming to them with an ideological bent,” she said. “I want them to be critical consumers of the news, of the media. … I am asking them to look at and be more critical of what they are reading and to look for evidence in what they are reading, so that they are informed.”
Forging a Connection
Abbey Plein, a civics teacher at Jack Jouett Middle School, said the hearings leading up the impeachment vote touched on many, if not all, of the concepts she had been teaching to her eighth-graders from the principles of American democracy to the structures of government.
So, she designed a bingo card to help students review for their semester exam and learn about the process of impeachment. The card included vocabulary terms from the semester, such as “James Madison,” “quid pro quo” and “legislative branch,” and students checked off boxes while watching the House Judiciary Committee’s hearings.
The hearings gave students a chance to hear arguments from both Republicans and Democrats in five-minute chunks. Once a student had bingo, the class would review the terms as a group.
“Students felt really empowered by feeling that they had knowledge about the terms, and that they understood both the terms better and what was happening on the screen better,” she said.
Plein had the idea for a bingo card while watching the impeachment hearings.
“At every point that we’ve seen debate in the House, they’re invoking these really, really important ideas about American democracy that we learned throughout the course,” she said.
Students have been asking her daily for updates on impeachment. She’s updated them during significant milestones of the process and hammering home the key aspects of how it works.
But, she wanted to keep the focus on the process and the principles behind it and to give students the tools to understand what’s happening.
“It’s history happening right before their eyes,” she said.
Plein, who is in her first full year of teaching, was her students’ age when former President Bill Clinton was impeached, and she didn’t remember explicit schoolroom activities that covered the issue.
Bringing current events into the classroom helps students see the relevance of what they are learning in the real world, she said.
“Especially thinking about our foundational documents, our fundamental principles, when they learned that in August and September, I think it seemed very distant to them,” she said. “ … I think when they watch those ideas and those principles being talked about in a way that’s very relevant to what’s going on today, I think that helps make a connection.”