Teachers Are Tackling The Impeachment Trial In A Politically Divisive Climate

Feb 4, 2020

 As many Americans try to keep up with the impeachment trial and what it means for the country’s future, teachers are pulling lessons from the process in real time.

In Squirrel Hill, Allderdice High School social studies teacher Traci Castro said it’s challenging to teach current events when the county is so divided, but she said students have been more engrossed in class.

“To be quite frank, whenever we talk about government typically in civics, it’s ninth graders who can’t vote and is seems like ‘why am I learning this?’ which I get,” she said. “But I think they’re more connected and engaged because of what’s going on.”

Teaching in real time is also an exercise in trying to remain impartial and exposing students to multiple viewpoints.

Across the hall from Castro, Michele Halloran recently asked her freshmen civics class to read arguments for and against impeachment.

Some students said the televised trial was boring, some were apathetic about the entire process, but once they broke into small groups it was clear they were paying attention. Ava Sanstrom asked her classmates to clarify the meaning of quid pro quo.

“Quid pro quo is ‘you do something for me, I’ll do something for you,” Nathan Rybski replied.

Another student asks for someone to explain why there shouldn’t be witnesses. All five students in the group loudly sigh when a classmate says, “they want to do this by parties and by opinions.”

The students are asked to answer who has the most compelling case and to predict how the trial will end. Ultimately, though, they question the lasting impact the impeachment could have.  

“The kids are very engaged and interested. I don’t know if they quite grasp the gravity of what’s really happening,” Halloran said.

Teaching Impeachment

Teaching the impeachment trial fits well with Halloran’s planned lessons on the branches of government and checks and balance. In her lesson on the impeachment trial she often refered to the framers of the Constitution and uses primary documents like Federalist 65, an essay written by Alexander Hamilton that discusses the power of the Senate to try impeachment cases.

In the essay Hamilton acknowledges that the “greatest danger” would be if the Senate’s judgment of a trial “will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.”

“I did bring in Federalist 65 as well and had them read through that and the role of the Senate and how things often end up being based on political decisions instead of actually on guilt or innocence,” she said.

In Castro’s AP Psychology class she her students have explored the rhetoric used by the House Managers and President Trump’s lawyers. They’ve also discussed the communication strategies Trump uses.

“Whether you like him or don’t like him, he’s unbelievably skilled at convincing people of things,” she said. “So we talk about how (politicians) are talking about certain things, what part of the country is watching different media, who’s being excluded, who doesn’t really understand what the process is or isn’t.”

Sam Studebaker, left, teaches a Sophomore English class at Propel's Andrew Street High School in Munhall.
Credit Sarah Schneider / 90.5 WESA

  Across the city at Propel charter schools’ Andrew Street High School, English teacher Sam Studebaker used the impeachment to underscore critical thinking lessons. 

“My role as English teacher is to prepare students to be literate. I also mean culturally literate and politically literate,” they said. “So they have the ability and the confidence to look at things with their own critical lens and actually make judgments and decisions on their own.”

During a recent discussion with their sophomore English class, Studebaker asked students to review arguments for and against impeachment: one from Jonathan Turley a George Washington University professor who testified as a Republican witness before the House Judiciary Committee in December and the opening argument from lead House Impeachment Manager Adam Schiff.

Students wanted to know if President Trump would be removed from office if he were impeached and what precedent had been set by previous impeachment trials. Daniel Williams, 18, said he hadn't spent a lot of time thinking about the impeachment because it wasn't local and didn't think it would impact him. 

"Beforehand I was like ‘OK Impeachment, they get taken out of office and it’s all over.’ But now I understand it’s a trial," he said. 

Daumere Radlien, 16, was concerned about what will happen when the trial ends. 

“It may have a lot of serious consequences rather that’s internally or externally," he said. 

Studebaker said they want their students to feel politically empowered because it’s tempting to tune out when current events are hard to follow.

“I think that sometimes young people have the most energy and enthusiasm and new perspectives to bring. I know my students are brilliant and thoughtful and care deeply about a lot of things and I want them to feel like they can plug into local communities and work for things they think is important,” they said.

Studebaker said preparing for the discussion was challenging, but believes teachers shouldn’t avoid difficult conversations.  

“Because there is such an onus on public schools to stay unbiased, which is really important,” they said. “But I also don't think that unbiased means ignoring the topic altogether. I think it means teaching students how to identify bias and how to also identify their own bias.”

Remaining Impartial

Teachers at both schools say there’s a lot of confusion about potential fallout from the impeachment trial. Halloran said she sees it as her role to set the record straight without revealing her own political views.

“It’s getting harder now,” she said. “I think there's a part of me as a teacher that feels very defensive of our government and our constitution and the processes that are supposed to be in place, that are supposed to work a certain way.”

She asks probing questions and points out inconsistences in arguments on both sides. She tries to stick to what government’s structure should be.

“So it is a very tough time to have to address a lot of these issues and teaching a course that is about the government and it’s not working the way that it should and how in depth do you go into that? And that’s very tricky,” she said.  

Halloran says, though, she’s committed to having those tricky conversations.