WAMU | Dec 20, 2019
Teaching History As Impeachment Unfolds
George Connor leads his government class in a discussion about the impeachment process.
Tyrone Turner / WAMU
George Connor strolled the aisles of his fourth-floor classroom, prepared with an assignment.
“Give me a list of horrible things that could probably get a president removed from office,” he asked the 12th-grade students in his class at Columbia Heights Educational Campus on a recent weekday morning.
Answers flowed from the teenagers.
Laundering money, one said. Abuse of power. Sexual misconduct. Interfering with elections.
“Gee, I wonder where we’re getting some of these ideas from,” Connor quipped.
In ordinary times, the 36-year-old teacher would spend a brief part of his U.S. government course explaining impeachment. But these are not ordinary times.
President Donald Trump was impeached by the House of Representatives Wednesday night on a mostly party-line vote, prompting a Senate trial on abuse of power and obstruction of justice charges.
Connor and other social studies teachers are teaching history as it unfolds. In classrooms across the D.C. region, they are bringing lessons about checks and balances to life with real-world examples. They are airing clips of impeachment hearings in class, challenging students to draw parallels between the Trump era and other presidencies.
A student at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus points during a lesson about impeachment.Tyrone Turner / WAMU
President Trump is the third president in the nation’s history to be impeached. The two others — Bill Clinton and Andrew Johnson — were eventually acquitted in a Senate trial, the expected outcome for the current president.
The latest impeachment inquiry involves allegations that Trump withheld military aid to Ukraine to secure an investigation into former Vice President Joe Biden, a potential 2020 political rival.
The complicated and highly divisive process can lead to fraught discussions in class. Teachers say they are careful to remain objective and render facts about the procedure without injecting personal beliefs.
“I don’t want to be accused of trying to influence students with whatever my political leanings or biases may be,” said Todd Smith, chair of the social studies department at Southern High School in Harwood, Md. “I generally tend to be kind of reserved when it comes to talking about modern-day politics, because it can get so heated, it can get so contentious.”
Smith, who teaches in a rural, Republican-leaning community, said he has not heard many students talk or ask about impeachment on their own.
But the topic has emerged in lessons about checks and balances and the rule of law. After the House of Representatives voted to impeach Trump this week, Smith devoted half a class period to cover the vote and the process moving forward.
“That’s historic stuff,” he said.
In liberal Arlington County, social studies teacher Michael Palermo said he thinks his students are paying close attention.
During lessons about the Enlightenment, Palermo said he usually introduces students to Montesquieu’s ideas on the separation of powers. And in the past, he has used impeachment as an example of a legislative check on the president’s power.
“Now that it’s happening, that’s something that I can point to that they’ll be able to understand, they’ll be able to connect with better,” said Palermo, who is planning on holding a simulation of the Senate trial in class.
Even before the inquiry into Trump’s dealings with Ukraine, his presidency and the hyper-partisan political climate have affected the way some teachers talk to students and teach government.
At the Columbia Heights Educational Campus, Connor still explains how a bill becomes a law. But he also feels he has to talk about how political gridlock has prevented Congress from passing laws.
After Trump was elected in 2016, Connor said the mood on campus was “somber.” The city is heavily Democratic and students at the school are majority black and Hispanic.
He strives to remain apolitical while calming students’ fears about immigration crackdowns and the threat to Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, which allows children who were brought to the country illegally to stay in the United States.
It’s the first impeachment any of the students in Connor’s class have witnessed — the teenagers were not alive in 1998 when Clinton was impeached by the House and later acquitted of perjury and obstruction of justice by the U.S. Senate.
Connor asks students what they think could get a president impeached.
Tyrone Turner / WAMU
The teenagers are learning just how tough it is to remove a president from office.
“Growing up, I thought a group of people would vote or agree that this president is doing something wrong and that he would just be kicked out,” said Jonathan Mendez, a 17-year-old. “It’s actually a great deal of process that they have to go through.”
Kayla Strong, a 17-year-old who wore an Obama sweatshirt, said she feels politicians sometimes use their platforms for the wrong reasons. They spout mean spirited thoughts on Twitter. They make rude comments at inappropriate times.
She said she feels the impeachment process is a respectful, orderly way for politicians to convey their thoughts.
A student at the Columbia Heights Educational Campus takes notes in a class discussing impeachment. The teenager said she thinks impeachment was “a long time coming,” citing the sexual misconduct allegations made against the president and the Russia investigation.
Tyrone Turner / WAMU
“He’s the president, but I don’t think anyone should be above the law,” Strong said. The Senate trial on abuse of power and obstruction of Congress is expected to begin in January.
When the time comes, Connor and his students will be paying attention.