Teaching Impeaching: When Lessons Change

October 09, 2019

For the past four years or so, as a general rule, I’ve avoided current events that are still unfolding. It just feels like commenting on stories where the details are hazy and developing can call into question my objectivity. To say it another way, I really steer clear of breaking news unless kids specifically ask. Even then, I need to do my research to ensure I am providing balance and connection back to the content in such a way that supports my students where we are on our learning journey.
The week of September 23rd was seamlessly folded into a unit in which we had spent a ton of time discussing good governance, or governance that promotes virtuous living. We previously talked about Plato and Aristotle and settled in over the Federalist Papers for a meticulous deliberation. In my students’ AP Literature class, they read 1984 and On Tyranny. We tested on Constitutional Foundations, and then had time to do a deeper dive into what would be the impeachment inquiry.
Like everyone else, I scrambled to pull together a current events lesson rooted in what we already discussed in previous classes. So we went back to the Federalist debates. On Thursday, I pulled the IGIC whistleblower complaint cover letter around 11:00am from the Internet. I read it, I annotated it, and I pulled together a lesson. And I felt like I had left enough space for the story to develop, thus pre-empting my fear of politically-dangerous prognostication. So we talked predominantly structure. Students made great connections, asked compelling questions, and walked away with a better understanding of how our government is structured — the reasons why institutions were created as they were.
By 2:25pm, it all fell apart. The whistleblower document itself was available, and I had the surreal experience of spending about 30 minutes learning alongside my last class period. Now I know how reporters feel when they’re reading breaking news, live on the air. 
Nonetheless, I felt really good about what transpired from an instructional perspective. There was a lot of learning taking place, both for me and my students. Indeed, most of the school day was spent educating myself right alongside them. This can feel unnerving when you can’t predict where the news is taking you, but sometimes unfolding and momentous events demand immediate attention. In this instance, it just felt like the right thing to do.
Interestingly, my students were frustrated by some of the structural realities. For example, they wondered why vice presidents can pardon presidents (iCivics resource alert).  It’s a fair question, so I helped make connections to the historical relationship between presidents and vice presidents — particularly before the 12th Amendment, which changed the way we elect both executive officers.
Students also expressed frustration around the lack of transparency of the potential transgressions that make it difficult to see illegality of actions clearly on all sides. I am sure more will arise as the story develops. It was quite a surreal week.
Here is a quick outline of the questions I asked my students to discuss and the materials used: 

  • Start with a discussion on impeachment:
    • Under what conditions should impeachment be utilized?
    • How has impeachment been utilized historically?
  • Before moving into the current, provide disclaimers for your students:
    • For example: “When discussing current events, we acknowledge that we are making judgements without complete knowledge and that the knowledge we do have many evolve or change completely.” 
  • Read the IGIC Whistleblower report and timeline.
    • Where do we stand on the facts, players, and problems in recent days? What do we know/think we know?
    • What can be done to confront a president accused of serious misdeeds?
  • Read Articles of the Constitution that address limits of the presidency. For example:
    • “The President, Vice President and all civil Officers of the United States, shall be removed from Office on Impeachment for, and Conviction of, Treason, Bribery, or other high Crimes and Misdemeanors.” - Article II Section 4
    • “Judgment in Cases of Impeachment shall not extend further than to removal from Office, and disqualification to hold and enjoy any Office of honor, Trust or Profit under the United States: but the Party convicted shall nevertheless be liable and subject to Indictment, Trial, Judgment and Punishment, according to Law.” - Article 1 Section 3 Clause 7
  • What were the critiques of the structure laid out in the Constitution? Turn to the Anti-Federalists, for example:
    • “…there is to be a great and mighty President, with very extensive powers; the powers of a King: He is to be supported in extravagant magnificence: So that the whole of our property may be taken by this American Government, by laying what taxes they please, giving themselves what salaries they please, and suspending our laws at their pleasure…” - Patrick Henry, June 7, 1788 - Virginia Ratification Convection
    • Read the excerpts from the Federalist Papers on impeachment with these questions in mind.
      • Where do limitations on the president’s powers exist?
      • What is the logic behind the construction of the office of the president and the limitations of the president? 

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Written By Jenifer Hitchcock
Jenifer teaches 12th grade AP Government at Thomas Jefferson High School for Science and Technology in Alexandria, Virginia. She has been a member of the iCivics Educator Network since 2017.

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