The timing of the impeachment inquiry – a few weeks after schools started their fall semesters in La Plata County – didn’t exactly give political science teachers and other educators the ability to build impeachment studies into their curriculums.
With the frequent coverage of the impeachment inquiry dominating news cycles, teachers and professors had to abruptly adjust their syllabuses to accommodate the questions and comments their students had about the topic. Paul DeBell, a political science professor at Fort Lewis College, said that “nobody could have added this to their course plans.”
“This is one of those instances that happen in social sciences and political science when the world comes to your classroom,” DeBell said. “It’s really about allowing students to form their own opinions and raise things that concern or confuse them.”
DeBell teaches five different political science classes, and he views his role as laying out the most basic facts for his students because there are a lot of misunderstandings about impeachment and how the process works.
“A lot of people hear ‘impeachment’ and have a lot of assumptions and a lot of really strong views on it, but there is actually a written-down portion in the Constitution that tells you exactly what the process is and what it’s not,” he said.
Students are curious about the topic, and when they hear varying messages from news sources, it can get “heated,” DeBell said, so he focuses on highlighting that it is a “historic moment, and it’s important for us as citizens to be engaged and thinking about it.”
Jessica McCallum, an 11th grade teacher at Animas High School, said she takes different approaches to teaching impeachment depending on if students are learning journalism or humanities, which is a combination of social studies and language arts.
“I want to make sure that my journalism students are seeing the profound historic moment of journalism that we are living in because this is one of the biggest stories that we have had to cover in our time,” McCallum said.
While McCallum focuses on the media side of impeachment with her journalism students, in her humanities class, she fuses American political ideology on the social studies side, and rhetoric on the language arts side, to discuss the topic.
“With impeachment populating the news feeds, we can’t not look at it,” she said. “We look at the way that partisans are interpreting the same information and the relationship that that has with bias and persuasion and the rhetorical climate of the news.”
McCallum said it is interesting for her to be able to discuss impeachment with her students because the world around them has never been so “partisan and divided” in their lifetimes.
DeBell said he works to ensure his students feel comfortable asking questions about impeachment and do not feel judged, but that can be difficult given the partisan nature of the topic.
“With these polarizing issues, as soon as you hear the word ‘impeachment,’ our partisan brains activate,” he said.
DeBell likened the discussions he is having now about impeachment to last year’s Brett Kavanaugh hearings, in that both topics are “pervasive and there wasn’t a student not bringing it up.” Adjusting lesson plans to account for current events happens frequently, he said.
Student engagement on current events is usually high, but McCallum found that impeachment, despite its prominence in the news, isn’t taking her students’ focus away from issues that they have always been passionate about, like school violence and climate change.
“It’s a very interesting time to be studying U.S. history with young people,” McCallum said.
Ayelet Sheffey is a student at American University in Washington, D.C., and an intern for The Durango Herald.