Teaching Impeachment in the Classroom: Q&A With Emma Humphries of iCivics

As the topic of impeachment hit the news in recent weeks, we were wondering how teachers are handling this in their classrooms. Are teachers using the news as an opportunity to teach this otherwise abstract concept? How do you field student questions that would invariably come up? And how do you address it in a non-partisan way?

I spoke with Dr. Emma Humphries, Chief Education Officer at iCivics, about how she believes educators can carefully and thoughtfully approach teaching impeachment in K–12 classrooms. Her responses have been edited for length and clarity.

Geraldine Stevens: Why is impeachment important to study in K–12 classrooms, especially given what's currently happening in the U.S. government?

Emma Humphries: In and of itself, I think impeachment represents a controversial issue, particularly when you’re focusing on it in a current context. For that reason, I think it’s so important that students have the opportunity to discuss impeachment. Offering students opportunities to discuss controversy in the classroom is absolutely considered a best practice in social studies education. It supports a number of skills that are essential for college and career success, not to mention responsible citizenship.

The best thing that can happen is when something that you should be teaching anyway becomes a nationwide teachable moment. And that’s sort of the case here. So, if you’re a government teacher, an American History teacher, or a general social studies teacher, there’s a good chance you're going to cover impeachment at some point as a textbook concept for understanding American democracy. But when it’s in the headlines, you know you’ve really got to take advantage of that nationwide teachable moment and also answer your kids’ questions. They’re just seeing this all around them and deserve opportunities to process that in the safe and structured environment that the classroom can provide.

GS: In what grades specifically does it make sense to teach about impeachment? When it comes to younger children versus older children, how would you change your approach?

EHI think it can be appropriate in every grade level. It’s pedagogy—how you teach it—that really matters. Folks who are strong advocates of sex-ed—another controversial topic—will tell you that there are appropriate forms of sex-ed for young elementary school students, just as there are appropriate forms of it for middle and high school students. Of course, they look very different, but the topic shouldn’t dictate what’s age appropriate. It’s really a matter of what you teach and how you teach it. That said, I don't know that I would dive deep on impeachment in a kindergarten classroom or the early elementary school grades unless kids brought it up. If they do [bring it up], I think you could have a fair discussion about what it means to be a public official and what happens if you do something you’re not supposed to do. And then, what does it mean to be charged with a crime, if you will, and then removal?

I think once you get to the older grades, it’s absolutely essential. There are plenty of ways you can approach it from the procedural to the historical and even to the current. My guess is that in the elementary grades, you’re probably going to answer their questions and just cover some of the basics: What does it mean to be impeached? It doesn’t mean to be removed from office as so many people conflate it with. As you move up in grade level, you can talk about what it means to be charged and then discuss separation of powers—how it’s Congress’s job to hold the executive accountable, and how even within Congress, the process is broken up across two chambers. In high school or even middle school, this is all appropriate. I think it all should be taught. I think sixth grade to twelfth grade is a prime place to help students make sense of it. It helps to answer their questions and provide some clarifications.

GS: What are some of the major challenges of teaching impeachment to students in K–12 schools, and how can they be addressed?

EHI think one of the challenges is that it’s an unfolding story. We don’t have all the information yet. More information will be uncovered, and some information that we think we have might later be proven to be incorrect. And so, it’s difficult for a teacher to stand up with any sort of authority and say, "This is what is happening." I think you have to just be careful. You have to provide that disclaimer to students that you only know what has already been revealed and reported.

Another problem with this topic is that there's a lot of emotion attached to it. Politics, especially partisan politics, has become very sort of tribal in America. Folks see that the two parties are split, and they’re going to disagree on almost everything. They don’t necessarily see that behavior in themselves, and they may not recognize that they’re acting or speaking with emotion. And that’s true for teachers and students alike. That said, as teachers, we need to help them step back and say, "What do we know, what do we maybe not know yet?" and really focus on the process. I think it’s always a safe bet to focus on the process. I think it probably feels less safe to discuss the headlines, but it's important to allow students that opportunity to do so. And if, as the teacher, you're skeptical about what you're hearing in the news, you should tell your students that so they can properly interpret what you're telling them. Be wary of your own biases, and be willing to reveal some of them so your students don't assume everything you say is a statement of fact.

Teaching the history can be another safe approach. And if you’re teaching older grades with higher reading levels, you can dive right into the Federalist Papers. What did Alexander Hamilton say in Federalist 65 about the impeachment process? Let's start there. Let's walk through what happened with President Johnson, with President Nixon, with President Clinton. What similarities do you see? How are these circumstances different? And ask a lot of questions. When students provide answers, really push them to provide evidence in those answers rather than just say what they're feeling.

GS: How can a teacher respond to a student who makes politically charged statements about impeachment?

EH: I think it depends on how politically charged it is, and where you think the line should be. I think it is okay to allow students to be political actors. We are all political actors, even teachers. Teachers usually go out of their way to hide that a bit or to at least play the devil’s advocate—provide both sides. But we’re all political actors. I don't think we have to discourage students to make political statements as long as they’re not offensive. 

First and foremost, you have to provide a safe learning environment for all your students. If a student is saying something that is deeply offensive, hurtful to another student in a classroom, you really can't allow that. You have to have ground rules in place to prevent that from happening. But for a student to say, “I support the president, and I don't think it’s illegal what he did,” or “I don't think he did what he’s accused of”—the students should be allowed to say that. You should push them to provide evidence to back that up and face their classmates coming in from the more liberal side.

GS: What types of activities or interesting components would you suggest at the elementary, middle, or high school level to integrate this topic into the curriculum and make it more relevant to today’s students?

EHI think there's a few ways to approach it. The Socratic discussion—which really focuses on asking questions—is always a great teaching strategy, but it does require some skill on the part of the teacher and also some practice on the part of the students. I really like some basic data visualization activities. I think it was about a week ago that the president tweeted a picture of the 2016 electoral map and said, “Try to impeach this,” so making the point that there are a lot of people in America who voted for Trump in 2016, and if you try to impeach him they're not going to be happy, right? There are some things he's implying there. So you can lead your students in a discussion about what he was trying to say, what that map actually represents, how that map is potentially misleading.

Another idea came to me when I heard about the White House accidentally emailing the GOP talking points about the Ukraine call to the House Democrats. At first I sort of chuckled, like “Wow, what a mistake.” But I thought, what a great teachable moment because now we have screenshots of the GOP talking points that you can show students, and then talk about how this is a very normal standard operating procedure for parties to do—both parties put out talking points. So have students read the Republican ones and then try to draft what the Democratic talking points would be. And the idea here is to teach multiple perspectives. Teaching students to put the shoe on the other foot and say, “What would this look like coming from a different perspective?”

Finally, I think I would go back to the history and tell the stories, because the historical instances of impeachment are fascinating. They're vastly different, the circumstances surrounding each impeachment—but at the end of the day, if nothing else, focus on the procedure and focus on the vocabulary. Because they're hearing so many words right now: bribery, treason, impeachment. So few people knowing what impeachment really means. So focusing on the vocabulary allows students to grapple with this complex language of the social studies and of the law and then be better positioned to make sense of the headlines that they're reading.

GS: How can teachers communicate the goals of teaching impeachment to students and their parents?

EHSo I am a big advocate of communicating with parents about your desire to teach controversial issues as a social studies teacher, including impeachment. When I was a young social studies teacher in Florida, I was teaching controversial issues in a community that was very politically different from the community in which I was raised. So I communicated with the principal and the administration. I told them what I was going to do and why and how I planned to go about it. And then I communicated with the parents, and we talked about it at parent-teacher night. I sent home letters: “Hey, I just want you to know that we're going to be talking about this in class. Here are my goals. Here's why I think it's important to talk about these issues with your students. And here's what you can count on me to do and not to do." And I got such support just from that little bit of open communication—support from parents. We all agreed that this was important for their students and they trusted me because I told them I was doing it. I told them that I had no plans whatsoever to try to influence what their students thought. I just wanted to help them think.

GS: Could you provide advice to teachers who may hesitate to discuss impeachment because they are questioning the appropriateness of the content—for example, is it or is it not standards based?

EH: I would argue that impeachment is in the standards, whether in the benchmarks or in the clarifying notes on them. It might not be explicitly stated, but you're going to find it in the constitutional principles of American government. It's relevant to separation of powers. It's absolutely a part of checks and balances. Any civics or government teacher has to teach separation of powers, has to teach checks and balances, and has to teach rule of law, and impeachment is an excellent example to highlight to help students make sense of this otherwise abstract concept.

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Dr. Emma Humphries will be a featured guest on our new podcast series, HMH Learning Moments: Shaping the Future, talking about education’s democratic responsibility to teach civics. You can read more about the new series here.

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