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Teaching Impeachment In The Classroom

LULU GARCIA-NAVARRO, HOST:

Impeachment is a huge political story and a great teaching opportunity. Minnesota Public Radio's Elizabeth Shockman reports from one middle school that's using current events in the classroom.

ELIZABETH SHOCKMAN, BYLINE: When social studies teacher Mark Westpfahl heard on Tuesday this week that the House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, he knew he needed to change up his lesson plans for the next day.

MARK WESTPFAHL: Immediately following school, turned on the radio in the car. And Nancy Pelosi was on the radio. Immediately, I said, we're changing it.

SHOCKMAN: Westpfahl is a middle school teacher at Capitol Hill Magnet in St. Paul. He says he wanted to make sure his students understood the process and history of impeachment. And when his seventh graders filed into class on Wednesday, he was ready for them.

WESTPFAHL: How many of you have heard of the word impeachment or...

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yeah.

WESTPFAHL: ...Impeach?

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT #1: Yeah.

WESTPFAHL: We will discuss the process and what this could mean for the president and the country. My goal is this - in the next two days, you guys are going to become smarter than more than 75% of every adult in this country.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENTS: Yes.

SHOCKMAN: Westpfahl put together a worksheet of questions and then scattered answers around the room in boxes for his students to find.

(CROSSTALK)

SHOCKMAN: Then he turned on some dramatic music from the "Harry Potter" soundtrack because, as he says, impeachment is a dramatic event.

(SOUNDBITE OF ALEXANDRE DESPLAT'S "COURTYARD APOCALYPSE")

SHOCKMAN: For Westpfahl, switching up his lesson to focus on current events this week is important to get his students to think critically. He wants them to understand the process and history of impeachment. But he also wants his students understand perspectives.

WESTPFAHL: What is that process? How do we get to the impeachment process? Does partisan politics play any role in this? And we're going to find out it certainly does. And it has historically over time. So it really allows us to get those perspectives. Then we jump back into our Compromise of 1850 and all the events that lead up to the Civil War and how, depending on whose perspective you look at, they're all right and they're all wrong all the time.

SHOCKMAN: As we all remember from middle school history class, the Compromise of 1850 dealt with the status of slavery in new U.S. territories. Westpfahl says some teachers steer clear of teaching around political moments, fearing complaints from parents or staff about indoctrination and bringing politics into the classroom. But he believes it's important to help the students understand what's happening.

WESTPFAHL: If we're doing our due diligence as social studies teachers, we should be able to connect it to any single topic, any point of the year of what we're doing in class. And, again, it just promotes that civic engagement for students to be able to be armed with a little bit more knowledge to move forward and be better than adults.

SHOCKMAN: In Westpfahl's experience, once parents and other school leaders see what he's trying to do, they usually get on board - no matter what their political beliefs might be.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Shockman in St. Paul. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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