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'We live for these moments': Educators use Trump impeachment inquiry to teach valuable lessons in class

Fletcher McClellan was a college student during the impeachment proceedings against President Richard Nixon in the 1970s. Now, he’s teaching about an impeachment inquiry against President Donald Trump at Elizabethtown College.

McClellan, an E-town political science professor, is among the college and high school educators using this week’s headlines surrounding Trump as fodder for classroom discussion and instruction.

Educators interviewed Thursday and Friday by LNP said the situation creates an important teaching opportunity.

Students, they said, are itching to learn more about how impeachment works, what an impeachable offense is and, ultimately, whether there’s enough evidence to impeach the current president. And it’s the instructor’s job, they said, to help students make sense of it all.

But that’s not always easy, especially given today’s heated political climate.


Teaching critical thinking

“My goal isn’t to say that one side is right or wrong,” said Kyle Kopko, an associate professor of political science at Elizabethtown College. “My job is to get you to think critically and understand how to evaluate competing planes (of thought) effectively.”

Kopko, who teaches an American National Government course, said his students were getting real-time updates in class Tuesday as Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi announced plans to open an impeachment inquiry against the president.

Trump has been accused of pressuring Ukraine’s president to investigate Trump’s potential political rival, former Vice President Joe Biden, and his son.

The class, Kopko said, debated whether Trump’s action was an impeachable offense and, if so, whether pursuing impeachment is worth it, since the Senate may be unlikely to convict the president if he is impeached by the House.


Establishing a standard

Stephen Medvic was teaching a first-year seminar focused on democracy and disagreement at Franklin & Marshall College as reports flooded in.

Medvic said he tried to get students to examine the issue through a nonpartisan lens.

“If we’re going to have discussions about controversial issues,” he said, “we have to try really hard to bracket our partisanship.”

Medvic advised his students to think critically and establish a standard of impeachment that is applicable to any president, Republican or Democrat. In other words, he said, don’t have a “knee-jerk reaction.”

At Lancaster Mennonite, social studies teacher Sheri Wenger navigated the issue using a faith-based approach that creates “an environment where it is safe to raise questions and learn from our differences,” she said.

Wenger discussed the impeachment process and the role of whistleblowers in her classes. They examined editorial cartoons from the impeachment investigations of Andrew Johnson, Nixon and Bill Clinton.

“The objective of Wednesday’s lesson and discussion was to help students understand the system of checks and balances and separation of powers that were established by the Constitution rather than a polarizing political debate,” Wenger said.


Reviewing the Constitution

A similarly careful approach was taken by Elizabethtown Area High School teacher James Sostack’s classes.

His classes studied Article 2, Section 4 of the U.S. Constitution, which covers impeachment, and scholarly articles related to the impeachment process. Sostack said he was “astonished” by his students’ curiosity.

“They were very engaged,” he said. “There was a really high degree of interest in understanding the nature of this crisis.”

And that, Elizabethtown College professor McClellan said, is an invaluable experience for not only the students, but the educator.

“We live for these moments,” he said.