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OPINION: Teachers need to talk to students about impeachment and President Trump — here’s how

Discussing lots of ideas — and facts — about American democracy

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The impeachment inquiry into U.S. President Donald J. Trump is gathering steam.

Regardless of what happens next, we’re likely to see more of the polarization and accompanying vitriol that have become commonplace in discussions of American politics. We’re also likely to find the language used on cable news and around dinner tables slipping into classrooms.

For teachers, talking about impeachment and addressing the discord are important. Here is a quick primer on how to explain to students the procedures and the facts about impeachment.

Our democracy is at a crossroads, and impeachment is a constitutional process.

Fundamentally, the U.S. Constitution grants Congress the power to remove presidents before their time in office is complete. This happens only if a threshold number of congressional representatives concur that the president has committed “treason, bribery, or other high crimes and misdemeanors.”

An impeachment inquiry — where we are now — is the beginning of the process, not the end.

When we wake up tomorrow, we will still have a President Trump. An impeachment inquiry means that the House of Representatives is investigating the actions of the president.

Once an investigation is complete, the House can recommend articles of impeachment. If a simple majority of the House votes in favor of the articles of impeachment, the president is impeached. This is like an indictment — in other words, being impeached alone does not mean that President Trump will no longer be president.

Related: How social studies can help young kids make sense of the world

The next step is a trial, of sorts, in the Senate. There, the president can be convicted or not, also based on a vote. Only if the Senate votes to convict by a two-thirds or greater majority will the president be removed from office.

All of these procedures are enshrined in the U.S. Constitution. Impeachment is not a new, or partisan, process.

Two presidents in U.S. history, Andrew Johnson and Bill Clinton, have been impeached. Both were acquitted by the Senate. (Richard Nixon resigned from the presidency before being impeached.)

Beginning an impeachment inquiry is a historic step, and students ought to know that they are living through history.

It is crucial, also, that we face up to the anger that is brewing around this impeachment process.

We must confront the bullying that the American president models for the world.

We must examine how this behavior affects students, and find ways to talk with students who assert, in the middle of social studies class, that the process is a witch hunt.

When polarized anger seeps into classrooms, there is a straightforward way to address it.

Regardless of political beliefs, we can all say that the inquiry is a good step for our country. If President Trump is indeed innocent, the process shines a light on his actions and will demonstrate that he has been forthright and honest. It will exonerate him.

On the other hand, if the president is guilty of not acting in the best interests of America, of committing “high crimes,” then the inquiry will shine a light on that. This outcome also has an upside: It shows that our democratic system works the way it is supposed to.

It is fair to say that our country is divided. A portion of the population believes the president’s words, believes that the ‘liberal socialist Democrats’ and the ‘lame-stream media’ are working together to take down our commander-in-chief. Another, perhaps larger, portion of the population sees the opening of the impeachment inquiry as a step toward reestablishing a functioning democracy.

In some sense, it’d be nice if the impeachment inquiry proves to be ‘fake news,’ a hoax, a witch hunt. Whatever our opinions about President Trump, it would be reassuring to know that the U.S. president hadn’t committed high crimes and misdemeanors.

We can remain focused on the facts, on the idea of shining a bright light on what has remained hidden, and to the fair processes that underpin American democracy. It is this fairness, this goodness, that we should all focus on and aspire to in this historic moment.

This story on teaching about impeachment was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Humanities and Social Sciences at Rowan University, and the director of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide Studies. Her research and teaching focus on “hard histories” (such as slavery, the internment of Japanese-Americans and the Holocaust), and how teachers can talk about these time periods in more honest and inclusive ways.

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Jennifer Rich

Jennifer Rich is an assistant professor in the College of Education at Rowan University, and the director of the Rowan Center for Holocaust and Genocide… See Archive

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