Three years ago, after the 2016 presidential election, Daniela Cortez Cornelio said she felt nervous and uninformed. She hadn’t learned all that much about civics yet, so she struggled to reflect on national politics.
This week was different. By the time the U.S. House of Representatives impeached President Donald Trump on Wednesday, the 16-year-old said she’d already learned about the three branches of government, participated in a mock debate about merits of the impeachment process and watched many video clips of congressional hearings.
“I was excited to come to school and talk with my teacher about everything that happened,” said Cortez Cornelio, a junior at the southwest campus of Interagency Academy in Seattle. “When I was watching the news yesterday, I felt very educated and strong.”
As schools break for the holidays on Friday, teachers in Washington say they’re trying to cram in lessons that contextualize this week’s events and meet students’ demands for more information. It’s a tricky feat, they say: though the state requires some civics instruction, kids come to them with different degrees of knowledge about government.
Some teachers are leaning into the issue, shaping their lessons around the news. Elisa Yzaguirre, an English language arts teacher at Denny International Middle School in Seattle, just wrapped up an ethnic studies unit where students learned about activism through studying race and power structures. She said she is tailoring her impeachment lesson to the students she teaches.
For English learners, she said, the lesson will get at the root of the word “impeachment” and what it means for the country. They’ll read news articles she’s modified match their reading comprehension level. In other classes, she plans to get into the meat of the accusations against President Trump.
She also plans to have students record themselves talking about the articles they read in groups, so she can assess their speaking and listening skills.
Without some care, though, partisanship can stymie informed discussion.
“Everything that happens in our country, it’s there in the classrooms,” said Malia Renner-Singer, a teacher at Cascade High School in Leavenworth. “So if the country is divided, our classrooms are divided.”
A civics teacher for 18 years, Renner-Singer said holding classroom discussions since the 2016 election has made her feel like a new educator again. She teaches students across the political spectrum, some of whom have ended friendships because of their differences. It’s made her reluctant to bring up these conversations casually, so she’s taking her time to plan her lessons — and will broach the topic after break.
Seattle-area teachers faced similar qualms in 2016, when some were hesitant to teach about Trump’s election, noting an increase in uncivil political discourse in their classes. They said they struggled to navigate uncomfortable questions, like a second-grader wondering if her family would be deported. Teachers in schools with immigrant and refugee communities said they spent days working to help address their students’ fears.
Despite the pain and volatility that political discussions can bring, student interest in learning about the Trump administration policies and current events is strong, teachers said.
Roger Johnson, who teaches at Northwest University’s College of Education and was a library specialist in the Lake Washington School District, said he tells his undergraduate students that they’ll need to show both sides of political arguments if they want to be successful teachers. The same is true for any lessons about impeachment, he added.
“Really let the students guide the conversation,” he said. “Don’t say ‘he is guilty,’ or ‘there’s no evidence,’ but ask ‘what do you think about this?’ Let them drive it themselves, and oftentimes, it’s surprising.”
Some students, like 17-year-old Joseph Raetzer, have had to figure out the news on their own.
In a phone interview on Thursday, he rattled off the sequence of events required for the impeachment process.
“None of that information came from teachers and classes,” said Raetzer, who attends Bellevue College as a Running Start student. Running Start allows students to earn high school and college credits simultaneously.
At first, Erick Ostheimer, a 17-year-old senior at Juanita High School, didn’t understand the significance of the impeachment news. Then, his history teacher addressed it on Thursday.
Ostheimer said, “You read about important events in history books, but you don’t think you’ll be living when history is made.”