While some educators might be tempted to shy away from discussing the insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and impeachment proceedings against President Donald Trump, for Ballard High School 9th grade civics teacher Abigail DeWeese, these events are front and center in the classroom.
Lessons on the insurrection have given her students the opportunity to learn about important concepts, and process a tumultuous time in American history.
“A lot of them really love the opportunity just to get the facts, and to be able to formulate their own opinion and to have a platform to do that in,” DeWeese said.
Jefferson County Public Schools sent out an email to principals on the evening of the attack on the Capitol, urging principals to “create safe spaces for students to express their thoughts while allowing students to move safely in and safely out of important conversations.”
The guidance provided a number of resources compiled by the social studies department.
DeWeese said in the days immediately following the insurrection on Jan. 6., she had students watch assigned news clips and look at some images of the event. Then, she had them write reflections on how the images made them feel, think and wonder.
“It was a lot of them asking me questions,” she said. Though she didn’t always have the answers, she was honest with them about what she did, and did not know.
Then on Monday, when more facts had emerged about how the insurrection was organized and the fallout, DeWeese designed a new lesson around the question, ‘How much blame can we assign to the president?” — a key question that Congress itself is debating.
Keep in mind, this all took place virtually, in an online web conference.
“A lot of my students haven’t even seen what each other look like because they haven’t had their cameras on,” she said.
DeWeese said her classes have students with diverse political opinions, and she understands why this might be the very question many teachers would avoid bringing up.
“I think sometimes we get a little scared with how polarized our country has become to talk about politics in school and apply things we’re learning about to current events,” she said. “There’s a lot of ways that it could go wrong.”
But DeWeese said from the first day of school, she created and enforced clear expectations for how students are to engage in debate. Students may only assert an opinion if they can follow it up with a “because” statement that is a verifiable fact. And they cannot say anything that dehumanizes another person.
“We set up this community where we know we’re going to be respectful to one another when we disagree,” she said.
DeWeese also has them post their written responses to questions privately to her, before she asks them to share with the class.
“That way if they just need to vent, they can do so privately where I will only see it, and I can follow up with them afterwards,” she said.
In debating the culpability of the president, and what should be done, DeWeese said students learned about how impeachment works and the 25th Amendment. They also discussed the judicial system and its role in upholding the results of the election. DeWeese even had students evaluate social media posts for misinformation, and discuss the weaknesses that can be exploited in democracies.
After the debate, they took a vote. In DeWeese’s largest class, five students voted to let Trump serve out the remainder of his term. Fifteen voted to either impeach the president or invoke the 25th Amendment. Several abstained from voting.
DeWeese said she sees much more engagement from her students when her lessons are grounded in current events. That’s even more important now during remote learning, when it’s easy for students to skip a web session.
One of DeWeese’s students had been missing class for weeks, following an outbreak of COVID-19 in her household. DeWeese was getting worried.
On Monday, the student joined the class.
“She was like ‘Yeah, Ms. DeWeese, when I saw what was happening with the U.S. Capitol, I knew I wanted to make it to civics class today, even though I don’t feel very well. I knew that was something we were going to be talking about today, and that was something I wanted to be a part of,” she said.