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For N.H. High School Students, Impeachment Becomes a Civics Lesson

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As the impeachment hearings into President Donald Trump's actions with Ukraine unfolded this week, some teachers turned the moment into a civics lesson. Some had students watch the proceedings in class and invited discussion.  But how do teachers navigate a conversation like that?  And what do they hope students took from it?

NHPR All Things Considered host Peter Biello spoke with Dave Alcox, a social studies teacher at Milford High School, and three of his students, Jack Hansen, Jordan King and Kat Raiano, to see how they've talked about impeachment in their classroom. 

  Editors note: see below for full transcript of the interview. 

What do New Hampshire's high school students have to say about impeachment?

Jack Hansen, 17

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Jack Hansen

My personal opinion on the impeachment - I don't really think it's a good use of time right now in Congress, because at the end of the day, whether the president gets impeached or not, which it appears that he will get impeached, he is not removed from office until they undergo a trial in the Senate, which, is overseen by Chief Justice Roberts and will require every senator to cast a vote on whether the president should be removed from office. And in order to remove the president from office with the current makeup of the Senate, 20 people would have to join the Democratic side of the argument, whether that's 18 Republicans and the two independents or 20 Republicans. It's incredibly unlikely that that would ever happen. So, looking at where we are right now in the election cycle, I really don't think that it's a big deal right now for the president to be going through this impeachment trial, because I think that from a Democratic point of view, it would be a much better use of their time to focus on the campaign and the election and really get people familiarized with their policies that they want to implement. I think that that will go much farther than trying to impeach the president.

Jordan King, 16

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Jordan King

So following impeachment and the process, I've kind of been torn this whole time between thinking that the president did commit commit an impeachable offense and so he should be impeached for that - nobody is above the law - but at the same time, I worry about the political connotations of it. I'm a strong Democrat and I really want a Democrat to win in 2020. I worry that if the president beats the impeachment process, it will kind of justify him to say that you should vote for me in 2020 because Congress spoke and Congress represents the people, therefore the people said they want me to stay president. And I really don't want to hurt Democrats' chances, especially if the president isn't impeached.

Kat Raiano, 17

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Kat Raiano

Fiona Hill testified [Thursday], and she was saying that this story that some people are trying to use to spin the impeachment and make it so that Donald Trump can stay in office is only helping the Russians because it's further dividing America.

I think that this partisan political struggle for impeachment versus the search for the truth - like did the president actually commit an impeachable offense? - I think is kind of harming our nation, and it's more important to find the truth than it is to advocate a political standpoint.

The transcript has been lightly edited for clarity. 

So let's start with you, Dave. You've been teaching social studies in this important moment in American history. How are you doing it? 

Dave: Well, it seems every year there's always a new learning lesson that the kids can receive regardless of, you know, which presidency, which candidate you're talking about. Obviously, lately, the impeachment process that has been going on has opened up the door for a lot of the students to be curious. And so the question then becomes, you know, what is the impeachment process? Where does it come from? Where is it in the Constitution? And so, you know, it makes it an easy transition for the kids to get that teaching moment. 

So are you spending some time watching or listening to it live? 

Dave: Actually, yeah. We've all been watching it live. And in fact, Jack posted on his Snapchat account while he was sitting at home yesterday during our time off from school that he was watching the impeachment hearings. I think the kids are more into it now because it's public hearings, and so the kids can all have an opportunity to watch it. So it is pretty interesting.

So this is not just an in-class thing. This is an at home thing, too, Jack? 

Jack: Yeah. I just take an interest in it and I had some time yesterday. I was sick, so I turned it on. Just listened to it in the background a lot on C-SPAN.

And Jordan, let me ask you, how has discussion about the impeachment inquiry been between your friends, if at all? Are you discussing it with your friends?

Jordan: Yeah, it's been really interesting to talk about it with my friends because I have a lot of friends on different sides of the aisle. So it's been interesting to get to share my opinions. I have one friend, and I'm a Democrat and he's a Republican. And I think it's really interesting to discuss impeachment with him because we actually agree on a lot of aspects of it.

Such as? 

Jordan: So we both agree that morally we think that the president did commit an impeachable offense. But we're also both concerned that the 2020 election is going to become just about impeachment. And we feel like we were both complaining at last night's debate and the one before that that they were spending so much time just discussing the president and impeachment. We just want them to talk about actual issues that they're going to address if they do become president. 

And Kat, you were nodding along to what Jordan was just saying. What are your thoughts?

Kat: I definitely feel the same way that I'm worried that this election is going to become more about opinions on impeaching Donald Trump than it is about the issues voters want to hear. And I think we're talking about that, too, when we first heard the news. I remember you saying you were torn between thinking that this is what Democrats morally should be doing because it is an impeachable offense or at least a serious allegation of one. But at the same time, it could be politically damaging if it goes the wrong way. And so I think that's kind of where the country is right now, and that's where a lot of us are.

Why do you think it's important for students, people your age, to make themselves aware of the process and keep informed about what's going on right now? 

Jack: I think it's especially important that people our age pay attention because our generation is going to be people who are going to be able to vote. And that's an extremely important responsibility that so many people take for granted, especially kids who don't understand politics and how it works. I think that we're a special group of people who actually understand what's going on. There are very few kids, at least in our school, that understand what's going on. And that's not good. People really should focus more, especially since in a year we're going to be able to decide the future of our country. And we're in the middle of a campaign right now - or not a campaign, an election cycle - that is extremely controversial, that no one's really paying attention to at our age. And I think this is something that people really need to work on. 

Dave, adults have a hard time maintaining civility when talking about such a polarizing issue. Have you set any ground rules for the discussions that take place in your classroom around this?

Civility. And I think that's an understanding. I mean, many of the kids have been together in the summertime. We meet to try to work before the class even starts. So we've already had a bonding point where the kids do respect each other. And have we had people get, you know, animated? Yeah, but not to the point where it's hostile. It's passionate and there's a difference between positive passion and hostile passion. And I think at the end of the day, you know, sort of like Reagan and O'Neill, we might beat each other up on the on the floor but at the end of the day, we're back to normal again.

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