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St. Paul middle school teacher turns impeachment into civics lesson

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A teacher in a classroom with students
Seventh-grade students are in Mark Westpfahl’s class at Capitol Hill Magnet in St. Paul. These students now have more of an opportunity to learn about the impeachment process after congressional Democrats launched an inquiry into President Trump's actions.
Elizabeth Shockman | MPR News

When social studies teacher Mark Westpfahl heard on Tuesday that the House would begin a formal impeachment inquiry of President Trump, he knew he needed to change up his lesson plans for the next day.

"Immediately following school, turned on the radio in the car and Nancy Pelosi was on the radio,” said Westpfahl. “Immediately I said, 'We're changing it.”

Westpfahl is a middle school teacher at Capitol Hill Magnet in St. Paul. He wanted to make sure his students understood the process and history of impeachment.

When he told his seventh graders that his lesson would help them understand impeachment better than most adults, the room erupted in cheers.

Westpfahl put together a worksheet of questions on impeachment and then scattered answers around the room in boxes for his students to find. Then he turned on dramatic music from the Harry Potter soundtrack because, as he said, impeachment is a dramatic event.

For Westpfahl, changing up his lesson plan to focus on current events this week is an important way to get his students to think critically. Not only does he want them to understand the process and history of impeachment, he also wants his students to understand perspectives.

"What is that process? How do we get to the impeachment process? Does partisan politics play any role in this? And we're going to find out it certainly does and it has historically over time,” Westpfahl said. “It really allows us to get those perspectives. Then we jump back into our compromise of 1850 and all the events that lead up to the Civil War and how, depending on whose perspective you look at, they're all right and they're all wrong all of the time."

Westpfahl said some teachers steer clear of teaching around political moments, fearing complaints from parents or staff about indoctrination and bringing politics into the classroom. But he thinks it's important to help his students understand what's happening.

"If we're doing our due diligence as social studies teachers, we should be able to connect it to any single topic any point of the year of what we're doing in class,” Westpfahl said. “It just promotes that civic engagement for students to be able to be armed with a little bit more knowledge to move forward and be better than adults."