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It’s an unimpeachable teachable moment

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A woman speaks to a class with a flag behind her.
Forest Lake High School teacher Jen Hesse lectures her students on the impeachment process during her citizenship and government class on Wednesday.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Jen Hesse started her civics lesson on impeachment Wednesday with a bit of grounding — and perspective. She told her students they were witnessing a moment that they would tell their grandchildren about someday.

“This is historic,” she said.

She'd been taking her students at Forest Lake High School through the impeachment process for the past several months. Now she was setting them loose to do their own research. They needed to figure out who was who in the process and make sure they got key points and perspectives from various news outlets, as well as from both Republicans and Democrats.

In the end they're going to have to write a paper, describing their own opinions on whether or not they think President Trump should be impeached.

President Trump is seen through an eyeglass.
An image of President Trump is magnified through the glasses of a Forest Lake High School student from a laptop in his citizenship and government class.
Evan Frost | MPR News

Some teachers shy away from bringing opinions into the classroom on controversial political subjects, but to Hesse, her civics class is all about opinions. She doesn't tell students about her strongly held views, but she does push them to put the work into forming their own well-researched political beliefs.

"What I'm trying to teach my students is that, when they make a decision, that they have done the due diligence of research and work to think, to look at multiple perspectives, to ask hard questions, to listen, to really listen,” she said. “All of those are things that I think go into having a great voting career."

On Wednesday she insisted her students look at both Fox and CNN, as well as other primary and secondary sources. She tried to get them to pay attention to how various outlets and politicians were using facts to construct a narrative.

"You're having to navigate all kinds of information from all kinds of different perspectives,” she said. “If you have a perspective that you're trying to get across, you can take facts and you can make facts fit a story."

A recent report from the Stanford History Education Group illustrates just how desperately these sorts of media literacy and critical thinking skills are needed. In a test administered to a national sample of high school students, two-thirds could not tell the difference between news stories and ads. Nearly all of them struggled with some aspect of evaluating information on the internet.

Hesse gives her students the tools they need to understand what they find online, but she thinks a civics education is more than that. She also wants to help them learn to engage in civil conversation and to give them a lifelong love of listening to and learning from people who think differently from them.

"The biggest influence I want to have on my kids is character,” she said. “Instead of trying to win an argument, trying to understand the argument."

It sometimes feels like she's fighting an uphill battle. A recent NPR/PBS NewsHour/Marist poll showed the overwhelming majority of Americans across parties say nothing they hear in hearings will change their minds on impeachment.

For Kassidy Engst, a ninth grader in Hesse's class, trying to understand what's happening in Washington this week is hard work.

A young woman in a letter jacket uses a laptop.
Fourteen-year-old Kassidy Engst does research on the impeachment hearings during her ninth grade citizenship and government class at Forest Lake High School.
Evan Frost | MPR News

"There's no common ground, especially in current events right now,” she said. “There's two very different stories. We go and we try to see as many sources as possible. ... It's really hard to stay updated."

Kassidy said her family is politically divided, and dinner often turns into a debate on current events. But they've developed a few strategies to make sure everyone's voice is heard.

"At least in my house, when things get really heated,” she said, “we raise our hands."

And Kassidy is using her experience at home and at school to form her own strategies for being an informed citizen:

"It's really important to have ... that middle ground where you're not yelling at each other, but you're really listening to each other,” she said. “Once you're having more of a respectful debate over an argument — I think that's when things actually start to get productive."