How suburban educator is using Trump impeachment as a teachable moment

  • Joseph Wojtas, AP human geography and civics teacher at South Elgin High School, reviews the House impeachment process with students Wednesday before they turned their attention to watching the televised impeachment debate.

    Joseph Wojtas, AP human geography and civics teacher at South Elgin High School, reviews the House impeachment process with students Wednesday before they turned their attention to watching the televised impeachment debate. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Senior Shea Simo watches the live impeachment debate Wednesday during civics class at South Elgin High School.

    Senior Shea Simo watches the live impeachment debate Wednesday during civics class at South Elgin High School. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • Students watch the impeachment debate Wednesday during civics class at South Elgin High School.

    Students watch the impeachment debate Wednesday during civics class at South Elgin High School. Rick West | Staff Photographer

  • South Elgin High School students, including senior Marco Rodriguez (in black hoodie), watch the impeachment debate during civics class Wednesday.

    South Elgin High School students, including senior Marco Rodriguez (in black hoodie), watch the impeachment debate during civics class Wednesday. Rick West | Staff Photographer

 
 
Updated 12/19/2019 2:41 PM

The Trump impeachment proceedings weren't as entertaining as reality television, but they've been a godsend for South Elgin High School civics teacher Joseph Wojtas.

"You guys get to witness history live," Wojtas told students Wednesday as they watched members of the House debate before voting to impeach President Donald Trump.

 

Wojtas said it isn't always easy to get high school students excited about learning about the constitutional separation of powers, the role of the three branches of government and checks and balances, and the Fourth Estate. But the impeachment has captivated students' interest and awakened their sense of civic responsibility, so he's used it as a teachable moment, he said.

"It makes it more authentic," said Wojtas, who added that his students are more engaged because they are seniors and juniors. "Voting is a realistic option to them in 11 months."

Since October, Wojtas' three civics classes have been following step-by-step the impeachment inquiry into whether Trump improperly pressured Ukraine to investigate political rival Joe Biden and his son, Hunter Biden. They watched the House committees' live hearings and public testimonies of White House aides.

Students also took mock votes on the two articles of impeachment -- abuse of power and obstruction of Congress -- with a majority voting to impeach Trump on both counts.

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Senior Karlea Ceasario, 18, of South Elgin said she voted against impeachment because she wasn't persuaded by the testimonies and evidence presented. She said the impeachment has been a distraction from larger issues Americans are facing.

"Now that I'm 18 and able to vote, it makes me want to be more involved," she said.

Students relished this rare opportunity to see the constitutional process in action since impeachment of a sitting U.S. president happens so infrequently -- it's been 21 years since former President Bill Clinton was impeached by the House and later acquitted by the Senate, and 45 years since President Richard Nixon resigned while facing possible impeachment during the Watergate scandal.

"It intrigued me," said junior Warisha Ansari of Bartlett. "It's been really cool because we've talked about Nixon and Clinton, but actually seeing it and following it ... if any president in the future is going against the constitution, I'll know."

Students who hadn't really considered voting in a presidential election before are looking forward to exercising their civic duty.

"I don't know how I would have felt if this (impeachment) didn't happen," said senior Joseph Haslam, 18, of Elgin. "I'm going to vote (in 2020) for sure. It has influenced me quite a bit. During this whole process, I have decided to major in political science."

Wojtas said seeing students engage in spirited discussions with peers and take a genuine interest in politics and the workings of government has been rewarding. That likely wouldn't have happened without the impeachment, he said.

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