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Turmoil on Capitol Hill makes for timely discussions in high school civics classes

A MARTÍNEZ, HOST:

This week's turmoil on Capitol Hill was one for the history books, and that's made for some very timely discussions in high school civics classes. NPR's Laurel Wamsley and Meg Anderson spent time in classrooms in Washington, D.C., and Minneapolis to hear what teachers and students had to say. Now quick note - we're not using students' last names because they're minors.

LAUREL WAMSLEY, BYLINE: Less than two miles northeast of the U.S. Capitol building, seniors in the AP government class at KIPP D.C. College Prep take their seats. Today's lesson? What just happened in the House of Representatives? Here's teacher Christopher Gleditsch.

CHRISTOPHER GLEDITSCH: Well, it happened last night.

WAMSLEY: He hits play on a video.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

STEVE WOMACK: The office of speaker of the House of the United States House of Representatives is hereby declared vacant.

UNIDENTIFIED STUDENT: Oh.

GLEDITSCH: This has never happened before in American history.

WAMSLEY: Gleditsch hands out a news article about Speaker Kevin McCarthy's ouster for students to read and discuss.

JAKIYA: Poor Kevin. Poor Kevin.

WAMSLEY: The timing was good. The class had just covered the legislative branch and its leaders. The upheaval on Capitol Hill is a chance for the class to look at how well - or not - that structure is working right now. Gleditsch asks why a small group of fellow Republicans went after McCarthy.

GLEDITSCH: Sean, start us off.

SEAN: I said they decided to remove him because he was siding with the Democrats at certain times.

GLEDITSCH: He sided with the Democrats. But, like, aren't you supposed to work together?

JAKIYA: Yeah.

GLEDITSCH: Jakiya?

JAKIYA: I feel like that's how it's supposed to be. But how Congress is set up now, it's like Republicans and Democrats will always have that separation going on because it's certain situations that they cannot agree on and they don't agree on.

MEG ANDERSON, BYLINE: Polarization was also top of mind in Joe Kennealy's class at Hiawatha Collegiate High School in Minneapolis.

JOE KENNEALY: All right, seniors, I will turn off my voice and hand it over to you guys.

ANDERSON: A senior named Luke said it can be good to disagree.

LUKE: But I think that if those disagreements become demonizing each other just because you have those different values, you're never actually going to get common ground.

ANDERSON: But his classmate, Sarah, said sometimes the stakes are too high to not fight for your beliefs.

SARAH: If we talk about the Supreme Court decision about, like, overturning Roe v. Wade, it feels like sometimes there needs to be polarization, because sometimes, like, the things that are happening in the government is, like, a direct attack on someone's identity.

ANDERSON: These conversations about government aren't really a priority in a lot of schools. That's according to Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg, who researches civics education at Tufts University.

KEI KAWASHIMA-GINSBERG: One of the things about civic education that's challenging is that we neglected it for the past three decades or so for sure.

ANDERSON: She says that's a problem because not only does civics education teach how the government is supposed to work; it also teaches students how to disagree with one another in a productive way.

KENNEALY: Who's got an idea?

ANDERSON: In the Minneapolis class, Zakariya told me that being productive is exactly what's not happening in Congress. But he's not sure they care what he thinks.

When you think about the government, do you, feel, like, that stuff is, like, far away from your life, or do you feel...

ZAKARIYA: Yeah. I think it's, like, super far. It's like, we're not even in, like, the same place. Like, what I say, like, right now, if I had an opinion, like, it wouldn't really matter to them. They're all, like, closed-door meetings, like, all the rules that they make.

ANDERSON: His teacher, Joe Kennealy, was across the room listening.

KENNEALY: I'd like to think that Zak (ph) is - that's not where he's going to end his journey. But I do think civics and government class, if it's done right, does help students to understand more of those systems that are in place that they're already in. They're experiencing it. It just gives them vocab.

ANDERSON: Vocabulary to make sense of what's happening on Capitol Hill and to recognize whether Congress is functioning like it should.

Meg Anderson, NPR News, Minneapolis.

WAMSLEY: And I'm Laurel Wamsley in Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHAD LAWSON'S "ALL IS TRUTH") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Meg Anderson is an editor on NPR's Investigations team, where she shapes the team's groundbreaking work for radio, digital and social platforms. She served as a producer on the Peabody Award-winning series Lost Mothers, which investigated the high rate of maternal mortality in the United States. She also does her own original reporting for the team, including the series Heat and Health in American Cities, which won multiple awards, and the story of a COVID-19 outbreak in a Black community and the systemic factors at play. She also completed a fellowship as a local reporter for WAMU, the public radio station for Washington, D.C. Before joining the Investigations team, she worked on NPR's politics desk, education desk and on Morning Edition. Her roots are in the Midwest, where she graduated with a Master's degree from Northwestern University's Medill School of Journalism.
Laurel Wamsley is a reporter for NPR's News Desk. She reports breaking news for NPR's digital coverage, newscasts, and news magazines, as well as occasional features. She was also the lead reporter for NPR's coverage of the 2019 Women's World Cup in France.