When a Manhattan grand jury indicted former President Donald Trump last Thursday on 34 counts related to business fraud, it not only set in motion an unprecedented legal spectacle, but also an upending of lesson plans in government, history and political science classrooms across the country.
Trump’s indictment and subsequent appearance in court marked a watershed event in American history — the kind of where-were-you-when moment that demands immediate acknowledgment from educators and discussions of its historical context among students.
But with many schools — both at the secondary and post-secondary levels — already well into their spring semesters, some teachers are encountering challenges in adjusting their lessons plans in real time. Freedom to eliminate some planned material in favor of more immediate topics is nuanced and depends on several factors.
“There are standards that we have to teach by law,” said Randy Harrison, who teaches government classes at Anderson High School. “Especially in social studies, history, government and political science classes, we are to teach connected to the impacts of current events relative to how that might be viewed…in future history books.”
Harrison said the timing of the events involving Trump was fortunate in some ways for his lesson plans, because prior to spring break, he and his students were engaged in discussions about principles stemming from the preamble of the U.S. Constitution. One of those principles, he said, is that no one is above the law.
“As this indictment broke, as I was planning my lessons to return from spring break, it was a no-brainer,” he said. “This will be my opening act, what teachers would call their bell-ringing activity. This indictment is a current event, it’s content relevant, and what is the connection? It is connected to the rule of law.”
At the collegiate level, an absence of state-mandated standards provides many professors with a wider measure of freedom to change course content on the fly, especially in classes focused on current events and, in the case of Trump, political science.
“My curriculum is one I designed, so consequently what I do when something important happens, first of all if I can fold it into what we’re already doing, I do so,” said Michael Frank, director of Anderson University’s Center for Public Service and a political science professor at the school. “I can devote that time and say, hey, this is more important than the other content I was going to cover today.”
Frank said that on Wednesday he and his political science students spent 20 minutes of class time asking and answering questions related to Trump’s indictment. The material he had planned to cover, he said, wouldn’t necessarily be eliminated from the course syllabus, but rather placed in what he called “the digital equivalent of a clippings file,” for possible use later.
Frank noted that, with some final exams already formulated and populated with questions, some changes to those documents would likely be in order.
“If I cut out some content that we were going to talk about specifically and I know that my take on this was important for the question on the exam, I’ll toss those questions out,” he said.
“None of the stuff I do is static. My approach to teaching politics is always to make it adaptive.”