Eighth-graders at Clear Creek Middle School proved last Thursday they could converse about the First Amendment, citizenship and the Philadelphia Convention.
The 66 students, dressed in their Sunday best, competed in a mock congressional hearing called We the People.
The students worked in teams and presented their research and arguments on topics from the country’s representative form of government to the differences between the North and South at the Constitutional Convention.
They presented their work in front of their classmates and judges, who ranked the teams and awarded prizes.
Each student received a certificate commemorating her participation, and the winners received medals.
The competition is one that eighth-grade teacher and organizer Kevin James says is the ultimate teaching tool.
“It’s the perfect package for teaching,” James said. “They do research, writing, public speaking, and they have to think on their feet.”
Each team makes a four-minute statement answering the questions that they’ve been researching. Then there’s six minutes of dialogue among the judges and the team members.
The judges ask questions based on the statements and finish with a critique of the students’ presentation.
The judges are a mix of teachers, retired teachers and what James called “We the People people,” who like to go to different schools to judge mock congressional hearings.
“We the People” is a national program operated by the Center for Civic Education. It provides questions for students to research.
The competitions can be within a school or school district, or students can take teams to state, regional and national competitions.
There are elementary, middle school and high school levels.
At Clear Creek Middle School, it’s all within the school, but students take their presentations seriously.
Tommy Wann and Kaela Kalabany explained to the judges how the North and South in the United States were at odds as early as the Constitutional Convention in 1787.
The country’s forefathers disagreed over slavery and tariffs, but they agreed to compromise.
The students pointed out that compromise is fundamental to a democracy, and while all the issues weren’t resolved, both sides gained by bending a little.
Kaela said she thought the presentation went well, though she had been nervous about the question-and-answer session.
She said that once the presentation was over, she could think of other ways to answer the questions.
The judges were impressed with their work and awarded the team first place among all of the teams that discussed the same question.
Colby Hundley worked alone to present his feelings about freedom of speech.
He was in favor of broad First Amendment rights because, as he put it, “outcasts are the ones who make a difference.”
He suggested that Martin Luther King Jr. had been treated as an outcast, yet his words planted the seeds to change the nation.
“A person’s words are sacred,” he said.
The judges thought Colby’s ideas and responses to questions showed maturity and that he thought outside the box.
The team of Paul Garcia-Lance, Riley Czyzyk, Tommy Bohan and Jack Dixon discussed voting and other ways to actively participate in government. They contended that people need to vote or the result would be a dictatorship.
They said that serving in the military is an important way to participate in government, and they discussed how volunteering is important but it shouldn’t be a requirement set by the government.
“People shouldn’t be forced to volunteer,” Jack said. “I think (Americans) do enough donating and volunteering.”
Paul added: “If people are required to volunteer, then it’s not really volunteering. It would lead to more things the government controls.”
James said the intent of the mock congressional hearings was not to be adversarial but to cultivate citizenship in the next generation.
He wants students to respect and appreciate the American government system and even learn to care about what happens in government and elections.
“I want kids to understand the intricacies of the process. My real goal,” he said, “is that when these kids hear a story about (government) on the radio, they don’t change the station.”