‘We The People’ pushes students to higher levelDecember 4, 2018
By LEANN BURKE
JASPER — A new government class at Jasper High School offers students the chance to dive deeply into the U.S. Constitution and show off their knowledge in a statewide competition.
The class, called We The People, is part of a nationwide program that covers the history and principles of the United States’ democratic republic. It’s a combination between a government class and an academic competition that places students in regional, state and national competitions. This is the first year JHS has offered the course, and the 10 students in the class already qualified for the state competition. They will compete in Indianapolis later this month.
Assistant Principal Glenn Buechlein taught government and We The People at Vincennes Lincoln High School before joining the staff at JHS. When We The People asked him to be a judge for the regional competitions at University of Southern Indiana a couple years ago, he brought JHS government teacher Jarrod Land along. The two men were so impressed with the program that they decided to bring it to JHS. The 10 students in the inaugural class are glad they did.
“We get to relax and talk about what we care about,” said Will Smith.
Will, for example, worked burning the U.S. flag in protest into his response to a question about amendments to the U.S. Constitution. He would support an amendment banning the action on the basis that it could qualify as hate speech. In his response, he also cited a Supreme Court case with which he disagrees.
Will’s reference to flag burning in a response is typical of what We The People students are asked to do. The course is broken into six units such as: What Are the Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System; What Challenges Might Face American Constitutional Democracy in the Twenty-first Century; and How Has the Constitution Been Changed to Further the Ideals Contained in the Declaration of Independence.
The class breaks into teams of three to research and answer the questions for each unit in competitions, but the whole class must know about each unit to provide feedback to unit teams.
Will, for example, is on the team that covers how the constitution has been changed through U.S. history. As part of that team, he works with his teammates — Keregyn Masterson and Zach Rydberg — to put together four-minute responses to the competition questions. The responses must be in-depth and include current events, Supreme Court cases, U.S. law and primary sources such as the writings of founding fathers like James Madison.
Class time is spent working on and practicing the prepared answers in front of the class. Once a team finishes their prepared remarks, classmates offer feedback, suggesting additional points or sources the unit team should include to make their answers stronger. The class also asks the unit team follow-up questions, just as the competition judges do. Land also brings teachers and local politicians and lawyers into class each Friday to work with the students.
Competitions are set up like Congressional hearings with the three unit teammates serving as the witnesses and the judges — lawyers, judges and educators — act as members of Congress questioning the students about their topics. Each unit has three possible questions the students must prepare to be asked in competition, though judges will only ask one. After students complete their four minutes of prepared remarks, the judges get six to eight minutes to ask follow-up questions. The JHS students excelled in the follow-up questions.
“The judges told us they were impressed with our students on the follow-ups — how well-thought-out and personable they were,” Land said. “But we could have done better on our prepared answers.”
Land compared We The People to an honors government course. It’s not an Advanced Placement course — although We The People students are welcome to take the government AP test in the spring — and students don’t receive dual credit for the class, but it is more intensive than regular government classes. To encourage students to take it, JHS weighted the grade points for We The People the same as an AP course, but it’s more hands-on than the AP government class.
“In AP, you’re teaching to the test,” Land said.
This year’s We The People students encouraged the underclassmen to take the class, as it has become a favorite for many of them.
“It’s like a break in my day,” Keregyn said.
We The People is also applicable to her career goal of working in law. She said that the work required for the class is minimal compared to the huge payoff of competing and winning the competitions. Zach agreed.
“It’s something that you want to put work into,” he said.
He likes that We The People is structured differently than other classes.
If not for We The People, Will and Zach said they’d have taken the regular government class. Keregyn would have enrolled in the AP class in the spring.
Over the semester, the 10 We The People students have become friends, hanging outside of school. It’s a closeness Keregyn, Zach and Will said doesn’t usually come out of other classes.
As JHS continues its We The People program, Land said they’d like to see the class grow. A class of 18 would be ideal, he said, so that students only have to compete on one unit team.
Land also said he couldn’t have asked for 10 better students to launch the class. They bring a good mix of views, aren’t afraid to debate each other — another thing We The People students are encouraged to do — and they’ve put a lot of work into the class.
The students also impressed Buechlein.
“It’s amazing what these kids can do,” Buechlein said. “We don’t always think they can, and we don’t always give them the opportunity to express what they know on a higher level. We The People does.”
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