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We the People: A Life Lesson in Government at Leland Middle School

April 14 was no ordinary Thursday for the Berkeley Bears team at Leland Middle School (LMS). For starters, how often does the day of a Brunswick County eighth-grader start with a video message from Senator Kay Hagan and Representative Mike McIntyre, much less a letter from President Obama, written to them, commending them for what they were about to do?

For nearly a whole grading term, the Bears 106 students and four teachers had studied, practiced and prepared for the day’s simulated congressional hearings. During the hearings the students would assume the role of experts and present testimony on the Constitution of the United States and Bill of Rights.

“[The simulated hearings] are the first of their kind in Brunswick County and I think in all of southeastern North Carolina,” says Meggen Education’s We The People: The Citizen and The Constitution program to LMS.

Calderwood was familiar with the program from her career in the Maryland public school system and saw firsthand the impact it had on her students there. When she joined LMS a few years ago, she wanted to bring We The People to the school. This year she got her chance.

Along with Laura Sokol-Scott, the Bears’ Social Studies and World History instructor, Calderwood worked to build a set of lesson plans that would follow the Center for Civic Education’s goals and guidelines as well as satisfy North Carolina’s Standard Course of Study goals and objectives. Once the lesson plans were in place, they set about bringing their fellow teammates — Laura Tumminello (Science and Earth Science) and Rae Salargo (Math and Algebra) — on board.

“All of the teachers embraced this project,” says Sokol-Scott. “Without their help, we never could have pulled it off.”

When the Center for Civic Education designed the program in 1987 under the direction of the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution, they wanted teachers and students to want to study the constitution in a new way. They succeeded. Using the Center for Civic Education’s frame as a guideline, Calderwood and Sokol-Scott were able to develop fun and informative lessons.

“Studying the Constitution like this is a totally new experience for us,” said Sarai Jordan, a 14-year-old member of the Bears team, on the day of the event. “I’m testifying on the autonomy of our three branches of government and the system of checks and balances that keep them from overstepping their appointed duties. It’s been really fun and we’re all excited to be able to show people what we’ve learned.”

Each of the five units of students studied different aspects of the Constitution and Bill of Rights. The units were divided into panels, with each student on the panel researching and writing a “position paper” exemplifying what they’d learned. During the hearing, the panel of students presented their papers to a panel of judges who listened to the testimony, asked questions, offered feedback and, at the end of the day, selected the top panel.

The Bears invited several community figures and elected officials to participate in the hearings as judges, including President Obama and Dr. Jill Biden (Vice President Joe Biden’s wife), who couldn’t attend but sent letters to the Bears congratulating them on what they were doing, and Senator Hagan and Rep. McIntyre, who delivered praise and encouragement in videos shown to the team.

Even though the president and the region’s national representatives couldn’t be there, Dr. Patricia Crisp from the regional office of the Secretary of Education made the trip to take part in the hearings, as did several locally prominent government officials. Local mayors Jack Batson, James Knox and Eulis Willis, representatives from the Leland Police Department and Brunswick County Sheriff’s Office, and Dr. Edward Pruden, superintendent of Brunswick County Schools, were all on hand as judges.

“So often learning about the development and writing of the constitution and how we came to have the freedoms we enjoy are just lessons,” said Dr. Pruden at the event. “Today these students are taking an active role in learning about it, and by being actively engaged with the subject and the process of presenting to us judges, they’re learning lessons they’ll never forget. They’re taking it to heart, and I have no doubt they’ll be better students and better citizens for it.”

For one student, 14-year-old Justin Knowles, the simulated congressional hearing gave him an idea of what his life could be like in 20 years.

“I want to go into politics when I grow up,” he said with a smile. “So I guess this was like practice.”

Wendy Knowles, Justin’s mother, said, “He’s been so excited about this project. I’ve been watching the energy and dedication he put into the research and writing of his testimony and I’m very proud. I’m proud to see the teamwork [the Bears] are showing and I think it’s great to hear the [kids’] individual opinions expressed.”

LMS teacher Laura Tumminello agreed.

“The students have handled themselves with a great deal of maturity through this whole process,” said Tumminello. “These are sophisticated ideas and complex questions they’re dealing with and we’ve all been impressed with what they’ve shown us.”

Fourteen-year-old Carter Tripp’s passionate testimony on the First Amendment showed the maturity Tumminello referenced. He defended the right to speak out, speak up and let your voice be heard, but with consideration to common decency and civility. When one of the judges asked him why the First Amendment was so important, his answer again showed great maturity in thought.

“Well, it’s the basis for our country,” Tripp said. “Freedom of speech, freedom of religion, that’s what we are founded on. Without the First Amendment, our country would be a heck of a lot different.”

It wasn’t just his answer to a constitutional question that showed the extent to which the Berkeley Bears had taken their lessons to heart. When asked why the We The People program is important, Tripp replied, “Really, it helps us understand where we come from. We know our history and can, hopefully, avoid some of the mistakes in our past.”

Already Calderwood is seeing a return on the teachers’ investment in the We The People project: “I’ve had students say to me, ‘I get it now Mrs. Calderwood. If I’m criticizing my school and my country so will others, and I know now that to make a difference I need to start with myself.’ How profound is that?”

With a successful session of simulated congressional hearings behind them, the Berkeley Bears have returned their focus to finishing out the year, but Calderwood and Sokol-Scott are keeping an eye on next year, when they plan to hold another hearing with their new classes. Considering the reception of the inaugural simulated congressional hearings, how could they not? From the top to the bottom, everyone has declared it a success.

Perhaps 13-year-old Francisco Cardenas said it best when he said, “This has been a fun experience, but more importantly it makes Leland Middle School shine.”

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