Grappling with the big issues

`Congressional hearings' wrap up fifth-graders' yearlong study of history, government at 19 schools

May 19, 2006|By KAREN NITKIN | KAREN NITKIN,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

For the past month, Austin Kopnitsky has been grappling with constitutional issues. Is it OK to ban smoking in Howard County restaurants? Should government officials be allowed to meet in secrecy?

Austin and fellow fifth-graders in Todd Garner's class at Atholton Elementary School argued and argued. They had not fully resolved the questions by Wednesday, when he and his classmates - dressed in their formal best - sat behind a table and answered questions before three judges.

The event was the Simulated Congressional Hearings, which are taking place in 19 Howard County elementary schools this month and next.

Fifth-graders throughout the county have been getting together in groups during class time to grapple with the sorts of Constitution-related issues that give headaches to legislators, judges and citizens. They talk about term limits. They argue about whether schools have the right to make students wear uniforms. They wonder whether prayer should be allowed in schools.

The event is a culmination of a year's study about American history and government, and it is an opportunity to make government relevant to pupils.

"It's not really an add-on or an extra," said Paul Norfolk, the school's assistant principal. "It's just part of what we do."

The hearings, a daylong event at Atholton with local officials serving as judges, are part of a nationwide project called "We the People," started by the Center for Civic Education and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. They were started in Howard County four years ago, said county social studies resource teacher Kimberly Pearre.

This year, 19 elementary schools in Howard County are participating, starting with Triadelphia Ridge on May 15 and ending with Clemens Crossing on June 6.

"I like to say Howard County is the Cadillac model," said Donna Olszewski, a social studies specialist with the state Department of Education and one of the judges at Atholton on Wednesday. She likes the fact that Howard County schools make a big deal of the hearings and let other grades participate. At Atholton, for example, fourth-graders played in a band during the opening ceremony, and younger pupils greeted visitors.

On Wednesday, Atholton's halls were decorated in red, white and blue bunting, and small flags had been planted along the walkway leading to the front door. Parents crowded the classrooms, and most boys wore suits. Pupils referred to each other as "my colleague."

Lt. Gov. Michael S. Steele was on hand to deliver remarks in the school cafeteria before the hearings began. After he spoke, Steele was introduced to two pupils that Principal Lauren Bauer described as exceptional: Julian Spires and Gage Grush.

"I like that handshake, man, nice to meet you," Steele said to Julian. To Gage, who moved to Maryland after Hurricane Katrina forced him out of Louisiana, he said, "Welcome to Maryland."

Steele also stuck around a few minutes to hear the pupils speak. "It's nice to hear it," he said. "This exercise is more than the presentations, it's a demonstration of their leadership."

He was particularly impressed with the way the pupils related constitutional questions to issues they see in their lives, he said. One pupil talked about how the federal government did not want to pay for beach maintenance, while another compared the government's system of checks and balances to a game of rock, paper scissors.

To prepare for the hearings, pupils in each of the fifth-grade classrooms had been divided into groups, and each group had been given a question related to the Constitution: What basic ideas about government did the Founders have? How did the Framers write our Constitution? How did the Constitution organize our government? How does the Constitution protect our basic rights? What are the responsibilities of citizens?

Pupils used a textbook called "We the People," as well as a copy of the Constitution. They were given their questions in advance, as well as a list of 10 possible follow-up questions.

Cindy Jamieson, the school's fifth-grade team leader, said pupils started "making connections to current events in a way that is unprecedented" as they prepared for the hearings.

As the groups talked about their questions, she would walk around the room and make sure they were going back to the Constitution and remembering what the Founders intended, and not simply stating their opinions, she said.

"There are no easy answers," she said. "That's what they learn. It takes debate and dialogue."

For the presentation, each group of five or six pupils sat behind a table and delivered a four-minute prepared talk, then answered questions from the judges. The judges then assessed what they had heard before moving to the next group of pupils.

Baltimore Sun Articles
|
|
|
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.