For students in Cynthia Burgett’s civics classes, learning about the U.S. political system entails more than simply remembering the functions of the three branches of the federal government or memorizing the Bill of Rights.
The Rachel Carson Middle School history and social studies teacher has incorporated the Center for Civic Education’s We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution program into her curriculum for the past five years, and the results so far have been promising.
Rachel Carson Middle School earned second place at the 2018 We the People Invitational held May 4 to 8 at the National Conference Center in Leesburg after winning the middle school state competition earlier this year.
Held annually for elementary, middle, and high school students, We the People national competitions consist of simulated congressional hearings designed to test participants’ understanding of the U.S. Constitution and the foundational history and principles of the American government.
Rachel Carson Middle School has qualified for the national invitational every year since 2014, winning first place in both 2015 and 2016.
This year’s class may not have come out on top, finishing as the runner-up to Fishers Junior High School from Indiana, but Burgett says the students still put on an impressive performance over the three days of the competition, as the judges challenged them on topics ranging from the advantages and disadvantages of a republican government to political and cultural issues facing current U.S. immigration policy.
“I was so proud of them. They were phenomenal,” Burgett said of her students. “…I want them to take away the fact that it’s in their hands, that the protection of our constitution is up to them.”
The California-based nonprofit Center for Civic Education’s We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution program “promotes civic competence and responsibility” among American elementary and secondary school students, according to the program’s website.
More than 30 million students and 75,000 educators have participated in the program since it was established in 1987, the Center for Civic Education says.
Burgett originally brought We the People to Rachel Carson Middle School as a club, but after three years, she got permission from Carson principal Gordon Stokes and Stacy Kirkpatrick, the director of student services, to turn it into a class.
Having We the People as a class instead of a club helped the school become more competitive, since it gives students more time to learn the material, according to Burgett.
Structured around an official We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution textbook, the curriculum consists of six units focused on the philosophical and historical foundations of the American political system, the creation of the U.S. Constitution, the document’s evolution, the impact of constitutional values and principles on American institutions and practices, the Bill of Rights, and modern challenges facing American constitutional democracy.
Burgett assigns about five students to study each unit with an emphasis on a list of questions released by the Center for Civic Education that will be the basis for the competitive simulated hearings.
As part of the hearings, students prepare four-minute opening statements while conducting enough research on their assigned topics so that they will be able to answer questions posed by the judges during the six-minute question-and-answer period that follows the opening statements.
“One of the things that the judges try to stress, and I do as a coach, is that this is meant to be a conversation,” Burgett said. “It’s not debate. You’re not arguing with the judges. You’re not going back and forth. It’s a simulated congressional hearing, and they are the experts of their topic, so they’re not necessarily trying to persuade, but to inform.”
Because We the People is part of Burgett’s regular civics class, she still has to teach students the standard Fairfax County Public Schools social studies curriculum, so she frequently relies on volunteers for help.
Many of the volunteers are parents of students. Burgett mentions Christine Walrath and Steven Sparling as two parent volunteers who were especially helpful this past year.
Burgett also tries to recruit legal professionals and experts to come in to assist with research.
Doug Landau, a personal injury lawyer for the Herndon firm Abrams Landau Ltd., has served as a volunteer coach since he first saw an announcement for volunteers in a newsletter from the Fairfax Bar Association in 2013.
Though he no longer has any children at Carson, all four of Landau’s children attended in the past, including his oldest daughter, who was in the school’s first-ever class when it opened in 1989.
“They went to different elementary schools [and] different high schools, but Rachel Carson was the one school all four went to,” Landau said. “They got a great education. They liked everything about it, so I thought I could give back.”
Abrams Landau’s offices are located near Carson Middle School, making it convenient for Landau to stop by after work. When his trial schedule prevents him from volunteering, Landau’s staff members also sometimes step in to help.
“It’s a team effort. It’s no one person for sure,” Landau said.
As a volunteer coach, Landau works with students to prepare their opening statements and quizzes them about their assigned subjects, challenging them to be thorough in their research and to build convincing arguments.
Burgett, for one, is a fan of Landau’s approach.
“He’s wonderful about…pushing them to think, because they can have any opinion they want, but they have to be able to back it up,” Burgett said. “So, if you say we need to suspend freedom of speech, okay, why? He’s good about giving intriguing situations to have them think [about and] process.”
The history and intricacies of the Constitution might not sound like the most thrilling subject for many young students, but Landau says participating in the We the People program and competitions has helped past Carson students from more than just a purely educational perspective.
The simulated congressional hearings provide a unique forum for students to cultivate their public speaking skills and their ability to develop logical, well-supported arguments, skills that will be beneficial as they move on to high school and college or a career.
“As a lawyer, I see unfortunately more and more frequently people who don’t understand the law, don’t understand how our government’s put together, don’t understand how things work,” Landau said. “…These kids get it. They understand it, and they will teach others, influence others, and hopefully, someday run for office themselves.”
Burgett says her goal is to not just teach students about the compromises that produced the Constitution, how checks and balances work, and other topics covered in a traditional civics class, but to also help them understand how the history and principles that shaped the U.S. government still affect their lives and the world around them.
“In addition to just the research skills and public speaking, becoming engaged citizens is what I’m hoping [for] in the long run,” Burgett said. “The ultimate goal isn’t how well do they do in the competition, but how well are they going to take these concepts and this activity into their future and pass on their same passion to get their peers.”