A constitutional experience

MSHS ‘We the People’ team competes in nationals

This is Marquette Senior High SchoolÕs ÒWe the PeopleÓ team outside the White House. The team recently was in Washington, D.C., for national competition in the program. (Photo courtesy of Fred Cole)

MARQUETTE — It probably was more exciting than C-SPAN, at least to the students taking part.

The “We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution” team from Marquette Senior High School took part in simulated congressional hearings during the national finals, which took place in late April and earlier this month in Washington, D.C.

The students got experience testifying as congressional “experts” before panels of judges acting as congressional committees, which scored the groups through a performance-based assessment.

“The students all did a great job,” said MSHS social studies teacher Fred Cole, who also was the team’s coach. “They answered their questions well and received very positive feedback from their judges.”

The team didn’t place in the top 10, but he said it represented Marquette and the Upper Peninsula well.

Cole said the students also received positive feedback for their “positive energy and team spirit” from many people — from tour guides to bus drivers to the national directors of the Center for Civil Education, which sponsored the competition.

“Some of the judges sought out the Marquette team after the competition to compliment them on the quality of their presentation,” Cole said. “Several judges commented, ‘Listening to you young people has restored my faith in the future of our country.'”

Cole said MSHS has been a fixture in the state finals in Michigan, having finished in the top three six of the last seven years. This year marked the second straight time MSHS has been invited to the national finals as a wild card team. MSHS also was the only Michigan team from north of Grand Rapids to ever compete at nationals.

Nearly 1,500 students from 56 teams across the United States participate in the “We the People” national finals each year, said Cole, who added MSHS has participated in the state finals for 14 consecutive years.

At the national event, each congressional hearing began with a four-minute prepared opening statement by students, followed by six minutes of follow-up questioning during which a panel of judges probed students’ depth of knowledge, understanding and ability to apply constitutional principles to current and historic examples.

During the six-minute follow-up period, the students were on their own, with no notes or other materials allowed.

Students learn business and academic skills like research, writing, collaboration, presentation and interviewing, Cole said. However, they pick up civic and community skills that involve applying the Constitution to specific historic and current situations, taking a stand on issues and supporting them with reasoning and evidence, along with civil discourse and helping the next group of students prepare for their “We the People” competition.

“‘We the People’ is definitely one of the best learning experiences I have ever undertaken with students in my 27 years of teaching,” Cole said. “Students over the years have made comments like, ‘I have learned more from the competition than I could in a whole year of a class.'”

The national winner this year was Grant High School in Oregon, with second place going to Foothill High School in California. In third place was Lincoln High School in Oregon.

Since they were in the nation’s capital, the MSHS team took in some unique sights. They toured the U.S. Capitol, Supreme Court and Library of Congress, and stopped outside the White House for photos. They also toured the Lincoln, Jefferson, FDR, Martin Luther King, Vietnam and Korean War memorials along the National Mall, and visited the National Archives, Holocaust Museum, Mount Vernon and the Smithsonian complex.

Cole said the students placed a wreath on the Arlington National Cemetery grave of Alfred Clement, a Marquette native who died in France in September 1944. His remains weren’t identified until the early 2000s.

Cole credited local history buffs Jim and Lorraine Koski with helping to locate the grave site.

The experience, including the placing of the wreath, made an impression on Matthew Solo, a student on the WTP team, who said that honoring Clement at Arlington was memorable.

“The national finals competition was an incredible experience,” Solo said in an email. “The competition was fun and stressful but taught me plenty of things I will carry with me for the rest of my life. Not a lot of people our age are interested in politics and civics but they’re such important things to learn about as we transition into the adult world.”

Aside from the competition, he enjoyed his experience in Washington, D.C.

“It’s one thing to visit the Supreme Court building, the Library of Congress or the White House, but it’s another thing to know exactly how our government is functioning in those places,” Solo said.

MSHS teachers Mandy Dye and Wendy Hill-Manson also took part in the WTP experience.

In fact, Dye assigned the writing of a “reflection paper” to each of her WTP students.

Wrote Jack Caron, in part: “I never would have thought that I would come out from this trip with learning so much. Through multiple museums, sculptures and monuments I learned more about our country and what this country stands for than the typical American citizen.”

MSHS students, their families and the community raised funds for this trip — the total bill for the nationals was $51,273 — in just eight weeks. However, they still are about $3,000 short of the fundraising goal.

People can help the team raise the full amount by sending a check payable to MSHS We the People to: MSHS We the People, 1203 W. Fair Ave., Marquette, MI 49855. Donations also can be made at gofundme.com/mshs-we-the-people.

Christie Bleck can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net.