More than a month’s worth of hard work, research and presenting has paid off for eighth-grade students at Cooper Middle School.
Starting in November, the students were given the great task of researching, writing and debating mock congressional bills, presenting and answering questions based on their work in small classrooms. The process culminated last week, when each of the four civics classes had a full day of hearing bills presented to it in a congress-like setting.
“This is the best thing I’ve done as an educator,” said Andrew Coulter, a civics teacher, who introduced the program several years ago. “The students get this hands-on learning experience, and it’s just unbelievable.”
The presentations, which took a full day for each of the four civics classes, were made by students whose bills had been approved in the in-class hearings during the previous month. The students, both presenters and hearing committees, were dressed in their best dresses, skirts and suits, displaying a maturity and dedication to the project that almost made them seem older than their age.
The school’s theater room, selected for its size and built-in risers, was transformed into the congressional hearing room, complete with a table set up for panelists, another set up for vote-counters and a special podium for the Speaker of the House. The students had to be addressed as “Senator” before being allowed to comment, and to be recognized had to stand up, holding a manila folder with their name on it.
The presentations went like this:
“I would like to introduce bill AB502 — to create a continuous online database to protect endangered species — on behalf of Sen. Alec Contag,” said Laura Sandberg, Senate majority leader.
Contag then took his place at the readers’ table, trying to convince his fellow senators that this was a worthy bill to approve.
“There is an imbalance of communication between the government and environmental watch groups, Web sites and organizations,” he said. “I propose to create this online database to help the Environmental Protection Agency keep track of endangered species and what’s being done to help them,” he said, pointing to an overhead projection on a large screen behind him.
“There will be meetings held at the EPA headquarters each month, and all parties will create action lists for protection or other conservation techniques,” he said, adding that government agencies and environmental groups will be required to attend these meetings to make sure all sides and viewpoints are heard and taken into consideration.
He followed with some statistics: “Eighty-three mammals and 113 bird species are extinct because of human causes. … The Endangered Species Law needs to be updated or a new law made because the guidelines are out of date and not effective. ... Communications need to be increased to help protect the endangered species.”
With that, Contag thanked the committee for hearing his presentation and then left the room, allowing his fellow senators to debate the bill’s potential effectiveness.
“I DON’T SEE HOW THIS BILL will help at all,” said Sen. Mike Kim. “I think it’s a waste of time and money from government money. These people (in conservation groups) are already trying to get laws passed.”
“It isn’t a very good bill, because even if we get rid of all this, some things like hunting will continue,” said Sen. Conceico Catarina.
“I think this bill should be killed because this is about a new way to communicate, and there are better ways to communicate than an online database,” said Sen. Allie Pitts.
Speaker of the House Samantha Plotner said that an online system might be subject to hacking, which would defeat any progress or hard work that had been dedicated to the database, and wasn’t a secure idea.
A vote was called, and the bill was defeated by an overwhelming margin of 10 votes in favor and 137 votes against.
Another bill before the Congress that day was HREM 108, presented by Sens. Lauren Bailey and Lauren Campbell.
“The government spends $120 billion each year on education, but we’ve fallen short on merit standards,” Campbell said, and their bill, to create international standards, would help American students catch up to their international counterparts.
An editorial cartoon of two parents educating their children at home was their first visual presentation.
“This cartoon shows that some families have chosen to home-school their children due to poor schools,” Bailey said. “New standards have been passed in Virginia, including requiring students to pass six Standards of Learning tests in order to graduate,” she said, adding that more needs to be done.
“Students need to be prepared to enter this world and become future leaders,” Campbell said.
Following their presentation, which concluded that students need to be required to pass one large, overall test in order to be allowed to graduate from high school, the girls felt they’d done the best they could with their bill.
“I think the bill has a good chance of passing. Mr. Coulter said it was strongly written,” Bailey said.
“When you’re presenting, you’re nervous, but it’s a nice process. It makes you feel really good,” Campbell said. “It’s nice to hear some of the other students’ ideas on your bill and what they say, but if you’ve done the research, you know they’re wrong.”
The girls had the chance to stand in the hallway outside the theater room to be interviewed while their peers debated their bill.
Unfortunately, the bill was eventually killed by a vote of 137-7, but the girls were not in the hallway to hear the outcome when it was announced.
“The kids have really studied the bills, which makes it a lot easier to have the discussion and debate,” Coulter said while the students took a lunch break before the final two hours of presentations.
“We’ll be going into the judicial branch of government next, so we’ll take a trip to the Fairfax County Courthouse to observe both the district and the circuit courts’ proceedings,” he said.
THE STUDENTS HAD A SURPRISE VISITOR who knows a thing or two about congressional proceedings.
It just happened that newly elected Rep. Luis Fortuno, from Puerto Rico, was at Cooper on Wednesday with his family. They had been looking for a homes in the area while he serves in Congress and were looking into Cooper as a potential school for his children.
“I think this is excellent,” he said. “The students understand how Congress operates.”
He said that this program differs from other political simulations he’s seen in that the students were not divided up into specific states, but he still thought the program was “excellent. I’ve never seen anything like this done before. I’ve seen a Model U.N., but nothing like this.”