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Students learn Constitution
Through a competition sponsored by Montpelier, students learn about Constitution and more

Date published: 3/18/2010

By Rob Hedelt

WHILE some students at Rodney Thompson Middle School were enjoying downtime this winter, Ben Burke and a handful of other seventh-graders were in a classroom tackling some pretty imposing questions.

Such as:

Is the two-party system working in American politics?

Should speech that incites violence be protected in all cases under the First Amendment?

Is there a place in American society for citizenship tests or unfettered political action committees?

For months, the 30 hand-picked members of the school's "We the People" team met after school several days a week to ponder these issues and others.

Starting with curriculum guides prepared by the federally funded "We the People" program and administered by the Center for Civic Education, the Stafford County students split up into groups to delve into provided questions on historical, political and Constitutional issues.

Melissa Derr, the civics teacher who oversaw the team, said it was up to the students to use the library, Internet and other resources to craft responses that were part answers, part informed arguments.

This past weekend, the Rodney Thompson students took the responses they'd honed for months to a competition at the U.S. Court of Appeals building in Richmond, taking on teams from middle schools around the state.

A similar competition was held for high school students by the "We the People" program that's been hosted by the The Center for the Constitution at James Madison's Montpelier since 2000.

With state officials and legal figures addressing the students and/or serving as judges, the competition took the form of a mock Congressional hearing.

Groups from each team got four minutes of committee "testimony"--during which they presented their answers/arguments--then took follow-up questions from the judges for another six minutes.

Derr said that while the team didn't take the big prize, they did win a unit prize that was gratifying and "they had a great time taking part."

I visited with the team as they prepared for the competition.

Derr said the research and writing the students do gives them a feel for the Constitution and issues surrounding it that are still argued today.

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