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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.
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.
"It's interesting to watch them write their answers," she said, "sometimes presenting different ideas and having to figure out what they'll include in the final version."
Kushi Ranganath, whose group tackled questions about separation of powers and judicial review, agreed that working in teams was interesting.
"Sometimes, we'd argue over the answers we were preparing, with compromises made," she said.
Matthew Richardson, whose group looked at the validity of citizenship tests, said their process went smoothly, "with all of us just putting some ideas in."
Cailey McMillen, in a group that examined Virginia and New Jersey plans for the fledgling U.S. government, enjoyed the process and working with their sponsor.
Derr said some on the team have asked her if they could remain a part of it as they move up to the eighth grade, which is the year when some other schools cover the topics and use "We the People."
"I'm going to see if that's possible," she said. "It would be nice to have a mix of students, some new to it all and others who have some experience."
Though other local schools have competed in past years, Thompson was the only one in the area taking part this year.
Rob Hedelt: 540/374-5415