Washington D.C. students learn unusual lesson in contest

May 5, 2014

Imagine: You are all set for a big competition about the U.S. Constitution when suddenly the other members of your team fail to show up.

Yikes! What would you do?

Andre Hunter and Jamal Jenkins, eighth-graders at Cesar Chavez Parkside Middle School, each faced that unexpected challenge during the We the People competition recently.

We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution is a nationwide program that helps students understand the history and principles of our Constitution and Bill of Rights. While doing research, participants learn how our system of government was formed, who helped in shaping our democratic republic, why they made the decisions they made and how those decisions affect our lives today.

Andre and Jamal were on separate teams as they did research. They visited the Capitol, Supreme Court and National Archives (the permanent home of the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights and the Constitution).

The teams practiced their presentations in front of classmates at the charter school, which has a special focus on public policy, before competing with four other District middle schools.

The We the People competition is set up like a congressional hearing, where members of Congress ask experts to answer questions about issues that affect proposed laws. Students’ topics include: What were the Founders’ basic ideas about government? How does the Constitution protect our basic rights? What are the responsibilities of citizens?

Teams prepare answers to assigned questions. At the competition, a panel of adult judges picks one of those questions for a team to discuss. The judges then ask follow-up questions to see whether team members really understand the constitutional principles they studied.

However, at the District finals in February, when team members left Andre and Jamal to each compete alone, Andre remembers saying to himself, “I’m going to go because I’m already committed to it.” Jamal added: “It’s an honor to participate. I was nervous, but I had to try.”

While neither young man won the competition, each came away with something more valuable: confidence in his ability to meet unexpected challenges. They received compliments from the judges on their courage to continue solo. And they learned lessons that will serve them throughout life.

Jamal said he learned that it’s important to speak clearly and in complete sentences, without using “like” or “um” all the time. Andre said he learned how important it is to have good resources based on facts rather than opinions. “Too many Internet sites are just opinion,” he said.

Both would like to take part in the We the People program when they attend Parkside High School next year. Parkside High teams made it to this year’s national competition two weeks ago at George Mason University in Fairfax. A team from Portland, Oregon, won the event.

“Sometimes you have a challenge you have to go after,” Jamal said. “You have to put your best foot forward and keep going.”

Ann Cameron Siegal

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