Teamwork helped Browne Academy eighth graders to victory in We The People's Virginia State competiton. l to r; Savannah Jelks, Taylor Moran, CJ Abel, Justin Boone and Wilt Gorman. (Ann Cameron Siegal/Ann Cameron Siegal)

There is a lot of discussion about the U.S. Constitution during this election year, but do you understand what all the fuss is about? Why should kids care?

Thomas Jefferson, our third president, cautioned that a nation cannot be ignorant and free. Today, we interpret that to mean our freedoms are stronger if each person understands how our government works, listens to both sides on important issues and, when 18 years old, votes.

You’re never too young to learn about civics — the study of the rights and duties of citizens. What is the Bill of Rights, and what freedoms are included in it? Are there limits on what our government can do? For example, can the government restrict freedom of speech or religion if it believes the restrictions would benefit most citizens?

See the government in action

Since 1987, more than 30 million students from sixth to 12th grades have explored these and other questions through a nationwide program called We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution. (The program gets its name from the first three words of the Constitution.) They learn to discuss issues in a civil (or respectful) manner, using facts rather than name-calling to make their points.

Students in our area have unique opportunities to see how government works because it’s possible to visit Congress and the Supreme Court.

With photos of their tours behind them and real-life presentations on Constitutional issues under their belts, these Stuart-Hobson eighth-graders find more meaning in their textbooks. Left to right, Mackenzie Pomroy, Diamond Towler, Tharaa Browner, Cleo Krupa, and Marianne Warwick. (Ann Cameron Siegal)

KidsPost talked to some eighth-graders who participated in this year’s program. Students from Stuart-Hobson Middle School in Washington placed second in citywide finals. Those at Alexandria’s Browne Academy won Virginia’s middle school championship.

Each class prepared for a hearing similar to those in Congress where proposed laws are discussed. Students had to learn how to do research, work as a team and to speak in public. Teams studied topics such as what are the rights of noncitizens or why the Founding Fathers chose to establish a representative democracy instead of another form of government. Each team discussed its opinions, based on research, with a panel of adults.

John Voorhees, 14, of Browne Academy said, “Practicing in front of the judges made me very nervous at first, but then it became easier.” Mackenzie Pomroy, 14, of Stuart-Hobson liked the challenge of answering follow-up questions designed to encourage students to logically defend their statements. “It made me feel like I could become a history major, even if I’m only in the eighth grade,” she said.

What did students learn?

Many of the students said they knew little about specifics in the Constitution before the program. “I assumed the president could make laws at will,” said Tate Mikkelsen, 14, of Browne. “However, our government has a balanced system. All three branches [executive, legislative and judicial] have important roles and serve different purposes.”

For Marianne Warwick, 13, of Stuart-Hobson, the Constitution’s protections are special. “Kids need to know what this country gives them.” Kids think “that everyone in the world” has the same rights as Americans, she said.

Tharaa Browner of Stuart-Hobson said she used to change TV channels whenever election news popped up. “Now I understand more,” she said. Patrick Higgins, 14, of Browne Academy likes to watch political debates but wondered about the candidates’ answers. “They say everything well, but are they accurate?” After his in-depth studies, he now feels more capable of evaluating their answers.

Jack Brown, 14, of Browne said, “Knowing that my classmates are interested in our past gives me great hope for the future.”

— Ann Cameron Siegal