Glacier government students to compete in national finals

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The 2019 Montana We the People championship team heads to nationals in Washington, D.C., to compete April 26-29. From left to right starting with the bottom row: Lauren Stratton, Alyeska Zuckert and Logan Stencil; second row: AJ Popp and Kyla Harris; third row: Ben Schwaller and Marcus DeVries; and top row: Donnie Simms and Andrew Lorenc. Not pictured: Kamren Barkus, Brooklyn Lamers and Alex White. (Photo courtesy of Beau Wright)

Glacier High School government students are headed to Washington, D.C. to share their knowledge of the U.S. Constitution, Bill of Rights and the government at the We the People National Finals following a first-place finish at the state level.

The 2019 state championship team includes Kamren Barkus, Marcus DeVries, Kyla Harris, Brooklyn Lamers, Andrew Lorenc, AJ Popp, Benjamin Schwaller, Donnie Simms, Logan Stencel, Lauren Stratton, Alexander White and Alyeska Zuckert. They will be among more than 1,200 students from around the U.S. competing at finals.

The competition simulates a congressional hearing where students “testify as constitutional experts before panels of judges acting as congressional committees,” according to the Center for Civic Education, which sponsors the competition. The Center for Civic Education, is an organization promoting civic competence and responsibility, offering educational curriculum, We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution, and professional training.

In each round, students present from prepared essays for four minutes, which is followed by six minutes of questioning to demonstrate their “depth of knowledge, understanding and their ability to apply constitutional principles,” to current and historical constitutional issues, according to www.civiced.org.

Rounds may seem swift for each team, but it comes with hours of preparation behind it. To prepare for competition, each student was assigned a unit that came with three specific questions. Students then wrote an essay for each since they do not know what questions judges will ask.

At Glacier, We the People is taught as a semester-long class as a prerequisite to Advanced Placement government. Competing is optional, but the students who participate find it rewarding to apply knowledge outside the classroom. We the People class prepares them with a broad foundation of concepts, and the competition allows them to hone in on one area, the group said.

“The competitive side gives you the knowledge and information about your basic rights, but also demonstrates that you have to articulate them, which I think is a skill that can serve all of us later in life,” Lamers said.

DeVries noted, “In our research we’re finding out about the history of how we got to the U.S., to a certain veiwpoint on a policy and how that policy evolved and how our country has evolved over time and become what it is today through Supreme Court cases, policy and the Constitution itself.”

In writing essays for the state competition, Lamers said her thesis changed twice as she dug deeper into researching her unit questions. And the students said nationals will be different from the state level.

“The questions change between state and nationals — new papers, new information and restudying material,” Lamers said.

Harris added, “I think one of the biggest differences between national competition and state competition, the state competition was the judges were gauging our knowledge on how well we knew the topic but nationals really asks how we apply the topic.”

There isn’t a right or wrong answer, competitors are judged on how effectively they convey ideas in supporting their responses.

“I think it’s essential for a team to agree on a thesis and the basis of a paper, however, there are sub questions in which it opens up room for different viewpoints to be articulated,” Lamers said.

Some of the questions are philosophical Lorenc said and “... up to interpretation based on a number of factors, including political beliefs, the research you chose and the court cases you choose to focus on. So a lot of your answers depending on the question will vary.”

The team agreed We the People has challenged their thinking in numerous ways. The group also reflected on how the Constitution has endured through the generations.

“The one thing that We the People has helped me realize is the beauty of the Constitution is its malleability,” Simms said. “Even so, there’s a reason it’s only been amended 27 times. They want to make it deliberately hard to change the constitution, but it’s still a possibility.”

Lamers noted, “My unit deals a lot with the judicial branch, and some of the different perspectives we see in court cases are those that think the Constitution is up for revision and a living breathing document that needs to be adapted, but then you also see the more conservative viewpoint in many court cases that says it’s just a document, it is what it is, it’s black and white.”

“I think it’s a combination of the two,” she said. “It’s not a document that should be revised every five years because it has such history and deep-rooted influence on our government, but it is also something that there were things in the original Constitution that simply weren’t right, especially in regards to slavery and other lack of equal rights. So it needs to change, needs to be adapted. I think it’s about finding that compromise and that’s a conclusion I only reached, or really understood, when I joined the We the People program.”

Harris also spoke to the word “compromise” in reflecting on today’s political landscape.

“What went into the writing of the Constitution was really phenomenal, how well the founding fathers compromised,” Harris said. “They had such diverse viewpoints, it would have been incredibly difficult. It just gave me so much respect that they were able to compromise well enough to make a document that has lasted as long as it has and I think we could use some of that maturity and willingness to compromise in modern politics.”

Lamers added, “I think a lot of people in our community, and our state, and nation, are dissatisfied with parts of the government or politics. It’s a very hard time to watch the news at some points. However, the We the People program gave me much more hope seeing my peers engaged.”

The competition is April 26-29 and will feature keynote speaker John F. Tinker, a petitioner in Tinker v. Des Moines, a 1969 landmark Supreme Court decision that defined First Amendment rights of students in public schools.

“It’s the highlight of my senior year,” said Stratton, whose unit has a question on whether the Supreme Court ruling made 50 years ago is applicable today.

To help defray traveling expenses the group has been fundraising and has about $5,000 left to raise, according to We the People teacher Beau Wright. People may donate by contacting Wright at wrightb@sd5.k12.mt.us.

Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or hmatheson@dailyinterlake.com.

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