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'Congressional hearings' help Howard students embrace the Constitution

Justice SystemCultureFitness

Being called to a congressional hearing can be an intimidating experience for national leaders, business executives and even elected officials.

But Gorman Crossing Elementary School fifth-grader Tobi Arewa is getting used to it.

"At first when I am called to do public speaking I would be so scared. There was a time when I would speak and I just froze," Tobi said. "Now that I know I just did it, it's fun and awesome to do it."

Tobi and other Gorman Crossing fifth-graders recently took part in the Howard County school system's Simulated Congressional Hearings, a performance-based assessment that challenges groups of four students to present oral statements before a panel of professionals who portray a congressional committee.

After the students speak, the committee members, or "judges," pose follow-up questions to make sure the students know what they're talking about.

The students not only present information gained during a year of studying in U.S. history but also develop public speaking skills and enhance their ability to work in a group.

"Now I know that working together is much easier than working by yourself, because you have so much pressure on you when you're working by yourself," said student Maanasa Sista. "But together, you can work with each other, decide on ideas and not have all the pressure on one person."

The Simulated Congressional Hearings were established under the Commission on the Bicentennial of the United States Constitution in 1987 — the 200th anniversary of the document's adoption. It was developed by the California-based nonprofit Center for Civic Education and funded by the U.S. Department of Education.

Howard school officials said that 33 of the school system's 40 elementary schools take part in the hearings, which run in May and June.

Students offer oral statements on topics from Colonial life to government to contemporary citizens' rights. They are evaluated on their understanding of the Constitution as well as supporting evidence, reasoning and participation.

"It's a cumulative program, which means it's really assessing everything kids have learned from the very first day of school until the last in social studies," said Kim Eggborn, Howard schools' coordinator of elementary social studies. "It's an integrative assessment, so we're also assessing their social studies and their language arts.

"They have to do all types of research, so they're looking at all types of primary source documents as well as current events," Eggborn said. "What's nice is that it's giving them a real authentic chance to put those skills to use in a public setting."

Though federal government funding was recently cut for the program, the Howard County school system had included it in its budget beforehand and is expected to continue funding it.

"It's a way to educate students about the importance of the Constitution and the founding of the country," said Howard school board member Ellen Flynn Giles, who takes part in the program as a judge.

"The whole school is focused on this academic exercise," she said. "I find it to be a really incredibly successful program in terms of making sure our children are good citizens and understand civic virtue, the nature of compromise, how government works. One student group [in a presentation] said, 'The government is a pencil and the citizens are the pencil sharpener.' It's our job to continue to focus on government and make sure they're doing what they're supposed to do."

Other judges have included members of the Howard delegation to Annapolis, school board members, parents and military personnel.

"I've been a judge four of the past five years, and I always come away from the process impressed by both the students and their teachers," said William Reinhard, Maryland State Department of Education spokesman. "It is not hard to see that there's a great deal of preparation involved."

Many of the Gorman Crossing students said that, early on, the slew of topics seemed as overwhelming as the public speaking component.

"At first I was like, 'Oh my gosh, how am I going to do all of this?' I freaked out," said fifth-grader Zachary Geesaman. "It was so much work to be done. You had to study, get the follow-up questions done, make a speech. It seemed too much to me at first. But once you got into the rotation and the feel for the schedule, it came together."

Gorman Crossing fifth-grade teacher Brian Gibbs said for preparation, the students were shown footage of actual congressional hearings, including the 2005 hearings on banned substance use in baseball, where major league players offered testimony before a U.S. House committee.

"In the beginning, it's a matter of getting them to work together and trust their teammates," said Gibbs, who noted that teammate combinations are "not always their first choice. ... We do a lot to get them comfortable at first, and we talk about how to write a four-minute speech, with some ideas that have to be covered within that speech."

The students said the process has bolstered what they've learned throughout the year, and showed them that hard work pays off.

"When I first did it, with the follow-up questions and the speech, I was nervous about the kind of feedback I was going to get," said fifth-grader Nathan Kim. "But after I got the feedback it was all positive, so that made me feel better."

jburris@baltsun.com

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