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Students learn civics lessons at hearing

The Baltimore Sun

Maria Datta, the mother of Dayton Oaks Elementary School fifth-grader Nikita Datta, had been working for weeks to help her daughter prepare for the Simulated Congressional Hearings held at the school.

"It's an important program," she said. "It's good that they are learning about this in elementary school."

She especially likes that visiting officials, such as state representatives and county school board members, serve as judges. That makes the hearings a big deal in the eyes of the students, she said.

The Simulated Congressional Hearings, which have been held in Howard County every spring since 2003, are part of a nationwide project called We the People, started by the Center for Civic Education and funded by the U.S. Department of Education. This year, 25 elementary schools are participating, up from 19 last year. Fulton and Hollifield Station elementary schools were first to hold the hearings May 13; the last school will be Clemens Crossing on June 6.

During the hearings, five students sit at a table, facing a panel of judges. They introduce themselves, then, with each student saying a few sentences at a time, give a four-minute speech about the U.S. government.

Many students dress in suits with ties or in dresses for the occasion, and they don't raise their hands or shout out their answers. Instead, they say things like, "I respectfully disagree with my colleague," as they weigh in on history and current events.

"Good morning, my name is Andrew Murrow," said a Dayton Oaks student in Kelly Baker's fifth grade class. He said his favorite historical figure was Thomas Jefferson. Other students claimed Thomas Paine, Benedict Arnold, Benjamin Franklin and Betsy Ross as their heroes.

During the hearings, local officials serve as judges. They listen to the students talk about what they have learned, then have six minutes to follow up with questions that probe the students' knowledge and opinions about government.

At Wednesday's program, officials included Del. Gail H. Bates, school board member Sandra French, and State Sen. Allan H. Kittleman.

Though the judges are given a list of suggested questions, they are free to stray from those suggestions, For example, one judge, Craig Wolf, a fifth-grade parent and president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America, asked about a recent U.S. appeals court decision stating that paper money discriminates against blind people, because they can't read it.

Students grappled with the issue on the spot, as judges, parents and classmates watched. "I think changing the money is a good idea because it's not fair to the blind person," Talia Schwelling said.

Jacqueline Bauer agreed, noting that, "It's not just one person who is blind in the whole United States. It's a lot of people."

For another group of students, French asked if the Constitution would have been different if women had been involved in framing it. Student Cole Gabel wasn't sure. "It could have made a change in some laws, but they still could have been out-voted by men," he said.

In response to a question about why slavery was not abolished in the Constitution, student Elaina Havens noted that the framers had to be pragmatic. "They all had different opinions on it, so they had to put that conflict aside," she said.

After the question-and-answer sessions, the judges provide feedback. "I think you all deserve a round of applause," said Bates, after one panel of students finished their presentation. "You worked really well as a team."

She noted that people working in government "don't always agree, but we need to listen to each other so we can learn from each other." She praised the students for listening to each other and working together.

The newly built Dayton Oaks, now completing its second academic year, participated in the congressional hearings last year, too, but this was Baker's first time doing it, and she admitted she was nervous.

She has been working with the students since the end of April, and worried most about getting the timing right for the opening speech, which had to be exactly four minutes. "They must have done their rehearsal in class 20 times," she said.

The students felt the pressure, too. After her group finished, Elaina Havens admitted the experience had been "nerve-wracking." But she said she learned a lot from her research, and also by listening to the speeches of her classmates.

Cole Gavel said he now has a better understanding of how government works, particularly of how the founders took the best ideas from other countries.

"It's so amazing how so many countries have different opinions, and the United States can take them and put them all into one," he said.

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