Seniors in our school district don’t choose to take Civics, we make them. It’s required. When you combine something that is required, over which students did not have a choice, with the senioritis that often characterizes students in their 4th year of the high school routine, you can often have trouble getting students focused and engaged. So how did we get these kids engaging in heated debate, turning our auditorium into a House of Bards?
Mr. Morrissey and I, drawing on our success in the Presidential Primary Simulation we had designed, set our sights on a Congressional Simulation, (or, “Mock Congress”, as we called it) While in that simulation we were simply Election Commissioners, ruling over the primary process in all 50 states, the District of Columbia, and Puerto Rico, we upgraded for this Mock Congress to become President and Vice-President. Again, we combined our 8 classes of 250 students, who all became, immediately, elected Congressmen, members of the House of Representatives. We needed a Speaker of the House. The call went out, and 8 students from among these classes threw their hat into the ring. They each made short speeches which were videotaped so all 8 classes could see them, and then the 250 Representatives voted and elected their Speaker.
Mr. Morrissey and I got permission for two in-school field trips so we could get our 250 students at the same place at the same time for two tasks that all Congressmen engage in:
- Committee hearings and
- Debating and voting in full sessions of Congress.
We used the 52 groups of students we had from our previous simulation (where they acted as states) and had each of them pick an issue from a list of 100+ current issues, which included topics like:
- Legalization of marijuana
- Assisted suicide
- Campaign finance
Their job was to craft a bill on the topic that was practical, tangible, and affordable. We also divided them into 26 committees. (The bill-writing assignments we gave them had no relation to the committees they were placed on. We were trying to teach them that they wear many hats as a Congressman, especially those of bill writing and their work on committees.)
The students worked on the bills they were writing, and prepared to defend their bills before the committee where it was assigned. As members of committees, they studied the bills that were assigned to their committees, and prepared questions for the groups that were bringing them. So the first in-school field trip we did was having committee hearings. We groomed committee chairpeople to head the committees, and they guided their committee through the process of studying the bills that were assigned to their committee. Every student had to prepare questions they had about the bills and make suggestions to improve the bills.
We used the school’s auditorium and divided it so that 13 committees could be having hearings at the same time, with ample distance that acoustics and sound was not a problem. Every bill written by the students was assigned to a committee and every bill had a specific time it was to be taken up, discussed and voted upon. Some bills passed the committee to be passed along to the Speaker of the House who would assign them to the calendar for the Full Session of Congress we planned for the next in-school field trip. Some bills were voted down and others were sent back to their bill-writing group with suggestions for amendment. If the amendments were then later approved, these too were passed along to the Speaker to be scheduled for our Full Session.
Our students didn’t come to this Mock Congress totally “in the dark.” They had first studied our textbook about how Congress operates, and had taken a traditional test on the material. We reminded them that just as the Speaker of the House has tremendous power in scheduling the flow of legislation in the House, so our Speaker had this power in our Mock Congress. We told the students that there would not be enough time in our Full Session for all the bills that had passed the various committees to be debated and voted on. We told them that they were going to have to figure out ways to help insure that the Speaker brought their bill up. Students tried various forms of informal persuasion to get the Speaker to take notice of their bill. It was a surprising coincidence that helped build interest among students, that the day our Bartlett High School Speaker was elected was the same day the US House of Representatives voted in a new Speaker, Paul Ryan, to replace the retiring John Boehner.
The second in-school field trip was our Full Session of Congress. All 250 students were in the auditorium. The Speaker of the House was at the center podium, with two microphones on each side of him, one for Congressmen speaking for bills, one for those speaking against. The Speaker made his agenda public several days before the Full Session, so congressmen had to make efforts to move their bills up on the agenda to improve their chances of getting their bills passed. Their incentive for getting their bills passed, besides making America a better place, was that their grades were tied to performance in this simulation. Congressmen who got their bills passed in the Full Session were rewarded. If their bills did not make it to the Full Session, because they were killed in committee, had other ways they could get points toward their grade. They could speak against a bill on the floor, and get points. This incentive, along with using current controversial topics, assured that we had some rousing debates. Another way they could get points was if a bill they spoke against ended up being defeated they would get points. Another way to get points was to write a paper on the similarities and differences between the US Congress and our Mock Congress. One of the big differences was that we chose this year not to be partisan. Congressmen were not registered as Republicans or Democrats as they had been in previous years.
This Full Session of Congress had some moments of heated interchange, moments of laughter, moments of high level debate and interchange. Except for some small coaching and decision making from the sidelines, Mr. Morrissey and I did almost nothing. The Speaker ran the Session, and the rules of debate we had set up took over. Mr. Morrissey and I hope to more full debrief all aspects of this Mock Congress before we offer it again next semester, but we were both elated at the outward results. Students were engaged, many who thought the Full Session was going to be boring ended up becoming part of what most thought was a very fun and sometimes heated interchange and debate of the issues we actually face today.
Students came alive, and, at moments, our Mock Congress was a House of Bards!