By Linda White
“To preserve our vibrant democracy for future generations, I believe it is critical to have a place where citizens can go to learn first-hand about the Senate’s important role in our system of government.” – Senator Edward M. Kennedy
A Special Field Trip
The Edward M. Kennedy Institute’s full-scale reproduction of the United States Senate Chamber recently hosted 200 members of the JGMS eighth grade class. Students personally experienced the legislative process, decisions, and challenges routinely faced by the 100 members of the United States Senate. Members of the JGMS Green Team visited the Institute on January 11 and the Silver Team visited on January 16. On each of the two days, students filled the 100 seats of the Senate chamber. As senators for a day, students followed the established Senate tradition for senators-elect by taking the Oath of Office administered by the presiding Senate officer in an open session before beginning their legislative activities.
Oath of Office
I do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; that I take this obligation freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion; and that I will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office on which I am about to enter: So help me God.
Learning to be a Senator
After a brief introduction to the rules of the Senate and description of their responsibilities for the day, each student was issued an interactive, handheld tablet that randomly assigned them a persona (liberal, conservative, moderate, centrist) associated with a different party affiliation (Democrat, Republican, Independent), a state to represent, and policy issues that matter to both their assigned party and state. The tablets served many purposes including keeping track of the most important policy issues facing both their designated party and state and recording their votes on a variety of decisions they would make throughout a fast-paced, two and a ½-hour legislative curriculum experience in the Institute’s Senate Immersion Module (SIM) on Comprehensive Immigration Reform 2014. They also used the tablets to take a “selfie” Senate ID photo.
The module agenda and schedule for the session included reviewing applicant qualifications, interviewing, and nominating a candidate for the position of Director of Homeland Security and/or Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights. In preparation for their visit to the Institute and participation in the caucus meetings to develop arguments for and against the immigration reform bill and amendments, students reviewed versions of the Immigration Reform Act, legislative vocabulary, and legislative process.
Before leaving the Senate Chamber to take on their duties, the students were requested to physically move to their respective Democratic or Republican party sides of the Chamber reinforcing the concept of “reaching across the aisle.” They also learned there is a Senate seating protocol. Democrats are seated to the right of the presiding Vice President of the United States, president pro tempore, or majority member and Republicans are seated to the left.
In Committee Experience
Students met in break out rooms, by party affiliation, with Institute educational facilitators who guided them through the process of taking on the role a senator to study the issues, debate, negotiate and vote. During their “In Committee Experience” to nominate an appropriate candidate for the position of Director of Homeland Security, students were asked to follow protocol by formally introducing themselves as a senator and identify their state. In small groups, they drafted and formally posed questions to the candidate to determine the candidate’s position on taxes, government spending, national security, business, civil liberties, regulation, jobs, and rules of law. They discussed and evaluated the answers provided by the candidate and decided whether the candidate would be accepted and supported by both their party and the residents of their state who sent them to the Senate. Individually, the students then cast a vote on their tablets. By majority vote, they approved the candidate for nomination. A separate group of student senators followed the same format to interview and evaluate a candidate for the position of Assistant Secretary for Civil Rights.
During the Immigration Reform caucus meetings, students reviewed and debated the proposed immigration reform bill and amendments. They considered funding to increase the government’s ability to process the large volume of refugees seeking admission to the U.S., funding to process the backlog of immigration requests, ending deportation of undocumented immigrants who have children who are citizens, pathways to citizenship, guest worker programs, hiring more federal agents for border security, pathways to citizenship, and fingerprinting of permanent residents entering and exiting the U.S., etc.
Developing Position Statements
The end goal of the caucus exercise was for each party to develop a position statement to present before the full body of the Senate. Each party was requested to prepare two speeches – support for an amendment proposed by their party and an opposition statement for an amendment proposed by the opposing party. The Institute team leaders assisted the students in preparing a composite and strategic response for their party and also outlined the etiquette protocol for making a formal Senate presentation.
Many students found it a bit uncomfortable and challenging to put aside their personal belief systems to support their assigned party and the wishes of their assigned state when their personal feelings were in conflict. They were encouraged to speak their heart as they weighed personal values vs. party desires while considering their vote on the bill before them. They were also encouraged to use their debate skills to reach across the aisle and negotiate with their fellow senators to achieve the best possible outcome for all concerned. Before returning to the Senate chamber, students participated in a non-binding straw poll to gauge the possible outcome before a full Senate vote.
Presentations by Senators
Once back in the Senate Chamber, the senators took seats on their respective sides. Silver Team Student senators presenting statements included Audrey Mense, Quin Ricci, Olivia Evans, and TJ Mead. Green Team speakers on January 11 included Maxwell Weisz, Adriana Panagiotou, Kai Etringer, Matthew Kazangian, and Rokibat Salako. Each speaker made strong, persuasive, high quality, and spirited presentations for their respective party positions. All of the position statements were well received on both sides of the aisle.
JGMS Grade 8 social studies/civics teachers Joseph Casey (Green Team Leader), and James Nagle (Silver Team Leader) attended both days that JGMS students visited the Institute. Nagle described an interesting difference in student experiences that occurred during the visit by the Green Team. “A Green Team Senator presented a filibuster to defeat a proposed amendment to the bill. He had to hold the floor for three minutes without the cloture vote forcing him to yield the floor. He managed to do this by presenting his views, expounding the importance of American values, and leading the room in the pledge of allegiance. It was accurate, entertaining, and effective. The student was Maxwell Weisz. ”
Roll Call Vote
At the conclusion of the presentations, the Vice President informed the assembled senators that the roll call vote would involve active participation by each of the 100 senators. Each student’s Senate ID photo was projected in the Chamber as they were called upon to voice their vote. As a point of order, the Vice President instructed the new senators on the appropriate manner to respond to a Senate roll call. Citing the need for absolute acoustic clarity in recording votes in the Chamber, a senator voting “yea” is asked to respond “aah” and a “nay” vote is voiced as “no.” Senators were also required to stand while delivering their vote. The Immigration Reform act passed with 75 aah’s and 25 no’s.
JGMS Faculty Feedback
Nagle commented, “The students experienced an engaging, enriching, and academic immersion into the role of a U.S. Senator. While some envisioned a field trip day as a “day off” from learning, this was anything but. A major goal of our civics education is helping our students be more literate members of a democracy; this experience will be immensely useful in drawing connections between a classroom lesson and the real world of government and politics. Overall, an experience like this has the potential to inspire students to be informed voters who understand the process and will meet their civic duty confidently.”
After an intensive Senate legislative immersion, students welcomed a lunch break before boarding buses back to JGMS. Snatches of conversation during the break included the following sound bites from the now retired senators:
- “Some of the decisions were hard for me to make.”
- “Today was relevant to what is happening in the news.”
- “I voted along my assigned party line but it is different from what my family and I believe.”
- “The proposed immigration amendments go against the moral views of an average person.”
- “I was not expressing my personal opinion when I voted.”
- “I think the behavior of the current president will empower more women to become senators.”
- “It was difficult to balance party desires vs. my personal values.”
- “This was a great experience for students who are or want to be government literate.”
- “Today was helpful in understanding what a tough job it is to be a senator. It is not the job for me!”
- “This was my first visit and I would like to return another time.”
- “I enjoyed seeing how a bill becomes law.”
ABOUT THE INSTITUTE
“In this climate, the Institute’s work is more urgent than ever. This institution is a critical player not just in educating people about how government works, but in why civic engagement is a responsibility none of us can afford to shirk. As a lifelong educator, I’ve seen firsthand young people’s hunger to make their world a better place. At the same time, I see an increasing number uncertain about how to productively participate in, and strengthen our democracy.”
– Mary K. Grant, Ph.D., President, Edward M. Kennedy Institute
The Institute’s Senate Immersion Module is compatible with Massachusetts Common Core curriculum. Specifically, the SIM provides corresponding pre- and post-lesson plans that meet Literacy Standards. Since opening in March of 2015, the Institute has hosted more than 40,000 students learning about historic and current issues, from the PATRIOT Act to the Compromise of 1850. All elementary, middle and high school groups from Massachusetts receive free admission to the Institute. Learn more about the Edward M. Kennedy Institute at www.emkinstitute.org.