April 26, 2005 > We the People
We the People
by Praveena Raman
On Thursday, April 22 more than 300 people packed Valhala Theatre at Irvington High School (IHS) for a series of simulated congressional hearings. The school's "We the People" students, who recently won the honor of being state champions, were having their final dress rehearsal before representing California at the national competition in Washington D.C. from April 28 through May 4.
"We the People . . . The Citizen and the Constitution" is an educational program designed to promote civic competence and responsibility among the nation's elementary and secondary school students. Sponsored by the Center for Civic Education and funded by the Department of Education, the program incorporates critical thinking exercises, problem-solving activities and cooperative learning techniques. The instructional program culminates in a series of simulated congressional hearings in which students "testify" before a panel of judges, demonstrating their knowledge and understanding of constitutional principles. Although schools throughout the country have this civic education program at their elementary, junior high and high schools, the majority of them are non-competitive.
"We the People" was established at Irvington High School about ten years ago and currently serves as an Advanced Placement (AP) Government class, open to all seniors. To be accepted into the program, however, students must go through a selection process that consists of a writing exercise and an interview.
"The writing sample is to test if the students can use the information from their written work in their interview which actually tests their presentation skills," says teacher and coach, Cheryl Cook-Kallio. "Besides these skills we also see if the students can argue both sides of an issue and disagree respectfully without taking it personally."
Students who are accepted into the program have a passion and desire to be involved; they are also willing to put in the extra hours demanded of them. Senior Justin Wang, who will be attending UCLA next year as a Biochemistry student, says that besides improving his confidence, public speaking and teamwork skills, "this class has made me a master of time management."
The curriculum is divided into six units - unit one covers the philosophy behind the Constitution, unit two covers Constitutional conventions, unit three discusses the beginning and development of political parties, unit four talks about the Civil War amendments especially the fourteenth amendment, unit five covers the Bill of Rights while unit six discusses Citizenship and Democracy. This year, the class of 24 students has been divided into six teams of four each, with individual teams covering questions from a particular unit. "Each unit answers a question with a four minute presentation, then fields questions from a panel of experts for six to 11 minutes depending on the level. Most competition has two rounds of questions per unit and the top group goes on for a third round. The teams are scheduled in a round robin style. Judges rotate between schools so the same set of judges hears the same unit number from each of the schools" explains Cook-Kallio who has been teaching this course and competing at the state level for the past five years.
This year, IHS students are not only honored by being state champions for the first time but are also having their teacher and a teammate invited as guest speakers at the Center for Civic Education's Board of Director's luncheon on April 29th in Washington D.C. Students showed their teamwork skills when Cook-Kallio told them that only one of the students could be a guest speaker with her. They decided to vote and the student chosen honor was Rashmi Joshi. She in turn, asked her teammates to write a sentence or two about how the program has affected them which she will use in her speech.
The honor of representing California at the National level has not only brought excitement and pride, but hours of grueling after-school work. However the intense training and fundraising has also brought some touching moments. "We have felt tremendously supported both emotionally and financially. We have received a huge number of donations and pledges from many sources," says Cook-Kallio.
The most touching donation came from the Warm Springs Elementary School Debating Team. These ten and eleven year olds have been following the progress of the "We the People" team. On a field trip to watch the IHS team practice Congressional hearings, they were presented with "We the People Supporters" buttons. The debating team, in turn, had their own special surprise for the IHS team - $100 in donations that they had raised to help the team on their way to the nation's capitol.
"This team would not have been this successful without the teaching and coaching of Ms. Cook-Kallio and Mr. Musto," says Justin Wang.
Cook-Kallio has brought with her experience and knowledge gained from her own personal achievements. She was the 97th Madison Fellow for California, a Congressional Fellow (2002) and worked at Senator Feinstein's office and this year (2005), she will be the first Madison Fellow to have the honor of working in the Education Division of the Federal Court System. Besides this vast experience she also brings contagious enthusiasm and boundless energy.
Another senior, Karen Yan, an aspiring medical student who might minor in Politics, mentions that Cook-Kallio motivated all her students and reminds them that this is not just about winning. Cook-Kallio's advice to her students, "At the end of the day if you can look at yourself in the mirror and say that you have done the best that you can then you have accomplished what you have set to do." Her obvious pride in her students, both past and present, earns their respect and devotion.
Robin Basra, a 2002 team member, and currently a student at UC San Diego, was able to do something special for the winning team from his Alma Mater. As an intern in Congressman Pete Stark's office, he was asked by Mr. Stark to write a resolution which was then introduced into the Congressional Record. Later, Robin presented this resolution to the IHS team.
While preparing for competition the students have been learning to apply the Constitution to current issues. Justin Wang commented, "For example, we have studied the history of political parties, and from this knowledge, we can determine that a party realignment is occurring right now...Or, from our history of federalism, we learn that different administrations have interpreted our system of federalism in different ways. The trend today is more power to the national government with acts such as No Child Left Behind and the Patriot Act...We the People is much more than just a class. It is training next generation's leaders."
TCV wishes Ms. Cook-Kallio and the students all the very best in their quest for National recognition. More information about the program, the competition and the list of participants in the National competition can be found at http://civiced.org/. If you would like to support the team and the program, donations can still be sent to "We The People" program, Attn Ms. Cook-Kallio, Irvington High School, 41800 Blacow Rd., Fremont, CA 94538. Irvington High School (510) 656-5711.