by Terry Rogers
A middle school team from Milford Central Academy became the first team from Delaware in 31 years to win a unit award at the We the People National Invitational in Washington, DC. They are also the first middle school team from Delaware to attend the competition.
“We the People is a type of debate competition based around a Mock Congressional Hearing,” Sam Holloway, advisor for the team, said. “The program itself is based around a civics and government curriculum where students learn the political theories our founding fathers used to draft the Constitution, the creation of our government, the past and current issues influenced by our government and how to define and practice participatory citizenship.”
The students who competed in the competition were Joshua Beckett, Brianna Blocker, Nicolas Colona, Liam Dennehy, Myah Forsee, Ryleigh Harrison, Brian Harte, Kayla Jefferson, Cecelia Kewer, Jordan Lee, Emmerson Leftever, Jacob Muir, Olivia Muir, Kylie Short and Leah Tate.
According to Holloway, the competition is based on six units from curriculum the students learn throughout the year. Teams are divided into groups for each unit and each unit has three questions to answer, each question with three parts. The units must prepare a four-minute oral response to each question. When they are before the judges, they are asked one of the three questions and, after their response, there is a six-minute period where judges ask follow-up questions. The students do not know which of the three questions will be asked until they are before the judges.
“Delaware usually sends a high school team to the competition every year,” Holloway said. “Milford Central Academy is the first Delaware middle school to send a team to the National Invitational competition. Delaware has not won a unit award in 31 years and, this group of students, on their first time experiencing the rigor and intensity of the invitational, blew away the expectations. Although we did not place overall in the final three schools, there are individual unit awards given for the school whose unit scored the highest points in the competition on that topic. Our Unit 4, with the topic of “How the Values and Principles Embodied in the Constitution Shaped American Institutions and Practices” won their unit. Our Unit 6, with the focus of “Twenty-first Century Challenges to American Constitutional Democracy” placed second with their unit score.”
Many schools bring teams of 8th graders who have competed in these types of competitions before, Holloway explained. The MCA team, however, was made up of 6th, 7th and 8th graders who have only competed at the state level for the past two years. The students put in a tremendous amount of work, learning the material and preparing for the hearings. Holloway explained that to prepare for the state competition, the students completed the entire curriculum in about three months, making it tough for them to grasp the material at such a fast pace.
“It is necessary for preparation time,” Holloway said. “Each unit must prepare a four-minute response to each of the three questions for their unit. That turns out to be approximately a three-to-four-page essay on constitutional law, application or history. And the students have to write three of them. They have to work as a group to answer the questions, support their conclusions with evidence and edit the response to a four-minute oral argument. In addition, they need to know background information and the application of their unit’s focus.”
Holloway provided an example question in which the students had to explain James Madison’s strong support of religious liberty as well as how the Constitution protects freedom of religion. Sub-questions asked about when government could limit religious beliefs, evaluate a Mississippi law and provide an opinion on whether a business could deny services to same-sex couples.
Holloway explained that the judges are experts in their field. Unit 6 judges included State Bar Association Presidents, ex-State Supreme Court Justices and former legal councils to the Obama Administration. The MCA students had to defend their answer using legal evidence and provide explanations of any court cases cited.
“It is not only nerve racking, but some of the follow-up questions can be very difficult,” Holloway said. “For example, a follow-up question to the third part was “How does the court case Sherbert v. Verner apply to this scenario?” The students had to have that at their fingertips – this case, the precedent it set, the religious exercise rule created by it, apply that rule to this scenario and back up their conclusion with other applicable case law.”
Students came in twice each week and on Saturday for two hours each day to prepare over a five-month period in order to prepare. Holloway was impressed at the work ethic shown by the students as they did the work they needed to succeed.
“They are more than a dedicated group of unique students,” Holloway said. “They all bring the skills they have learned in school and apply them in this class. All are excellent writers, passionate and know their shortcomings which they will work to improve. All are self-starters, which is needed. When I say they need to start writing, editing or whatever, they jump to it.”
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