The House was in session, and Byron Center High School AP government teacher Randy Cotts watched things unfold.
Speaker Kyle Wall sat before the House of Representatives, his gavel ready, while legislators discussed how to move their bills successfully through the chamber.
“My game plan is, I am going to try to push as much through the committee and onto the house floor and through the house floor as possible,” he told a fellow legislator.
As they do each year, students — self-designated as Republican or Democrat — proposed bills, debated, met in committees and ultimately passed or killed legislation.
Students in Cotts’ class were in their fifth day of a mock congressional simulation. Kyle, a Democrat, was elected speaker by his peers, who served in the majority party. They also elected a whip and majority and minority leaders.
It had been a busy week already. Congress had passed a bill making Puerto Rico a 51st state. Another bill was killed in the House that proposed requiring mandatory recycling, and replenishing the EPA budget by $200 billion. Other bills proposed included making Chick-fil-A the national restaurant of the U.S.; switching the country to the metric system; and requiring all students to take AP government and two other government classes so they are informed citizens.
Cotts mostly just provides guidance and lets students proceed on their own. Once in a while, though, he nudges them — explaining that overriding a veto on a pork barrel bill like designating a national Lego Museum in Grand Rapids is a bad idea, for example.
Government, As It Could Be
Mock Congress is a lesson on how things can work and should, Cotts said. The activity aligns with Cott’s top priority– teaching critical thinking skills while having students apply knowledge in respectful ways. He tells them, “Instead of having a lot of emotional, bombastic-type comments like you see on the news — from both sides –, let’s see if there is some practical common ground.”
Cotts has taught at the high school for 29 years, and has led the simulation each year since his second year teaching. While he’s tweaked the experience over the years as technology has evolved, he said he sees it as a great way to play out a lesson in critical thinking, real life issues and coming up with good solutions.
A graduate of Western Michigan University, Cotts earned a bachelor’s degree in secondary education and a master’s degree in history. Along with AP government, he has taught 10th grade U.S. history, sociology, psychology, international relations and constitutional law.
He advises the school’s Close Up program, which involves bringing students to Washington, D.C. to see real legislation in action, and he started a German-American exchange program at the school.
“You might be a nurse, an engineer, a stay-at-home mom, whatever course you choose later in life, you’ll need to be a critically thinking citizen. Government and history teaches those skills.”— AP government teacher Randy Cotts
Cotts is also a volunteer firefighter and is known as the high school’s first responder.
He was named “Teacher of the Year” award at Byron Center High School in 2007, and recently received local recognition for his teaching. In February he was named the 2019-20 Outstanding Teacher of American History by the Grand Rapids-based Sophie de Marsac Campau Chapter of the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution.
Students call Cotts knowledgeable and effective, an educator so passionate about teaching government through the lens of history that they can’t help catch the enthusiasm themselves.
“I like that he challenges you to think critically. He makes you think about what you believe in, not just what your parents believe in,” said student Shea Fortuna. “He makes you be informed, whether you like it or not. He pushes you a lot.”
Students demonstrated that becoming informed creates interest and mobilizes people to become active citizens. When they propose, support and kill bills in mock Congress, they take ownership, Cotts said. While he allows some frivolity– like passing legislation declaring Tuesday as Taco Tuesday– he tells students to approach the activity as if it were real.
“I say, ‘If you were really on the House floor, what would you really want to tackle? They realize that’s a big responsibility.”
Kyle took his role seriously. His bill mandated vaccination for children younger than 5. It passed the House and Senate. “We live in a world where anti-vax is an ideal that’s present,” he said. “I don’t think any child should lose their life due to the negligence of their parents based on uninformed decisions.”
Sara Zimmerlee also proposed a bill she was adamant about– requiring companies to disclose ingredients in feminine health products. “I believe women should be able to know what’s in their feminine health products. It’s a basic human right.”
A Critical Class for Thinking
Cotts loves to see that kind of passion emerge as students move through the simulation. It mirrors his own passion for teaching government.
“I do, truly, believe it is the class all Amercians need. It is the most relevant. You might be a nurse, an engineer, a stay-at-home mom, whatever course you choose later in life, you’ll need to be a critically thinking citizen. Government and history teaches those skills.”
Cotts said he developed an interest in history from his mother, who made it a part of his life. “She was always reading about history, and I just took a liking to whatever she was reading. Growing up, as a family we always traveled in the summer, and would include some sort of a ‘history’ stop on our trip. This really piqued my interest,” he said.
Kyle offered his perspective. “Mr. Cotts does a great job at promoting his students to think. He really pushes critical thinking, which I believe is very important for not just all students, but everybody living in this country. You need to be educated on everything going on if you are going to make decisions in this world. This class has done a great job at informing me on all the important aspects of our government. It also points out all the flaws that have persisted throughout time with our government.”
Principal Scott Joseph said Cotts is the type of teacher who always pushes students to think beyond the surface and to think for themselves.
“Randy is such a great teacher that students don’t truly know if he is a Republican or Democrat. He is just Mr. Cotts,” Joseph said. “Randy pushes students to learn life lessons, study habits, good reading and writing skills, and continuously pushes himself to be the best teacher… Randy is an amazing man, and we are more than blessed at BCHS to have him as one of our own.”
Throughout the school year as students learn about government, Cotts sees them develop savviness that will serve them well and hopefully lead to change.
“To be a functioning democracy, to be a functioning citizen, you need critical thinking,” he said. “You look at current events, just how contentious current events can be. Critical thinking, it’s more important than ever. The role of social studies is more important than ever.”
During mock Congress, while students have their pet projects and conflicting views, the result of the exercise shows how a two-chamber government, even when run by two parties, can have thoughtful, civil exchanges that lead to progress.
Said Solange Fingleton: “I thought it was really interesting because it made us get some insight on how our United States government actually works and the complicated process it goes through for legislation. It’s difficult.”
Cotts said his students have a better sense of how to engage in civil discourse than many adults.
“These kids are truly inspiring,” he said. “They have a sense of the importance of civil education of being able to talk about our differences and then at the end of the day, still have lunch together.”
Junior Drew Smith echoed that sentiment, inspired by a teacher who is showing them why that matters.
“I feel like our generation’s goal is to not dig our heels in, to be as bipartisan as possible and actually do what the people want. We shouldn’t be fighting; we should be helping each other.”