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Young constitutional scholars view current events, politics through historical lens

Two local teams qualify for national civics competition

East Grand Rapids, Kentwood – While the country watched as Trump supporters staged an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6, local teams of high school students looked at the situation as scholars of the U.S. Constitution.

They considered how hyperbole and propaganda had fueled the situation, along with partisan divides. They thought about constitutionally protected rights like freedom of expression and situations when national security takes precedence over certain forms of expression.

Two days later at the We The People state finals, which took place virtually, teams including those from East Grand Rapids and East Kentwood high schools weaved those thoughts into answers. The competition simulates a congressional hearing, with teams divided into units focused on different areas of constitutional interest. Students present four-minute statements and answer follow-up questions before a panel of judges. They are scored on understanding, reasoning, responsiveness and use of constitutional applications.

Among the statewide competitors, the team from East Grand Rapids earned the top spot, with East Kentwood coming in second. They are the only two Michigan schools that qualified for the national competition, which will also be held virtually, April 23-26. 

“It really shows the strength of the team that they can respond to such recent events,” said East Kentwood senior Jaylen Baker, who researched modern issues in relation to history, court cases and laws as his area of focus. “It really shows how prepared we were to apply the knowledge we had gained during all of our practice hours and say, ‘oh, that relates to this, that and that.’”

On to Nationals

To get this far in competition, that preparation is key. In East Kentwood, the 21 team members have spent a semester’s worth of class time in the We the People course, plus 153 practice hours outside of class since Thanksgiving, studying the Constitution, interpretations of what its authors intended and how it applies to the country today.

They also researched countless primary sources, including the Declaration of Independence and Bill of Rights. As the U.S. transitioned this week to new leadership under its 46th president, Joe Biden, their broadening knowledge has given new depth to how they view government.

In EGR, team members meet between six and nine hours a week — in addition to the hour a day in class — to practice for competitions. Those in the same units bounce ideas off one another throughout the day, said junior Olivia Williams, and many became “quarantine buddies” so they could practice together. 

One caveat from Olivia: “Having to apply everything we’re learning to current events makes it kind of hard to determine the number of hours we’re studying. A lot of what I would consider preparing is also just reading the news and going through my own little pocket Constitution going ‘wait, this applies.’”

Added EGR teammate Rahshona Saydazamora, also a junior: “It’s honestly a great combination of a fun class to take and you’re also enriching your knowledge, pushing boundaries that you didn’t think you were going to.”

Adam Horos, social studies teacher and We the People coach at East Grand Rapids High School since 2015, said the EGR team has, since 2001, consistently placed in the top three at the state level. The class is mostly juniors with a few sophomores, and senior veterans acting as coaches.

The goal of “Weeple,” as students call it, “is never to change students’ political views, but to have them hear both sides of the argument and understand why one side might argue that thing,” Horos said. “What happens more is students learn how to defend their views in a more factual, constitutionally-based way.”

East Kentwood High School We the People team members wore celebration gear after their second-place finish at state finals (courtesy)

More Civics Education Needed

In light of leading a team during such a heavy political time, EK coach Justin Robbins said We the People helps fill a gap in the amount of civics classes being taught nationwide. 

“On the macro level, the lack of attention paid to civic education eventually manifests,” he said.

But students who learn civics in depth develop the understanding that being a citizen comes not just with rights, but responsibilities, he said: “What we preach coming into our program is, you are a part of something bigger than yourself.”

Robbins said doing well in the competition requires diversity in both thought and skill sets. He tells students on the first day of class to “leave your egos and leave your individualism at the door.” 

“The trend I usually see is a sort of moderating effect … it tends to moderate individual views and ideologies,” he said. “Extreme views generally don’t hold up in that setting. It starts to give you a model for why there is value in middle ground and how we can find it.”

Students agreed that the course helps them look beyond their own viewpoints.

“In this class, you start to realize and understand you can’t really define a person based on their political party,” said East Kentwood senior Safa Karaein. “You have to better understand them to understand their points of view and see how it corresponds with your points of view.”

As a result of her involvement, EGR’s Olivia said, “I’m a lot better now at understanding the other point, because a big part of We the People is, in our competitions and our run-throughs, we have to be good at understanding and providing evidence to support contrasting viewpoints. 

“So I definitely think this class has made me a lot better at reading from different sources I normally wouldn’t agree with. I’m much more capable of understanding opposing viewpoints,” she said.

East Kentwood senior Avalon Wieczorek also noted that more knowledge and understanding leads to better relations: “The more informed that our generation is, the more they will be able to civilly discuss things that are politically related.”

Olivia echoed that statement: “I’ve definitely seen, and I think my parents can attest to this, a lot of growth in myself at not just getting super angry or aggravated if I hear something I know is not correct. I’ve definitely matured a lot.”

East Kentwood High School We the People team members have never met as an entire team in person (courtesy)

The Youth Perspective on Current Events

East Kentwood senior Amala Chanda said she’s developed a sense of common purpose, thanks to We the People, and it’s helped her put current events in a different light. 

“When I watch news or read articles I think about the Constitution or a court case and how it relates to it,” she said. “You start to have a wiser outlook on events that are happening and you realize the common good is more important than individual interests.”

East Grand Rapids junior Rahshona Saydazamora pointed out that her generation also can provide a perspective on the events of Jan. 6 that older generations cannot.

“We saw members of our Congress had to shelter themselves because there could have been danger. We’ve had to go through that,” she said, referring to lockdown drills that have become ubiquitous for children since school shootings have become more and more common in the U.S.

Said Olivia: “Just because we’re young doesn’t mean we don’t know things. A lot of today’s big political issues really affect us. Like, the voting age was just lowered during the Vietnam war — that’s very recently in our history. As voting expands, (political knowledge) should be expanded to more people because we’re all affected by legislation, and we should all want to apply what we are learning.”

Morgan Jarema contributed to this story.

East Kentwood High School We the People team members drew a chalk flag on coach Justin Robbins’ driveway for Constitution Day in September (courtesy)
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Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese
Erin Albanese is associate managing editor and reporter, covering Byron Center, Kentwood, Wyoming and Grand Rapids Community College. She was one of the original SNN staff writers, helping launch the site in 2013 and enjoys fulfilling the mission of sharing the stories of public education. She has worked as a journalist in the Grand Rapids area since 2000. A graduate of Central Michigan University, she has written for The Grand Rapids Press, Advance Newspapers, On-the-Town Magazine and Group Tour Media. Read Erin's full bio

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