We the People . . .
Most of us recognize the words “We the People”* as being the first words in the preamble to our constitution. We the People is also the name of a student organization/competitive team at Lake Havasu High School. The team competes against other schools on their knowledge and understanding of the U. S. constitution. Winning regional teams each year go to state competition in January. If they win at state, they can go to the finals in Washington, D.C. in April.
There are national and state level We the People organizations which provide study materials and rules for the competitive events. During competitions, the team participates in a simulated congressional hearing in which students “testify” before a panel of judges. When questioned, students must demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of constitutional principles and evaluate, take, and defend positions on relevant historical and contemporary issues. During the competitive event, each team divides into six groups of students and each group must answer a primary question and follow-up questions from a panel of judges. Sample primary questions:
- What effect did colonial experiences have on the Founders’ views about rights and government?
- How does the Constitution limit government power to protect individual rights while promoting the common good?
- What fundamental American values are embodied in the Fourth Amendment?**
The students have four minutes to answer the primary question, and an additional six minutes for the judge’s follow-up questions.
Havasu vs. Mohave
A regional We the People competitive event, matching the Lake Havasu High team against a team from Mohave High in Bullhead City, was held at Thunderbolt Middle School in Lake Havasu on December 6. When the two competing teams arrived at the school, each was sent to a different classroom. One team never gets a chance to watch the other as they stay in their separate rooms during the competition.
Tables were set up in each room so the judging panel was at one facing the student panel seated at another. LHHS had 36 students at the event, and seated a panel of six to answer each question. They used Margaret Nyberg’s classroom. Ms. Nyberg teaches at Thunderbolt, but is also a district coordinator for We the People. The Havasu team is large, and, being the home team, they also had supporters in the room, making it standing room only. Mohave had 23 students in their group, and seated only three or four to answer a question. Mohave used the school’s band room for their questioning. Only one parent came to support the Mohave team.
The judging panel for each question was always made up of three people. The pool of judges for this event contained the mayor of Lake Havasu City, two prosecuting attorneys from La Paz County, the school superintendent from the Kingman school district, a governing board member from the Kingman district, a judge from Kingman, a local television and radio writer/newsperson, a Havasu building designer, and other community leaders.
As the time neared for the competition to start, the judges conferred in the school library, the Havasu team sent someone out to their car in the parking to fetch a sewing kit to fix a broken zipper on a skirt, and a student from the Mohave team played some quick, nervous pieces on a piano. (The band room had a few musical instruments available.)
The rooms became quiet as each formal competitive session began. The students and spectators stood up when the panel of judges entered the room. The three judges took their seats and introduced themselves. The students on the panel introduced themselves. One of the judges read the question the student panel was to answer. Students know what the first question will be and they use notes to respond. The students take turns reading portions of the prepared response until their time limit is up. The judge’s follow-up questions can be answered by any of the students on the panel, and the students do not have to agree on the response. When a Havasu panel was asked which amendment they thought was most important, two said the right to bear arms, two said the right to assemble, and two said freedom of speech. Students can disagree, but they are each expected to justify their answer.
The follow-ups can be tough. Some of them the students seemed well prepared for and some they did not. A follow-up question to the Mohave team asking whether our government has anything similar to the vote of no confidence in the British Parliament is met with dead silence. During a brief critique period, one of the judges told the Mohave team it is sometimes better to say anything and to say it like you know what you are talking about than to say nothing. During another critique period, it was obvious the Mohave team was unfamiliar with the Community College and JTED issues that were on the November ballot. The Lake Havasu High students were familiar with those issues.
It was not all bad for the Mohave team. One judge commented to them that, “The people in this room probably know more about government than 95% of the population.” Another judge said to Mohave, “With people like you coming along, I think the future of the country is in good hands.”
Other questions and follow-ups dealt with the differences between political parties and factions, checks and balances on the media (Are there any?), civic involvement and political involvement, checks and balances in our government (Are they good or do they cause gridlock?), and the reasons the founding fathers did not just carbon copy the English parliamentary form of government. These are not the things you expect teenagers to be talking about on a Saturday. It did not let up even during breaks. As some members of the Mohave team headed for bathrooms and drinking fountains, others stayed behind to ask their coach about the difference between an amnesty and a pardon. (He explained a pardon is issued to one person. An amnesty is for a group of people—a group pardon. The coach used Jimmy Carter’s 1977 amnesty for Vietnam War draft evaders as an example.)
Havasu did win this competition and will be going to state. After the winner was announced, Margaret Nyberg addressed both groups and their supporters. She urged all the students to finish their education and then come back to Havasu and Bullhead to “make our communities better.”
LHHS’s We the People team was established in 2003 and is consistently ranked one of the top ten teams in the state. The teams sponsor and head coach is Lake Havasu High School teacher Jamie Festa-Daigle. She is chairperson of the school’s social studies department, is a nationally board certified social studies teacher, and also teaches for Havasuonline, our district’s online high school program. High school staff members Chris Anderson, Kathy Cox, Sarah Hughes, Tuller Merrifield, Jason Reinhardt, and Brian Zemojtel also help out with the We the People program. Tax credit funds are used to help defer the cost of travel to competitons and to purchase study materials for students.
*First line to preamble of U.S. Constitution: We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America. Back to article.
**Fourth Amendment: The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures, shall not be violated, and no Warrants shall issue, but upon probable cause, supported by Oath or affirmation, and particularly describing the place to be searched, and the persons or things to be seized. Back to article.