Students present topics on freedoms, rights in Salem and school events

by: CONTRIBUTED PHOTO: MARLA KOPESEC - Sexton Mountain Elementary School fifth-graders, from left, Parker Arbuthnot, Josef Daniels, Julia VonGersdorff, Abbie Payne and Bellamy Kopesec, listen to judges at 'We the People,' a forum based on the U.S. Constitution held at the school on Wednesday, May 28.Of the many nuances Emma Weber picked up while preparing for a group showcase on the U.S. Constitution at Sexton Mountain Elementary School, the sometimes slow-moving nature of historical change stands out the most.

“We talked about how slaves got rights like other people,” said Weber, a fifth-grader who presented with Team Marshall on the topic, “How Does the Constitution Protect Our Basic Rights?” “It really amazes me that it took a really long time for people to get their basic rights.”

Weber was among the Sexton Mountain fifth-graders participating in Classroom Law Project’s “We the People,” a U.S. Constitution-based showcase held at the school on Wednesday evening, May 28. Teams of five or six spread out to various classrooms based on a specific Constitutional topic.

Unit-divided topics students covered included:

Unit 1: What basic ideas about government did the founders have?

Unit 2: How did the framers write our Constitution?

Unit 3: How does the Constitution organize our government?

Unit 4: How does the Constitution protect our basic rights? and

Unit 5: What are the responsibilities of citizenship?

The fifth-graders, who presented primarily to parents, family members and teachers, faced a panel of judges from the Portland-based Classroom Law Project, a Portland-based nonprofit organization promoting student citizenship.

The students, including boys wearing ties and girls dressed equally for success, presented remarkably articulate and concise summaries on their respective topics and answered judges’ questions with poise and tact.

In response to a judge’s question about prayer in public schools, Unit 4 student Jackson Teague argued the practice doesn’t fit the public school structure.

“I don’t think schools should be open to (prayer),” he said. “People from all religions pay taxes to public schools. If they want to pray, they should send their students to private school.”

Along comparable public/private lines, Maire Candelaria calmly advocated against mandatory uniforms.

“I don’t think there should be uniforms in public schools,” she said. “The way you dress shows who you are. In private schools, I think (mandatory uniforms) should be allowed.”

While the judges kept students on their toes, the students were likely more relaxed than a week earlier, when they delivered prepared testimony for simulated constitutional hearings before legislators and civic leaders — including Oregon Supreme Court Justice Jack Landau — at the State Capitol in Salem.

Fifth-grader Bellamy Kopesec, who reported on Unit 1 in Salem and again at her own school, said she enjoyed sharing her and her teammates’ findings at the capitol.

“That was my favorite part,” she said. “I enjoyed the tour and seeing the House and the Senate. We gave the same presentation there.”

Candelaria, who presented with “Team King” on Unit 4, found the subject matter pretty absorbing.

“We talked about freedom of expression,” she said. “I just really liked it, the idea that people can’t tell you what you can and can’t do.”

Weber, 11, felt her team’s presentation went smoothly.

“I think we did really well,” she said. “We all knew our parts. We spent a lot of time memorizing so we could get our parts down.”

To bring the project to fruition, the Classroom Law Project, which creates curriculum packages and projects for Oregon schools, got the attention of Karen Stratton, a fifth-grade teacher at Sexton Mountain. She worked with the organization’s Director Barbara Roast to bring the curriculum and “We the People” to the school.

“The kids have to talk to each other,” Roast said of the program. “They share ideas on this old, dusty document from 200 years ago and what it means today. They have to talk about it and own it, rather than the ‘bubble test’ stuff.”

Roast, who served as a judge at the event, was impressed with the presentations she heard.

“It’s amazing their capacity for knowledge,” she noted.

She agreed with some parents’ assessments that their children’s constitutional knowledge probably surpasses their own.

“It’s good stuff,” Roast said. “But it’s humbling, isn’t it?”

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