Middle school students explore state Constitution and visit Oregon State Capitol

by: PHOTO COURTESY OF BETH COOK - Beth Cook (seated) and her participating eighth-grade students from left to right: Erin Baker, Hannah Bowen, Kortney Smith, Graysin Davee, Kayla Derrickson, Gabrielle Krueger, and Benjamin Warren.Students from Scappoose Middle School travelled to Salem this week to present their work on civic issues to lawyers, judges and state legislators at the Oregon State Capitol.

On Wednesday, May 21, eighth-graders from Beth Cook’s class sat before a panel of what she called “civic leaders,” including Oregon Supreme Court Justice Jack Landau, to conduct simulated constitutional hearings.

Cook’s students took part in similar hearings at Scappoose Middle earlier in the year, but this week marked their first time addressing officials in Salem.

“The hearings went extremely well,” Cook wrote in an email to the Spotlight Thursday. “Both groups scored in the 90s (out of 100). The judges were especially impressed with the students’ ability to answer their questions with examples from current events and court cases. All those early morning hours of work paid off!”

Students participated through the Classroom Law Project, which has brought civics- and law-related educational programs into the classroom since 1983. Classroom Law Project’s We the People program provided Scappoose Middle students the opportunity to visit the state capital.

Cook said her students, which were split into two small groups, each focused on one question they presented to a government panel on Wednesday. Students researched the Oregon Constitution as well as Oregon Supreme Court decisions and current events to support the positions they took on specific issues.

“This is an opportunity that my students have been waiting for,” Cook said. “They have taken it and run with it. We are ready for our hearing at the State Capitol ...”

The questions, according to a press release from Scappoose Middle, are, “Is compromise as important today as it was at the Philadelphia Convention?” and, “Where do you think the dividing line between church and state should be?”

“They have written four-minute-long speeches to answer their questions, then the panel has six minutes to ask them questions about what they answered,” Cook said. “The panel can ask them any question related to the student’s response. That’s where it gets a little nerve-wracking for students, but I think they’re prepared.”

Cook’s students, in a practice hearing at Scappoose Middle, presented arguments to their questions to state Sen. Betsy Johnson, D-Scappoose, on May 15.

“That was amazing,” Cook said. “She was a surprise guest. She heard their speeches and provided feedback. She’s easily approached.”

Johnson was impressed with how well-prepared students were to discuss their particular subjects.

“Beth Cook’s eighth-graders were engaged, articulate and informed,” Johnson said. “The We the People program is very effective at developing critical thinking and intellectual curiosity in young people.”

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