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Bridging the gap


WLHS teacher welcomes Sen. Jeff Merkley to classroom via Skype

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Junior Nathaniel Weierich listens as Sen. Jeff Merkley answers a question.Heavy snow was falling in Washington, D.C., and many of U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley’s staff members hadn’t made it to the office, but that didn’t keep him from making an appearance via Skype in a classroom 3,000 miles away last week.

The Democrat senator from Oregon spoke for 30 minutes on a projector screen in front of a West Linn High School Advanced Placement U.S. Government class March 6, focusing on what he called a “paralyzed” system in Washington and how to fix it.

The class’s instructor, Todd Jones, prompted students to ask questions at the end of the conference, and viewed the exercise as a way for them to actively participate in a process that often seems out of arm’s reach.

“I want to take advantage of the technology we have here,” Jones said. “And make all of this real for these guys — not just stuff that we read about. We’re talking to the real people that are really affecting this thing right now, and we can bring them right into our room right here.”

Jones’ students prepared for the interview by reading a 2010 New Yorker article called “The Empty Chamber,” which detailed the very procedural dysfunction in Congress that Merkley would be speaking about. All told, it took about six weeks to organize and prepare for last week’s event, and as Jones initiated the Skype connection, the students packed in toward the center of the room to be closer to the screen.

Merkley spent the first six minutes of his time detailing, in his eyes, just how far off course Senate procedure had veered. He appeared to be well aware of the classes’ sophistication, and never hesitated while discussing heady topics such as appropriation bills and the Senate petition process. by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Merkley

When the time came for student queries, Jones brought Merkley’s feed up on an iPad and passed it around the room so each questioner could address the senator eye to eye.

Questions ranged in their scope: Some wondered what Merkley thought of the general polarization sweeping through the country, while others asked about more minute details like why the number 41 is such an important vote tally to obtain.

Jones ended the session by asking Merkley what students could do to get involved, if they so chose. The senator made clear that youth voices are paramount to making change in Washington, imploring students to “hold our feet to the fire.”

“It was pretty exciting,” senior Charlie Craft said. “It’s just cool to actually meet the people who do all this policy stuff we’ve been talking about. And it’s just a great opportunity to take advantage of being able to talk to these people.”

This was not the first such event for Merkley, according to Deputy Communications Director Courtney Crowell. The senator has also spoken recently to government classes at Lake Oswego, Tigard and Grant high schools.

“It’s just a good chance for the senator to interact with the community and the schools and kind of get around the state,” Crowell said.

West Linn-Wilsonville Superintendent Bill Rhoades watched the proceedings from the back of the classroom, pulling out his camera phone at times to snap a picture. For Rhoades, the event was a perfect example of the academic engagement the school district strives for.

“We know that the more real and the more relevant the classroom is, the more engaged students are going to be,” Rhoades said. “And this is just a fantastic example of a real, authentic conversation with a senator in Washington. It’s just a great model of highly relevant, motivating, engaging opportunities for our kids.”

In the past, Jones has also welcomed a field representative for U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Oregon, as well as an array of lobbyists, legislators, polling experts and a former secretary of state.

by: TIDINGS PHOTO: PATRICK MALEE - Junior Taylor Harding listens as Sen. Jeff Merkley answers a question.Jones himself has been active in the political realm, having returned to WLHS this year after taking a hiatus to serve on

Gov. John Kitzhaber’s Oregon Education Investment Board.

“I think it’s a great privilege to have,” junior Pope McHenry said. “Because not many students in Oregon get to talk directly to their representatives ever, let alone on a weekly basis once in awhile.”

Such opportunities are at the foundation of Jones’ curriculum, though, because of their power to open doors that students may never have otherwise seen.

“The thing that I’m really wanting to do with the students is not just connect them with the real players, but I want them to realize they can impact it,” Jones said. “Government and politics does not have to be something we simply learn about that’s removed from us — we can be a part of it and impact it.”

Jones offers Lobby Club for politically active students

Last Thursday, just a day removed from U.S. Sen. Jeff Merkley's appearance at West Linn High School, a dozen of Todd Jones' Advanced Placement Government students put their voices into action down in Salem as part of what Jones calls Lobby Club.

It's an unofficial club, but that doesn't mean students take it any less seriously.

In meetings, Jones holds discussions about how the legislative process works and students in turn decide what upcoming bills are of interest to them.

Last week it was Oregon State Senate Bill 11, which would allow the state Treasury to sell bonds to investors and use the profits to put more money in the Oregon Student Opportunity Fund.

After attending a rally, five students signed up to testify in front of the Senate Education and Workforce Development Committee. Only three were able to speak, but it was clear that the students made their mark when the committee voted in favor of the bill.

"They were jazzed," Jones said.

The Lobby Club made another trip to Salem yesterday for a hearing on a bill to lower the voter registration age to 16.

by: SUBMITTED PHOTO - Juniors Sydney Sander, Kelsey Douglas and Taylor Harding speak in front of the Senate Education and Workforce Development committee in Salem.