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The City Journals

West Jordan Middle wins first in We the People competition

Mar 29, 2019 10:57AM ● By Jet Burnham

West Jordan Middle School eighth-graders win the state We the People competition. (Photo courtesy William Shields)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Civically active and knowledgeable West Jordan Middle School eighth-graders proved they are experts on the United States Constitution when they won First Place at the State “We the People” competition this February.

 “It’s not cliche when we say they know more [about the Constitution] than most of the general public,” said social studies teacher William Shields, who coached the 26 WJMS students who competed.

Eighth-graders spent three months researching, learning, digesting and mastering material related to the Constitution, said Shields. Six teams were chosen to compete in state, each tackling a different topic. Each team member wrote, memorized and presented a part of their team’s four-minute speech. Then they had six minutes to answer seven questions asked by a panel of judges comprised of members from federal and state courts, corporate lawyers, law and history professors, and community leaders.

Alyson McDougal’s team presented on rights and responsibilities of citizens.

“When we researched our topic, it taught us that participating in government isn’t being a government official,” she said. “It’s voting; it’s giving your own opinion—even going and doing service in a park is participating in government.”

Students recognized their topics—due process, judicial review, citizen responsibilities, roles and responsibilities of government—playing out in the news. 

Kimberley Lopez said while she learned a lot about her topic of due process through research, she gained a greater understanding by watching the daily news. 

 “Having something to relate it to that’s going on right now in that very moment was just kind of something that definitely help me learn, and I just realized a lot more,” she said.

Abigail Rose Hartle became an expert on the Fifth and 14th Amendments. She feels prepared to be able to defend and protect her rights now that she understands them. She enjoys discussions and debates with her teammates about current issues and even feels confident in her knowledge to be able to debate with her dad.

Taylor Olson said his experience has given him something to contribute to feel a part of adult discussions of current events.

“You feel a connection with adults, talking politically,” he said.

James Hall said most adults don’t expect teens to be so knowledgeable about government topics.

“Even though we’re not 18, we still have an opinion,” he said.

Preparing for the competition required a huge amount of work and dedication from both students and teachers. The language arts and social studies departments collaborated to support students in their research, writing and public speaking.

“It’s one of the best opportunities to civic education ingrained within the core that requires a high level of rigor but it also ends up being a high level of reward,” said Shields.

Pam Su’a, social studies consultant at Jordan District, said very few schools can dedicate the time it takes to participate in the We the People program. WJMS is the only middle school that participates, and, though other high schools have participated in previous years, West Jordan High School is the only one participating this year.

Su’a introduced the program at WJMS when she taught there in 2000. Now the We the People legacy is embedded within the school culture, Shields said.

Ideally, Shields would like to see students exposed to more civic education than just an American History class every few years. Because WJMS students delve deeply into content and are passionate about it, Shields adapted a high school course curriculum to develop an American Problems/American Studies class for ninth-graders at WJMS, the only middle school to offer it.

Shields hopes his students use their experience to continue to be active citizens.

“You don’t have to run for office or be a part of some gigantic thing that we sometimes make the government out to be, but connecting with individuals, talking with neighbors, knowing the issues, being informed of current events and ultimately being civil in your discussions,” he said.

Taylor plans to continue discussing and debating the issues.

“I know over time, I won't have my speech memorized, but I still have those bits and pieces,” he said.

Abigail feels a responsibility to stay civically active. 

“We’re going to be the people in the adults’ positions sooner rather than later so we have to be educated about this kind of stuff,” she said.