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The City Journals

West Hills Middle School students flex Constitutional knowledge at state competition

May 03, 2021 01:25PM ● By Jet Burnham

The We The People team from West Hills Middle School won first place at the state competition for the second year. (Carina Whiteside/WHMS)

By Jet Burnham | [email protected]

Eighth graders from West Hills Middle School became experts on the U.S. Constitution and responded impressively to questions about Lockean government, constitutional compromises, federalism and freedom of religion to become first-place winners in four of six categories and Best School Overall in the state We the People competition held in March.

“I always am blown away by what they're able to do,” WHMS history teacher Carina Whiteside said. “These 13- and 14-year-olds come away with great understanding of the Constitution and great reasoning. Ultimately, it just really gives me hope for who they're going to be as the leaders of our country in the future.” 

Whiteside set aside 2 1/2 months in her honors U.S. history class for students to prepare for the competition, which teaches citizenship and critical thinking skills.

“Instead of them just using what they know to take a test, they are using what they know to talk to judges and community leaders and to answer real world questions,” Whiteside said. “We get into this mindset that social studies classes are just places where we learn facts and then regurgitate the facts, and it doesn't really have any application in our lives, which I think is a missed opportunity. If we want good citizens in the future, and if we want students to be engaged, those are skills they have to start practicing in school.

Six teams were selected to represent WHMS at state, presenting a speech and answering questions using both historical and contemporary sources. Students said they gained an appreciation of the country’s form of government.

“Before I started this, I thought if this history happened 200 years ago, it doesn't really affect me,” Maverick Bowles said. “But as I learned all about our government and how it works, I realized that, without all this stuff that happened 200 years ago, my life would probably be a lot different and, likely, a lot worse than it is today.”

Curt Cabrera realized the research he was doing on John Locke and the purpose of government was relevant to what he was seeing in the news.

“I didn’t really care about it until our group had to use those events and had to add it to our speech,” he said.

Ian McNair said he learned how he could “promote the general welfare” by serving in his community, and Malynn Miner said she gained an appreciation of freedom of religion.

“This competition has really made me realize how applicable history is,” Davis Fowers said. “I finally realized that history is what's happening right now and that it's actually really relatable, and it's important for people to have a good understanding of it so that we can make better decisions moving forward.”

Brooklyn Porter said preparing for the competition motivated her to learn more than with her regular classwork.

“It really did make a difference, because with a regular assignment you wouldn't have put so much work and thought into it, and so it was a good experience to learn a lot,” she said.

Utah Rep. Elizabeth Weight (West Valley) participated as a judge for WHMS’s We the People program. She actively supports programs and legislation that engage students in civic action, such as Generation Citizen in the Salt Lake District, programs that encourage high school seniors to vote, and the recent bill to allow 16-year-olds to vote in local school board elections (which didn’t pass).

As a former teacher, Weight knows when students are engaged, learning is meaningful for them, so she constantly pushes for civic education reform to include more project-based learning instead of just memorization of dates and facts.

“In order for students to be engaged, they have to understand the concept, so it's almost a reverse from what we are doing,” Weight said. “If we really want to get them to be knowledgeable and engaged with an application of that knowledge, we have to give students opportunities for that, and we have to give teachers an opportunity to focus on that and not just the factoids.”

Weight said Utah teachers are dealing with oversized classes and out-of-date assessments and standards, so she is impressed when teachers like Whiteside “go above and beyond” to provide engaging activities for their students.

This was WHMS’s second year participating in the program (the team won state last year). Just four schools sent teams to the state competition; WHMS was the only school from Jordan District.

Whiteside said We the People teaches valuable skills of collaboration, problem-solving, reasoning, organization and respect for others’ viewpoints. Her students come away feeling empowered to be involved in their community.

“The real benefit of this program is it does teach them to think and to use a good reasoning to support their opinions and to use evidence to support their opinions,” she said. “And so, ultimately, I think it makes for an engaged and informed citizenry, which is what we need for our democracy to thrive.”