A Class Act: May 2009
America’s Legislators Back to School Program has put lawmakers and kids together for a decade.
By Jan Goehring
Do you ride in a limousine?”
“How often do you get to talk to the president?”
“How much do you get paid?”
Kids sometimes ask the darnedest things when state legislators visit their classrooms.
“I enjoy the questions I get, especially from young students. Legislators should view visits with students as opportunities for a teachable moments, not only for students but for parents and teachers,” says Massachusetts Senator Richard Moore.
The America’s Legislators Back to School Program, now celebrating its 10th year, has been bringing civics to life through these real-world teachable moments in classrooms all across the country.
Moore initiated the program in Massachusetts in 1999, one of six pilot states. “The program has matured over the years, the classroom materials have improved, and teachers are thrilled that they can keep the resource materials,” says Moore.
The Back to School Program began as a one-day event in September, then expanded to a week. It now kicks off the third week of September and runs throughout the school year. More than 1,200 legislators participate each year. Lawmakers have reached more than 2 million students since the program began.
Nevada Senator Valerie Wiener has participated for 10 years and estimates that she has spoken with more than 24,000 students.
“This program renews me at every level and reminds me why I am in the Legislature,” says Wiener.
She remembers going to a school right after the 9/11 terrorist attacks. She realized the students were looking to her to tell them what the government was going to do. “I was the face of government for them, and it was important to be there,” Wiener says.
Moore visited a school one election year and was unaware that the child of his opponent was in the audience. The next day the opponent complained to the media that Moore was campaigning at the school. The school replied that he does this every year and explains how state government works.
“Students sometimes don’t distinguish between levels of government,” says Moore. “It’s important to bring the state and local government message to the classroom. Those levels of government affect the day-to-day lives of citizens.”
In addition to educating students about the legislature, Wiener often talks with them about health and physical fitness. And she backs up the talk with action, sometimes taking to the stage to do push ups. Wiener competes in the Nevada Senior Olympics, and inspires students by telling them they are never “too old to make healthy choices.”
Michigan Senator and Majority Leader Mike Bishop tells students a story about when he was in middle school. His teacher asked the class to write a letter to themselves in the future. He addressed his letter “Dear Senator Bishop.”
“To know that I had reached my goal, and then to be able to share that with the students was a thrill,” says Bishop. He also stresses that senators come from all walks of life, but “we all have in common the desire to serve Michigan, starting with our own neighborhoods.”
Utah students get a lesson in the legislative process when Representative Ronda Rudd Menlove visits classrooms. She brings a white T-shirt and large colorful markers for her simulation. The first actor chosen is “Bill.” He dons the shirt the other kids write on, including the topic they choose for the bill. Menlove then has “Bill” make his way through the process of House and Senate committee hearings, getting marked up and edited along the way. “I want to draw them out and make the class engaging,” she says.
“While students may not represent a voting block, it is necessary to invest time in teaching them the importance of civic duty so that they will feel a sense of pride and responsibility in their own community,” says Bishop.
Menlove thinks students do not get enough credit for their interest in government.
“Young people want to be engaged and involved in the political process,” she says. “Students are fascinated by this process and are in tune with what is happening.”
Jan Goehring runs the America’s Legislators Back to School Program for NCSL’s Trust for Representative Democracy.