West Junior High students learn about civics, have fun

Monday, January 25, 2010 | 6:37 p.m. CST; updated 7:02 p.m. CST, Monday, January 25, 2010

COLUMBIA — At West Junior High, 31 ninth-graders have a newfound passion: the intricacies of American civics and government.

Ninth-graders from the school won first place Monday in "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution" competition that teaches students about civics.

“Believe it or not, they actually chose to do this,” said Chris Fischer, who teaches honors U.S. government and economics at West. “It’s a lot of work, but it’s also a sharp group of kids that works incredibly hard.”

Students in teams of five or six wrote papers on set topics and presented them to a panel of judges, followed by additional questions that relied on students’ understanding and recall of topics including personal rights to court cases to the Constitution. After a six-minute question-and-answer period, the judges gave feedback on teams’ preparation, cooperation and knowledge.

To prepare for such intense competition, the teams spent a lot of time getting to know each other and learning to work together. Students prepared for everything, even brainstorming various signals to let each other know when to start or stop talking during competition.

“At first we planned to cough, but we thought that would be too distracting,” said Nomin Jagdagdorj, one of West’s competitors. “We thought about doing different things with our arms or nudging each other."

“We were so ready we didn’t even need them,” said fellow competitor Adam Schoelz.

Their rapport is easy now, but the students said learning to work together was a lot harder than they expected.

“We had all been told, ‘You’re so smart — you’ll do fine,’ but we had to learn how to listen to each other and admit that we might not always be right,” Jagdagdorj said.

“At our first meeting, it was 40 minutes of flat-out fighting,” Hannah Hughes said, laughing. “Even if we were on the same side, we fought because we argued it in a different way.”

Despite rocky starts, the students agreed that their team’s dynamic grew into something special.

“We learned how to feed off each other and to know when other team members were struggling so we could help them out,” Hughes said.

According to its Web site, "We the People" is a national competition created by the Center for Civic Education. The Missouri Bar Association is the state’s coordinator, and volunteers from various legal professions around the state acted as judges for the competition. The students were ineligible to compete for the national competition, which was only reserved for high school students.

"We the People" is one of two choices for a project in Fischer's class. A total of 31 ninth-graders opted for this project, and preparations began in late August.

According to Jack Wax, spokesman for the Missouri Bar Association, teachers know what questions will be asked and prepare students throughout the year based on a specific curriculum.

Students agreed that the effects of the competition would be lasting.

“If I had gone forward in time and listened to some of the conversations we’re having now, I would have been totally lost,” Schoelz said.

His fellow students burst out laughing and agreed.

“I wouldn’t have imagined it, but I learned a lot and I’m sure it will stick with me,” Schoelz said.

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