Seven students took on the role of the U.S. commander in chief Wednesday afternoon.
“Ladies and gentlemen of the press, please stand for the president of the United States,” Joanne Finley said as the Hickman High School freshmen walked out to the podium for a news conference. Finley, a retired social studies teacher, is one of three facilitators at the White House Decision Center.
The “Presidents Truman” were seven of 53 Hickman freshmen who went on the field trip to the White House Decision Center. The center is set up like the West Wing of the White House and is housed in the Harry S. Truman Presidential Library and Museum in Independence, Missouri. It presents groups with complex historical situations. Students are given name tags and desk plaques to step into their roles of secretary of state, director of the CIA or another presidential adviser.
Leslie Schnieders, who teaches American government to Hickman freshmen, has been taking students on this field trip for 15 years.
“This is one of the best hands-on pieces of the curriculum that we have,” Schnieders said.
This year, Hickman debated how the U.S. should counter the Soviet Union’s 1948 blockade of Berlin, one of five simulations available to groups.
“Visualize Columbia with (Interstate 70) shut off,” Finley said during her initial explanation of what it meant to cut off services to Berlin.
Schnieders spent two weeks preparing her students for this.
“It’s stressful to plan because our curriculum is so tight,” Schnieders said. “For lack of a better term, there’s not really room for it in the curriculum, but we have always found that this is such an important piece that it’s worth taking two weeks out.”
Students watched a short video, then split up by role to sift through primary documents available in 1948.
“I am your presidential aide,” Finley said, popping into the room to check on the presidents. She guided them how to go about meeting with their advisers, advising them to sit in the same spot as the real president does during similar meetings.
After reviewing the documents, the students came back together for a press conference. Everyone, except one representative per role, flipped their name tags around to become a member of the press. A page in their booklets gave them choices for different outlets to represent.
Think about what would concern the American people and ask questions that would address those concerns, Finley advised.
“This is Tyler Stine from the International News Service for (Press Secretary Charles) Ross,” one student said. “What’s in it for America if we keep supplying Berlin?”
After the news conference, one member of each role met in a conference room to actually make the decision.
“I think everyone probably could have contributed more,” Aimee Bedy said of her group’s discussion. She was originally slated to be George Marshall, secretary of state, but became president when a classmate was absent.
Bedy asked her group to list positive and negative consequences of each idea, which brought more lively conversation.
“I kind of wanted everyone to join in because I didn’t want to be annoying with my opinions and push them on to them,” she said. “I wanted them to form their opinions and help contribute to the plan.”
In the end, her group decided to use money from the Marshall Plan to rebuild European economies, which they thought could help keep Berlin safe.
“I can learn almost any way, but I prefer visual and interactive learning,” Bedy said in support of the experience.
After lunch and a final press conference — in which all seven presidents gave a unified speech giving the same conclusion, including continuing to give supplies to Germany by air and using money from the Marshall Plan to rebuild and stabilize Germany — the group toured the museum. This included the graves of President Truman and his wife, Bess, as well as Truman’s post-presidential working office.
“It was rather interesting,” freshman Grace Remelius said. “I like learning about the very personal history of what happened behind the scenes after World War II ended.”
Finley called the White House Decision Center experience a “history lab.”
“Remember when we were all in science classes — what was the best day?” she asked. “When you had lab. This is history lab.”
Due to limited space at the center, Hickman students take eight trips. The field trip is optional, and there is an alternate assignment for those who don’t go, Schnieders said.
This year, every high school freshman in Columbia Public Schools can participate for free in the field trip. Up until this year, students had to pay $13 for the booklet, which prevented some from going.
Now, through an agreement with the White House Decision Center, the district’s social studies department budget covers all costs. The center “refunds our bussing expenses after the last school visit of the year,” Lindsey Troutman, coordinator for language arts and social studies, wrote in an email.
“There’s so little mystery for kids in life — they have cell phones and Internet, and they can find the answers right now,” Schnieders said. “This still leads to a piece of mystery because they really don’t know what to expect. ... It’s nice to see that innocence in such a fast-paced world. It slows them down a little bit, makes them think.”
Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.