Students of Congress
story and photos
by Jessica Blomquist
Young legislators debated air pollution, abortion, healthcare, animal cruelty and other important issues on Wednesday, May 14 and Thursday, May 15.
In the Senate, located in the media center, Senator Brett Richardson spoke for Senate Bill 1, which would legalize dog fighting in the state of Georgia. Across campus in the auditorium, the House of Representatives debated House Bill 9, an act to abolish the Blue Law, which prohibits alcohol sales on Sundays.
These discussions and compromises didn’t take place in Washington, D.C. though, but at Morgan County High School’s third annual Mock Student Legislature.
This two-day event is the product of months of preparation by the students, all sophomores taking government, and their teachers, Amy Saylor, Jim Malanowski and Doug Connelly.
“I believe one of the best ways for students to learn something is to actually experience it,” said Saylor. “I could spend a class period or two talking about how a bill becomes a law or how Congress works, but most of my students wouldn’t remember it by the time finals rolled around, let alone 20 years from now.”
Saylor first started holding a mock congress in her classroom five years ago. For the 2007 Mock Student Legislature, she and Malanowski combined their classes into a school-wide event. This year, they added Connelly’s students.
Starting in January, the teachers had their students come up with and research ideas for bills. They also provided a template for them to use to write their bill.
“Students could write about any topic as long as they could approach it with maturity and respect,” Saylor said.
Students also learned about liberal and conservative ideas and were given a questionnaire to determine in which party they would belong. There were 125 students discovered to hold more liberal values and 90 who were more conservative.
Students were also placed into either the Senate or the House of Representatives. To make it more difficult for a bill to pass, the teachers intentionally structured the Senate with a conservative majority, 29 conservatives to 17 liberals, and the House with a liberal majority, 108 liberals to 61 conservatives.
“One of our goals for this experience is to show students how difficult it is for a bill to become a law,” Saylor said. “We also want students to learn about the process of political compromise.”
After students were placed into parties, they elected Speaker of the House Annie Carter, President of the Senate Elizabeth Rogers, and the other leadership positions of majority and minority leaders for both the House and the Senate.
Carter in particular impressed her teachers with her ability to control the behavior of over 160 of her fellow classmates.
“At one point I stood back and thought, ‘There are 160 students in the House and only a handful of teachers,’” said Saylor. “The fact that these students were completely under the control of one 16-year-old with a gavel was testament to how completely involved they were.”
Meanwhile, the teachers looked through the 230 bills submitted by students, narrowing them down to 60 that would generate the most debate. These bills were then placed in the bill book.
Two weeks before the mock congress, the teachers distributed bill books, taught the rules of Congress, parliamentary procedure, and how to amend a bill, and practiced with the students how to debate a bill.
This year, the newest addition to the mock legislature was an administrative branch with an elected student governor, junior Gary Walker, who was Speaker of the House in last year’s mock congress.
Walker is also one of the 22 students who went to the Georgia Youth Assembly, a state-wide mock legislature sponsored by the YMCA, in November. Students who attend the assembly have the opportunity to debate in the actual chambers of the Georgia House and Senate.
“When I work with politics, I have fun,” said Walker. “I have aspirations of someday leading this great nation.”
As the governor, Walker reviewed bills that had been passed by both the House and Senate and either passed or vetoed them.
Of the seven bills passed by both houses, only two went on to become laws.
Senate Bill 2, sponsored by Senator Cassie Chupp, was passed “to require all medical professionals that have been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS that perform invasive procedures to inform their patients.”
Senate Bill 14, “an act to require all high school athletes to be drug tested,” sponsored by Senator Clay Lunsford, was also passed.
In addition to learning how Congress works, students learn to “disagree diplomatically with dignity and respect,” said Malanowski.
“It opens up your mind,” said Shelby McLeod, Walker’s chief of staff. “In the beginning you’re quick to say ‘This is how it is.’ But once you realize there’s so much that has to go right to pass a bill, you have to be more open-minded and willing to change.”
The teachers were impressed with their students’ ability to debate with maturity and discipline.
“I saw students who normally are very quiet really shine in this event,” said Saylor. “Seeing my students debate some really sensitive topics in a very adult manner was quite impressive.”
Saylor credits this year’s Congress a great success due to the students’ behavior and support from Principal Wilson and the school’s faculty.
“My students have not stopped talking about Congress,” said Saylor. “Jim and I will continue to add to and improve this experience.”
Next year, the teachers hope to add a judicial branch to the process and to include committees to show students how they work in Congress.