‘Bringing the House to life’

Atlanta high school teacher David Martin had no trouble relating to tales about the Capitol building’s wear and tear.

During a Monday tour for teachers visiting through a House program, Martin listened as Architect of the Capitol Curator Barbara Wolanin explained the woes suffered by artist John Trumbull’s paintings while on display in the Capitol Rotunda. The paintings had been hanging for only a couple of years in 1828 when he was asked to repair them because they were in such poor shape.

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“Trumbull asked [Congress], ‘Why can’t the spectators keep their hands off the paintings and [stop] poking their umbrellas into them?’ ” Wolanin said to Martin and the 12 other teachers in the fellows program. “And someone had actually cut one of the feet out of a painting.”

“That sounds like our kids with their textbooks,” replied Martin, a goateed and bespectacled man who teaches in Atlanta’s inner city.

Martin and the other teachers have come from around the country to take part this summer in the Office of the House Historian’s House Fellows Program.

The program, now in its fourth year, aims to give teachers a comprehensive, first-hand experience of Congress and the U.S. Capitol to take back to their respective schools and incorporate into lessons for their high school students.

Over the course of a week, based on their talks with a wide array of legislative experts and lawmakers, the teachers develop a lesson plan to be used in their classrooms.

Rep. Jason Chaffetz (R-Utah) is scheduled to talk to the group about the freshman class’s experience, while Rep. Betty McCollum (D-Minn.) spoke about her role on the Appropriations Committee and the process of funding bills.

By the second day, Rachel Snell, a high school government and economics teacher in Coleman, Mich., said she could see the difference the program was making for her.

“It has opened my eyes as a teacher to an entirely different perspective,” she said. “Because in so many of our education programs, we’re taught the strategies to use to teach students. But we don’t get the depth and the experiences we need to ignite our passion. And this program is igniting our passion by bringing to life the House of Representatives.”

Minority Leader John Boehner (R-Ohio) broke the group in with a meeting in Statuary Hall on Monday afternoon.

Boehner laid out the week’s agenda for Congress, focusing on the healthcare bill that has struggled to make it out of committee. When asked if it’s going to pass, he replied, “I don’t think so, at least not this week.”

Asked about his thoughts on No Child Left Behind — the controversial law that requires teachers to instruct students to a measurable standard — Boehner told the teachers, “It’s not about money, it’s about will.”

Some in the group nodded their heads, seeming to agree that the problem was more a matter of enforcing the standards than not funding their enforcement. But some of the teachers bit their tongue in disapproval.

“I didn’t know if we could spar [with Boehner],” Martin said afterward. “I would’ve sparred with him a little bit. As an educator, I feel that No Child Left Behind has been a failure. It seemed like what he was saying was a lot of fluff and little substance.”

It’s this type of one-on-one questioning that makes the House Fellows program so unique. And the word is spreading, as more teachers have applied for the program in successive years. What began as a single-week trial session in 2006 now runs for two sessions every year. Each session has as many as 13 participants, up from the initial eight three years ago.

The teachers have their roles reversed during the week on Capitol Hill. Instead of quizzing their students on what they’ve been learning, they are finding themselves in the hot seat.

“Let’s start with basics,” Wolanin, the curator, asked the group. “When was the Capitol built?”

After a couple seconds of silence as the teachers racked their brains, Rhonda Rush, who teaches high school in Homewood, Ala. — Rep. Spencer Bachus’s (R) district — was the only one to offer an answer, albeit with a note of hesitance.

“1765?” she said.

“That’s pretty good,” Wolanin answered. “The cornerstone was actually laid in 1763.”

The program is packed with events for the fellows, forcing them to hop from one activity to the next. Fellows are scheduled to learn about the Senate on Thursday. Before they leave, they will also go to the top of the Capitol Dome and visit the Center for Legislative Archives, where they’ll get to place their fingers on old, preserved bills and resolutions.

“Do I look like a bird-dog? Because I feel like a bird-dog,” one teacher joked as he was shuttled down the hall to another meeting.

In between meetings the group used a narrow room on the Cannon House Office Building’s fifth floor that was littered with large three-ring binders and newspapers. A copy of each teacher’s lesson plan was taped to the gray walls below their picture and a map of their congressional district.

Martin’s congressman, Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), has been an avid supporter of the program since its inception. Lewis took an hour on Tuesday to talk to the group about his central role in the civil rights movement and how the teachers could use the era as inspiration for their students.

“I think we have to inspire young people to get in the way,” said Lewis, adding that his parents always called him “nosey.”

“We have to inspire young people to get in trouble,” he said. “Good trouble. Necessary trouble. People must be inspired to speak up, to speak out and not be silent. Engage in the great debate — that’s what will keep our democracy growing.”

Though it was only the first of their five days on Capitol Hill, by 6 p.m. Monday, when the group met with Wolanin in the Rotunda, they were tired. Most tried to snag a seat on the benches that line the walls as they prepared for the curator’s speech.

But the seats quickly filled, and the several remaining teachers left standing began to lean against the pedestal of the Alexander Hamilton statue for support, when they heard a tone undoubtedly familiar to the one they sometimes use with their own students.

“Please don’t lean against the sculpture,” Wolanin said.