By Zach DeRitis - 03/20/13 10:56 PM EDT
It’s springtime in the nation’s capital, and with that comes the influx of middle-school students from around the country. As the weather starts to warm up, they are traversing the city landscape in small convoys of three, four, maybe five charter buses, visiting museums, memorials and monuments.
But these buses are not just tour buses — they are “classrooms on wheels,” and the young people on board are being peppered with questions by their program instructors from the Close Up Foundation about the news of the day and issues confronting Congress, the president and the nation.
According to Close Up’s website, “96% of teachers say that the program helps their students better understand current issues and their roles as citizens in a democracy,” and that “93% of students say that the program is effective at helping them know how to promote their own political interests.”
“We serve about 15,800 students and teachers each year,” said Rachel Talbert, vice president of curriculum and programs with Close Up.
The students range from attending fifth to eighth grade and come to Washington for a week of in-depth lessons in American history, politics, citizenship and the role of government.
“This is my first trip by myself — away from my parents,” said Oliver Clarke, a fifth-grader from San Francisco. He is one of a group of 70 students visiting Washington.
They learn about congressional proceedings by playing the roles of members and lobbyists during a mock session of Congress. The objective is to help the students develop an understanding of the legislative process by having the students actively participate in a model legislature. While participating in the Close Up program, students not only learn about history and government, but they also develop personal skills while learning how to be engaged in public service.
“The social aspect is pretty huge. The students interact in small groups, they practice debating all while learning about active citizenship, sacrifice and service,” said program instructor Lindsay Andreas. “They’re also learning about the responsibility of doing things on their own.”
“We encourage all students to participate, even the C students, because we are all citizens,” said Andreas. “We just want them to feel free to speak their minds.”
They discuss a wide range of current political topics, from welfare reform and the DREAM Act to clean energy and gun control.
“To me, the bills we discussed are very important,” said Ezris Serrins, an eighth grader from Texas. “I like to look at things, first, constitutionally and then practically, because if it’s not constitutional then it doesn’t matter.”
“To me, things that interest me aren’t the big questions that everybody talks about how our government works. It’s about the issues and how they affect people that, to me, is what it’s about,” he said.
After spending a day visiting Washington’s war memorials and reflecting on the notion of sacrifice and service, the students spend another afternoon touring the halls of the Capitol building. They visit with some members and even manage a rare opportunity to sit on the House floor.
As the week continues, they begin to understand the meaning of a participatory government and are able to appreciate the role that average citizens play in politics with issues they themselves are passionate about.
“Now I kind of want to get involved with the struggle for gay rights,” said Roxy Smith, a seventh grader from Austin, Texas.
The experience for these students also makes for a more tangible learning experience. Politics becomes something they can now identify with and better understand and appreciate.
“You don’t have to just look at pictures to see it. Now you can go inside the place and look around, it’s not just like a picture where you only stare at it for a few moments,” said Oliver.
Scott Wilson, a program organizer with Close Up, says that the students commonly experience two fundamental changes during the program.
“One, is interest and general participation,” he said. “And this is across the board in their subjects, not just social studies.” The other is, “the ability to hear from students with different perspectives and the willingness to engage in debate with students who may think differently than themselves.”
“I think a lot of students come away with the ability to have a conversation with people they’ve never met about big subjects,” said program leader Jon Gerst, who works closely with students on a day-to-day basis while they tour the nation’s capitol.
Of course, Close Up is not alone in its educational mission. The U.S. Capitol Historical Society offers a similar program for local D.C students with a view to expanding their knowledge of American values and public service.
“The students want to participate, they want to debate and they want to be involved,” said Jerome Clemmings Jr., an eighth-grade English teacher with the Imagine Hope Community Charter School. He believes that experience is a vital part of education for the students. “It does a lot for learning being able to see it firsthand.”
Clemmings and his students take a trip into the city once a month to focus on core values such as integrity and justice — all while having fun doing it. Clemmings says he wants the students to learn the difference between a debate and an argument and how to make decisions civilly within a group.
“The students make a lot of the decisions either by vote or debate,” he said. “Sometimes there’s animosity, but it creates better communication between them. It leads to compromise among students in decision-making.”
The impact of these civic programs is readily apparent when watching the students engage in discussion and sometimes in passionate debate on the issues. And it continues long after they’ve returned to their classrooms. The students leave these trips with a new understanding of why and how politics affects their lives and how they can affect politics.
“If we can accomplish getting these kids to want to know more, we’ve done our jobs,” said Clemmings.
The educators in these programs also take great pride in the transformation they see the students go through.
“Honestly it gives me chills,” said Close Up’s Gerst. “It gives me hope and reminds me that things are good. Students are able to have conversations about pretty heavy subjects.”