Bar News - February 9, 2007
John Stark Regional High School Heads to Washington DC
By: Anita S. Becker
‘We the People’ Program a Powerful Teaching Tool
When the winner of the state finals competition for We the People…The Citizen and the Constitution program was announced, John Stark Regional High School civics teacher Daniel Marcus sat in his chair frozen with disbelief for just a moment as one of his students excitedly jumped up in the air shouting, “Yes! Yes!”
The state finals, which marked the 20th year of the competition in New Hampshire, were held at the Legislative Office Building in Concord on Jan. 12, 2007. Three schools participated: John Stark Regional High School (JSRHS), located in Weare and led by Marcus; Milford High School, led by teacher David Alcox; and Nashua High School-North, led by teacher Tarin LaFrance. A fourth school, Gorham High School, led by teacher Michael Brosnan, participated in the regional competition in December 2006 but was unable to compete in the finals due to curriculum scheduling.
“The teams were evenly matched, making for a great competition,” said NHBA LRE Coordinator Patty Wooster, whose department sponsors the program. “All the schools had done their homework and were ready to face the judges.” Wooster added, “As I waited in the judges’ scoring room, I could hear the judges talking. Some remarked on how hard it was to score the schools because they were all doing an exceptional job. Others said they were impressed with how well the students knew the material and still others commented on their teamwork and participation.”
“I remember the comment that Mr. Marcus made when they won,” says Wooster. “He said, ‘We just came for the experience.’”
Marcus is a former civil litigator who practiced in Connecticut for five years and then returned to college to become a teacher. “I just didn’t enjoy being a lawyer. I thought I’d have more impact as a teacher.” He taught in Indiana for several years where he first became familiar with the We the People program, where many schools participate. He says that his legal background aided him in teaching the course and preparing the team for competition. When he moved to New Hampshire and began teaching at JSRHS two years ago, he jumped at the chance to use the We the People program again. The course is an elective one for his students. Marcus did a lot of background work in addition to using the supplied teacher’s guide and text book, provided free to the school through the NHBA LRE program. He also attended two summer institutes coordinated by the NHBA and funded by the Center for Civic Education.
Marcus said that he does not feel he needs to keep his competitive techniques close to the vest and would be willing to discuss how he teaches the program to others who are interested in bringing it into their schools. “I do not look at myself or our team as being in competition with other schools,” says Marcus. “At the end of the day, it’s about teaching kids.”
Marcus is a believer in the We the People program and says that it not only teaches students facts about the Constitution, civil rights and how government operates, it encourages their critical thinking and logical argument skills. “It is not just a text-book filled with facts, the book is about ideas and ideas interest students. It gets across that our nation was founded on ideas,” says Marcus. “I’m totally sold on it as just a better way to teach civics. The students get so excited about the competition that they forget they are learning about government.”
JSRHS student Amber O’Brien, who would like to be a lawyer and a Supreme Court justice someday, says “I’m glad I took this class because it is going to help me with what I want to do for my career.” She adds, “I was debating on whether or not to take this class because it is a difficult course. But, I found that pushing yourself up into it makes you feel good inside. When I was in front of those judges, I felt great.”
Her classmate River Clegg would like to be a history teacher and says he didn’t study American history until the 8th grade and believes “it needs to be stressed more in the lower grades.” He adds that he has learned the value of the Constitution through the course. “Only if you know what the Constitution gives you, will you know enough to defend your rights.”
David Reynolds, who wants to be a screenwriter, said that he took the course because his friend Clegg was in it and convinced him to. He has no regrets. “I knew we would have a good time. Mr. Marcus is a great teacher and we have really come together as a team.” He adds, “Our teacher was very important in making all of this understandable to us. He gave us parts to act out in Marbury vs. Madison and it really helped us to remember it.”
O’Brien agrees with Reynolds and adds, “The good thing about Mr. Marcus being our teacher is that he doesn’t give up on us. If you don’t get it, he will break it down even smaller until you do.”
Marcus reciprocally gives his students the credit for their success. “This is a really good group of kids,” he says. “They have a lot of great tools to start with. They are enthusiastic, talented, and hardworking.” He explains that in addition to their in-class work the students have writing assignments and after-school practices in the weeks prior to the competitions.
We the People requires every student participating in the program to make a short oral presentation and answer questions regarding the philosophy, principals and application of the US Constitution. The students are questioned and evaluated by panels of judges drawn from the law profession and courts, government and education. The volunteer judges for the final round this year include NH Supreme Court Chief Justice John T. Broderick; state Sen. Robert Latourneau; Melissa Ogle, an aid to US Sen. John Sununu; Howard Zibel, general counsel to the Supreme Court, and about 30 other lawyers and members of the community.
During the state competition, Wooster and former LRE coordinator Valenda Morrissette publicly thanked Zibel, who has participated as a We the People judge for 20 years and who initiated the program in the state (see page 3).
Sen. Letourneau, a first-year judge says, “It’s an honor to participate in this program and it is our duty to participate to educate our children about the constitution.” His fellow judge, Abigail Sykas, a former attorney and now administrator of Havenwood Heights who is in her fifth year of judging the competition, says that she keeps coming back because “it’s important to me that the youth in our community are educated about our Constitution and how our government works and this [program] is a wonderful way to do that.” And retired attorney Marty Bender, who has been volunteering for 20 years says, “It’s enjoyable for me to do this. I love listening to the students. The intelligence of these kids is incredible.”
Marcus says that he was impressed by the caliber and dedication of the volunteer judges. “A lot of kids never get asked for their opinion, and getting asked by important people like the chief justice or a senator makes them feel that their opinions matter. That’s what makes this program really special and I thank the Bar for the opportunity to give this kind of exposure to our students.”
Lori Clark, mother of Milford High School participant Sarah Clark who was observing the competition, said she is very pleased with her daughter’s reaction to the program. “She is so much more involved and passionate about the elections. It was really an eye-opener for her. She just really seems to ‘get it’ since she’s been involved in We the People.”
The school received $4,000, from a combination of funds given by the NHBA, NH Bar Foundation, and the Center for Civic Education, to help defray the travel expenses for the team’s trip to Washington DC to compete in the National We the People Championship to be held April 28-30, 2007.
Marcus and his students are fund-raising to make up a $3,000 difference in cost for the team’s travel and expenses and the amount of money granted to them. Marcus would like to raise enough money for the entire team to travel without the students paying anything. To contact Marcus, send an e-mail to email@example.com.