Students gain hands-on experience with government

Published 9:53 pm Tuesday, April 12, 2011

Among all the speakers at a recent budget forum hosted by Suffolk City Council, one stood out from the crowd.

While older residents were pleading for the city not to raise taxes, one John Yeates Middle School student implored the City Council to provide more space for the animals at Suffolk Animal Control and to avoid cutting funds for special programs at school.

Her attendance at the meeting was a homework suggestion made by Christina Klein, her seventh-grade civics and economics teacher. Klein has put the idea in her students’ heads for several years, but no student ever took her up on it — until this year. Four of Klein’s students attended the forum.

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“I was really excited when they went,” Klein said. “I just wanted them to experience how they can be a part of government.”

Klein and fellow teacher, Whitney Stark, are following SOL standards when they assign their students hands-on tasks. Community involvement is part of the Virginia Standards of Learning for civics.

She said it is wonderful to see the students learn at 12 and 13 years old that they have a voice in government.

“I want them to see what they think does count,” Klein said. “They are a part of the city, a part of the state and a part of the country.”

After the meeting, Klein said the students who attended shared their experiences with the rest of the class, who were excited to hear about it.

The City Council meetings are just one example of how Klein and Stark strive to create interactive experiences for their students.

“We try to do as much as we can as far as hands-on because that makes connections for (the students),” Klein said.

Earlier this week, for example, Klein and Stark got their classes together to simulate lawmaking in the state government.

Klein’s class represented the State Senate, while Stark’s larger class was the House of Delegates. Each student had the opportunity to draft a bill, making suggestions such as allowing students to have electronic devices in school and have soda with their lunches on even-numbered days.

Klein said she was surprised at the way the students reacted to the lesson, with some students voting against proposals she thought they would favor, like being able to chew gum in class.

Some bills passed one “house,” only to die in committee in the other house. Some committees killed bills right away.

Out of six classes, only one bill made it through both houses, Klein said.

“It’s really interesting to see how mature students can be when they are given a task,” she said. “When you call them Senator So-and-so or Delegate So-and-so, they really take it seriously.”

Klein said she and Stark want the students to be engaged in what they are learning because their interest reinforces the lessons. She hopes her students realize their opinions matter and that it motivates them to become informed citizens who make Suffolk a great place to be.

“I think kids just love to be involved, and kids love to help,” she said.