Tag Archives: Jamie Dockray

“We The People”: Staples Students Prepare

It’s been nearly a year since Staples High School’s “We the People” team won the Northeast US championship, and finished 5th nationally, in the annual Center for Civic Education competition.

The event was virtual — not in Washington, DC, as in years past. But the joy and feeling of success was real.

This year’s team is ready to top that.

State competition — the first step on the road to the finals — begins Tuesday.

As usual, the “Citizen and the Constitution” contest is divided into 6 sections. Each group of students — all members of Suzanne Kammerman’s Advanced Placement Politics & Government class — tackles a different one.

This is not exactly “name the president and your 2 US senators.”

Here for example are 3 questions from Unit 4, asking how the values and principles embodied in the Constitution have shaped American institutions:

Should states be willing “‘to purchase’ what [James] Wilson called ‘federal liberty’ with ‘the necessary concession of their political sovereignty’”? Why or why not?

“On a single day in 1964, the [Supreme] Court in effect declared that almost all state governments were constitutionally defective! … Thus, a bloodless revolution occurred without a shot fired.” Do you agree or disagree with Akhil Reed Amar’s statement regarding the Supreme Court’s opinion in Reynolds v. Sims? Why or why not?

“The doctrine of the separation of powers was adopted by the Convention of 1787 not to promote efficiency, but to preclude the exercise of arbitrary power.” How well has the Constitution’s design accomplished what Justice Brandeis described? Explain your position.

Click here — if you dare — for the other 5, and the equally probing subsets of questions.

To prepare, teacher/coach Suzanne Kammerman enlisted the help of some heavy hitters. Attorneys Andy Laskin and Jamie Dockray, former student Sam Laskin and CEO Manoj Wadhwani are honing the competitors’ presentation and oral delivery skills.

Volunteers help Staples students prepare for the 2021 “We the People” competition.

For one of the units — addressing a major freedom of speech case involving students and the internet, just accepted by the Supreme Court — Andy Laskin contacted an attorney involved. In a compelling session, he told the Staples teenagers how he is preparing to argue before the high court.

He’s ready for Justices Roberts, Sotomayor and the rest.

Now, 2 dozen Staples students are just as ready for their own “supreme” competition.

Staples’ “We The People” Team Earns Regional Crown

It may not have been the hugging, high-fiving celebration they deserved.

But Staples High School’s “We the People” team looked ecstatic last night, as they learned — online — that they won the Northeast US championship in the Center for Civic Education’s annual competition.

So instead, the 23 team members and faculty advisor Suzanne Kammerman celebrated virtually.

Staples’ “We the People” team get the good news on Zoom.

That’s the same way they had competed the day before. In a nerve-wracking session, 6 different groups answered judges’ difficult questions about history, policy and law.

They nailed it.

Their performance — placing them Number 5 nationally, the highest-ever finish for a Staples “We the People” team — was well earned. It was the result of months of research, writing and preparation by the crew. They were aided by volunteers like Andy Laskin and Jamie Dockray.

Staples advanced to the finals by winning the state championship in December. The victory — which snapped Trumbull High’s 8-year stranglehold on first place — earned the Westporters a trip to Washington, DC. It would be the culmination of the school year, and all their hard work.

COVID-19 upended those plans. But the teenagers went right back to work, readying themselves for the virtual version of nationals.

Kammerman — who participated in “We the People” herself more than 20 years ago, as a Shelton High student — hails her team.

Staples High School’s “We the People” Northeast regional champions.

“They performed remarkably,” she says. “I’m heartbroken they missed out on the trip to D.C., because I know what they would have experienced and accomplished there.

“But this experience gave the students a sense of community and purpose that was so necessary during very uncertain times. I told them that someday when their grandchildren ask about the coronavirus pandemic, they’ll have a pretty cool story to tell them.”

Congratulations to Staples’ “We the People” team, their coach and assistants. We the Westporters are very, very proud.

“We The People” Needs We The Westporters

In 2020, we celebrate the ratification of the Nineteenth Amendment, which recognized the right of women to vote. Despite recent controversy, the Equal Rights Amendment has not yet been ratified. What are the similarities and differences between these two amendments?

“If there is any principle of the Constitution that more imperatively calls for attachment than any other, it is the principle of free thought — not free thought for those who agree with us, but freedom for the thought that we hate.” (Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.)  To what extent has this view influenced American culture?

In the 1793–94 Pacificus–Helvidius debates, Alexander Hamilton contended that the power to declare war was both legislative and executive in nature. James Madison disagreed, saying that this power was exclusively legislative. Whose opinion do you favor and why?

Could you answer those questions?

Staples High School’s “We the People” team is confident they can.

That’s not just teenage we-can-conquer-the-world cockiness.

In December, 23 students in Suzanne Kammerman’s Advanced Placement Politics and Government class were crowned state champs in the annual competition. The momentous win broke Trumbull High’s 8-year stranglehold on first place.

Staples High School’s 2019 “We the People” champions.

Now the students are preparing for April’s national contest, in Leesburg, Virginia.

It’s quite a task. Each team is divided into 6 groups. Each must be ready to answer 3 separate questions on history, politics and law.

Only one will be asked in the oral question round. But all team members must participate. And each of the 6 groups must be strong. If one falters, the entire class score suffers.

Like all schools, the Staples students, teachers and parent supporters will be isolated in one room. They can’t watch anyone else. It’s a pressure-filled day, as judges shuttle in and out to question the teenagers.

Many schools — including Trumbull — treat “We the People” as a separate course. At Staples though, it’s just one part of the AP curriculum.

In the past, Trumbull prepared for the national competition by enlisting a host of townspeople — lawyers, college history professors teachers, politicians — to assist.

The Staples students get help from just a couple of parents. Andy Laskin — an attorney — takes time off from work. He attends class in person, and FaceTimes too.

For example, for 4th Amendment search and seizure issues, he brings in school resource officer Ed Woolridge. Laskin creates hypothetical police issues, then tweaks the conduct slightly to see how that changes the officer’s suspicions and reactions. It’s complex. And exactly the type of preparation the students need.

Another lawyer, Jamie Dockray, works with them in person, during the week and on weekends at the library.

But it’s labor-intensive. Each adult can only be with 4 students at a time, because each group gets separate questions.

So the “We the People” advisors are asking we — the Westporters — for help.

A lawyer in town who offers his or her conference room; former college history majors who love to talk about politics, law and the Constitution; actors to work on presentation skills — all are welcome.

Volunteers could also help as “judges,” during a practice competition before the April trip.

All could be “game-changers,” Laskin says. The key is to help teenagers “look, sound, act and think like lawyers — and learn the skills to do the research and pull off the argument in front of real judges. It’s very cool.”

“We have plenty of brilliant minds in Westport,” he notes. “There are parents of former We the People students, parents who can get involved before their kids are juniors and seniors … this could be a feel-good, come-together Westport story.

“Suzanne Kammerman puts her heart and soul into this. Some kids say We the People was the defining moment of their high school careers. Let’s all support this amazing program any way we can.”

Interested in helping? Email andylaskinesq@gmail.com, or text Andy Laskin: 203-610-7065. For the full text of all 18 “We The People” questions, click here.