Tag Archives: “We the People” competition

“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.

“We The People”: Staples’ Constitutional Champs

Congress is bitterly divided. Government norms are under attack. Some Americans wonder whether our Constitution can survive.

If you worry that so much negativity will turn an entire young generation off to politics: Have no fear.

Just talk to Suzanne Kammerman’s Advanced Placement Government and Politics class.

The 23 students examine questions like: How did the framers create the Constitution? How have our Constitutional values and principles shaped American institutions and practices? What challenges does our democracy face in the 21st century?

The Staples juniors and seniors do more than discuss these issues. They compete against other high schools in a simulated congressional hearing, before a panel of actual judges, college law professors, state senators and attorneys.

The local teenagers do it very, very well. Last weekend, they finished 1st in the statewide “We the People” competition.

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

The victory broke Trumbull High’s 8-year stranglehold on first place. And it earned Staples a spot in April’s national “We the People” event, in Leesburg, Virginia.

The Westporters have qualified before, as 2nd-place wildcard finishers. This is their first year guaranteed a spot, as state champs.

More than 20 years ago, as a student at Shelton High, Kammerman herself participated in “We the People.” It was so powerful, she helped introduce the course to Staples.

Students spend hours outside of class forming teams, researching questions, developing answers, then arguing them in front of prestigious, difficult judges.

At a time when many Americans throw up their hands about government, it’s good to know that a great group of Westport teenagers embrace it.

(“We the People” winners include Surya Balaji, Taha Banatwala, Lucy Belknap, Brian Campbell, Violet Cooper, Lars Djuve, Michael Farnen, Dylan Goodman, Grace Katz, Kashvi Kumar, Brett Levy, Gary Lu, Natalia Maidique, William Matar, Tadeo Messenger, Neha Navrange, Maximus Pace, Samuel Powell, Claire Redmer, Andrew Spangler, Nicholas Suarez, Rachel Suggs and Samantha Webster.)

The Constitution

Staples Students: “We The People”

Supreme Court Associate Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes Jr. wrote, “I think that we should be eternally vigilant against attempts to check the expression of opinions that we loathe and believe to be fraught with death, unless they so imminently threaten immediate interference with the lawful and pressing purposes of the law that an immediate check is required to save the country.” Do you agree or disagree with Justice Holmes? Why?

That’s a tough question. It takes a ton of work just to understand what Holmes said — let alone figure out what you think, then devise arguments for or against it.

It’s especially hard for a teenager. But this question — and 17 others like it — have inspired an entire Staples High School class, for months.

And at the end of April, they head to Washington to argue those 18 questions, in a national competition that’s a proving ground for future leaders of the free world.

In just their 3rd year of existence, students in Suzanne Kammerman’s “We the People” Advanced Placement Government course finished 2nd in a statewide contest. That qualified them for the DC event.

Suzanne Kammerman (2nd row, far right) and her AP Government "We the People" class, after finishing 2nd in the statewide competition last December.

Suzanne Kammerman (2nd row, far right) and her AP Government “We the People” class, after finishing 2nd in the statewide competition last December.

More than 20 years ago, as a student at Shelton High, Kammerman herself participated in “We the People.” It was so powerful, she helped introduce the course to Staples. Though the high school offers 9 sections of AP Government, this is the only one that includes the contest component.

It’s an added commitment — students spend hours outside of class forming teams, researching questions, developing answers, then arguing them in front of judges who are professors and constitutional experts — but students who are passionate about government embrace it. They compete in “We the People” in addition to their other coursework — which includes preparing for the regular AP exam.

According to Milton Friedman, “The existence of a free market does not of course eliminate the need for government. On the contrary, government is essential both as a forum for determining the ‘rules of the game’ and as an umpire to interpret and enforce the rules decided on.” To what extent, if any, are Friedman’s ideas seen in the development of capitalism in western civilization?

There are 6 units of questions, on topics like “Philosophical and Historical Foundations of the American Political System” and “What Challenges Might Face American Constitutional Democracy in the 21st Century?”

we-the-people-logoWorking in groups of 3 or 4, students explore 3 questions each, in astonishing depth. Using critical analysis skills, they respond in writing to all 3 questions. They then respond to judges’ questions — without notes.

“I’m amazed at how much these kids have to know,” Kammerman — who meets with them on weekends, at the library and Barnes & Noble — says.

“And they really look at the Constitution with genuine civic dialogue. They’re not hyper-partisan. They all have points of view about politics, but they push them aside. It’s very impressive.”

In a speech to his fellow Virginians in 1775 Patrick Henry noted, “I have but one lamp by which my feet are guided, and that is the lamp of experience.” What lessons from history and experiences led the colonists to develop and structure their legislatures and their relationships to their executives and judiciaries the way they did in their new state constitutions?

Suzanne Kammerman (Photo/Madeline Hardy for Inklings)

Suzanne Kammerman (Photo/Madeline Hardy for Inklings)

At the qualifying competition in December, held at Central Connecticut State University, questions were asked about 4th Amendment issues like privacy and search and seizure, in the context of schools. Judges were so impressed with the Staples students’ responses that they continued talking, long after the 6-minute timer went off.

Right now, the class is preparing for the national contest. They’re excited at the chance to participate in mock congressional hearings, and see the sights in Washington. Kammerman has also arranged a meeting with Senator Chris Murphy.

But besides studying for some very tough questions, the “We the People” class has another task. The cost of the trip — including transportation and hotels — is nearly $30,000.

They received a very generous $15,000 donation from the law firm of Koskoff Koskoff and Bieder. But they need more.

If you’d like to help the next generation of leaders, contact Kammerman (skammerman@westport.k12.ct.us) or Staples principal James D’Amico (jdamico@westport.k12.ct.us).

What do you think Thomas Jefferson meant when he included the right to the “pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence instead of the more commonly used “right to property”? Where might the concept have come from?

The Constitution

The Constitution