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South Jordan Journal

South Jordan Elementary fifth graders relate today’s issues to constitution

Mar 17, 2021 11:02AM ● By Julie Slama

South Jordan fifth graders in Diane Witt-Roper’s class pose for a photo alongside their judges for the We the People mock congressional hearing. (Photo courtesy of Dawn Ramsey.)

By Julie Slama|[email protected]

“We the People of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union …”

These words may have more significance in today’s climate as South Jordan Elementary’s fifth graders recently shared during their mock congressional hearing.

The annual We the People congressional hearing involving students from Diane Witt-Roper’s class had a different look this year, thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic. Instead of being held in the school’s multi-purpose room with families present, it was livestreamed to parents and the only invitees present were judges from the South Jordan community.

“With COVID, we had it in the classroom, to make it safer and parents were able to view it digitally,” Witt-Roper said, adding that instead of having families participate in judging a sixth judge was added.

The students, surprised by patriotic masks given to them by their teacher, were divided into five teams, each named for framers of the Constitution: Washington, Adams, Jefferson, Madison and Franklin. 

Students wrote and gave a short speech about a topic in one of the units of their textbook, “We the People—the Citizens and the Constitution” as part of simulated congressional hearing in which students “testify” before a panel of judges acting as members of Congress. 

Judges ask questions to allow students to demonstrate their knowledge and understanding of constitutional principles. Many fifth graders took the opportunity to tie in the questions to relevant historical and contemporary issues.

Mayor Dawn Ramsey was one of the judges. She has judged the competition before at Jordan Ridge Elementary.

“I am so grateful for the chance to be back in a classroom; it’s one of the things I’ve missed most over the past year,” she said. “We the People is a fantastic program, and I love seeing our young people learn about the constitution. These brilliant fifth graders did an excellent job. Mrs. Witt-Roper is an amazing teacher and I truly appreciate the opportunity be with her class.”

Principal Bev Griffith, who served as a judge for the first time, said some of the questions related to the world today.

“We asked about the common good versus individual rights, and the student related it to the riots and unrest in the nation and how there is a better way to protest than to lead to destruction or injury,” she said, adding that parents also talked with students beforehand about the topics. “The student tied it into the rise of the people and what we have a right to do and don’t in terms of the attack on the U.S. capitol.”

Griffith said another student showed the importance of freedom of speech, beginning with words along these lines: President Trump was the best president ever; University of Utah students are the smartest; and President Biden now has to clean up the mess caused by President Trump. All of these may be controversial statements, but all may fall under our freedom of speech.

“The students were asked to think outside the box, and they took real situations to put in mock situations,” Witt-Roper said.

Another student related pandemic stimulus checks when addressing questions about checks and balances and another pointed out that waiting in line to vote should be a privilege, not a burden. Students further suggested online voting and lowering the voting age to 16, the same age as driving. Another pointed out that they have a right of freedom of expression with choosing what they wear to school, but they still need to follow the school’s guidelines.

Judges could use suggested questions or ask their own, then they awarded points following a rubric. All the students received feedback from the judges so they could reflect on what they have accomplished.

Team Washington pulled out a one-point win over Team Jefferson, but all five teams were within 20 points. Witt-Roper said the culminating activity where they demonstrated what they’ve learned was the highlight.

“One student was super excited,” she said. “She got teary-eyed that we were able to celebrate and do this activity after all their hard work.” 

Griffith said she also learned from the students.

“I learned so much from the students about the Constitution and why many Europeans came here,” she said. “It was for a chance to own land, where in Europe only the rich could own the land. I wonder if that’s why my relatives came here. I’m so proud of these kids; even the shyest kids rose to the occasion to give their speeches and answer questions.” 

We the People is a national competition. In fifth grade, it is presented at the school level. In eighth grade, students compete on the state level. As high school juniors, it’s a competition where they may have the opportunity to compete nationally; this year, it will be virtual.

Jordan School District Board of Education President Tracy Miller judged this year’s South Jordan Elementary students.

“We the People is an outstanding program that really gets the students engaged in understanding the history and principles of our government,” she said. “I was so impressed with the students’ understanding of important principles of our government. They are bright and informed and prepared to be good citizens in our community.”