Mock Senate project helps Kaneland students learn by doing

By on February 17, 2012

Photo: Kaneland Harter Middle School held it’s 8th grade mock debates on Feb. 10 and 13. The second-hour civics class enthusiastically votes on a bill. Photo by Lynn Meredith

by Lynn Meredith
KANELAND—When you think of a room of eighth graders in civics class listening to a lecture on government, do you imagine them slumped in their chairs, heads nodding? Not in Brendan McCormick’s class at Kaneland Harter Middle School. During a Mock Senate project, students were jumping out of their seats—literally—to be the first one to speak, make a motion or second a motion made on the “Senate” floor.

Dan Heineman, a student in McCormick’s class, saw an article in the Elburn Herald, titled “Ripple Effect,” that told how a class project on social problems at NIU and the Illinois Math and Science Academy (IMSA) actually became a law. He realized that was exactly the project that his civics class was working on.

As part of the Kaneland civics curriculum, students form small groups and focus on a social problem they want to solve. They spend a week researching their issue and deciding upon a set of policies and penalties to address it and sway behavior. Their final product is modeled after the format of an actual bill. They then bring the bill to committee for additional work and debate them in a mock senate. Eventually they will send the final choices to Congressman Randy Hultgren.

“It’s a lot of fun. It’s cool to see how a bill is passed, that some project could turn into a real life law,” Heineman said. “It’s a lot of work.”

The committees pared 34 possible bills down to seven, covering topics such as organ donation, animal abuse, censorship on the Internet, alternative energy sources and gang involvement.

“At this age, students often don’t get credit enough for the quality of their thinking. If you give them the right process, they can come up with wonderful ideas,” McCormick said. “They have to experience it to remember it. They wouldn’t remember the steps (for a bill to become law) if I just told it to them. They remember because they enjoyed the simulation.”

During the Mock Senate, McCormick acted as the Senate President, complete with coffee mug gavel. Students were addressed as “Senator.” McCormick required them to follow real-life procedures like on the U.S. Senate floor.

Anyone with a motion or a prepared statement had to stand and be recognized. After the motions were passed, the senators read prepared statements presenting their opinions, pro or con. Then the floor was opened for discussion. Finally, after motions and seconds calling for a vote on the bill, the Senate indicated favor by saying”yay” and opposed by saying, “nay.”

“I feel like a political guy,” Diego Lobo said. “I like debating topics. I have lots of opinions.”

The students were impassioned about their topics and eager to support the bills with research and rhetoric. One popular topic was the prevention of animal abuse.

“I care about animals. It’s really sad, and I want to stop the abuse. It breaks my heart to see animals treated like that,” said McKenzie McMullan, author of the animal abuse prevention bill.

Kaneland’s curriculum is unique in that it covers government for an entire years, as opposed to a quarter of the year as in many schools. McCormick said the extra time allows time for larger projects like the Mock Senate. His own experiences as an eighth grade student in Sycamore led him to want to teach social studies at this grade level.

“My eighth grade year was important to me. I had wonderful English and social studies teachers who did lots of projects. Projects work well at this age. It’s a transition year. You can catch them before they go into high school and give them practice on presenting their ideas before it really counts for their grades,” he said.

McCormick, while considering a doctorate in educational curriculum development, enjoys this age group.

“I like their energy. They are not quite adults and not quite kids. The dynamics of every class is totally different. You have to be able to appreciate a little chaos. The trick is to focus it,” he said.