Teachers Ring Up Liberty Bell

April 29, 2005
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When five KentIntermediateSchool District teachers chose to take part in the Center for Civic Education's We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution competition, they didn't realize they would all be winners.

KISD and the coaches from Michigan's 3rd Congressional District for We the People received the Grand Rapids Bar Association's 2005 Liberty Bell Award Friday at the annual Law Day Luncheon and Liberty Bell Award Ceremony. The event is sponsored by the Grand Rapids Bar Association and the ThomasM.CooleyLawSchool

The Liberty Bell Award is given each year to a non-lawyer or nonprofit organization that has contributed to the cause of justice or helped to advance the public's understanding of the legal system and the Constitution of the United States

Richard Stevens, executive director of the Association for the Blind and Visually Impaired, nominated the program. He said it was a good fit with the criteria.

"This program is a program that promotes knowledge of our government and promotes an interest in its workings," he said.

Stevens has had personal experience with We the People, as two of his children have taken part in the competition through EastGrand RapidsHigh School

"I have seen the benefits of the program," he said.

Award recipients Carolyn Bolthouse of Comstock Park High School, Pierre Sirois of East Grand Rapids High School, Deb Snow of East Kentwood High School, Tricia Hilgendorf of Tri-Unity Christian High School, Catherine Logsdon of Union High School and Susan Laninga of KISD said they were honored by the award, but the program and understanding the Constitution is the real issue.

"I'm flattered and honored that they decided it was an important enough program to notice the teachers that are doing it," said Laninga, curriculum consultant for KISD and 3rd Congressional District coordinator for We the People. "The competition is the culmination of a great deal of study, thinking by the students and research by the students into constitutional issues."

We the People helps students realize the importance of the Constitution in the present as well as the past, said Comstock's Bolthouse.

"The competition pushes the kids to explore it at a deeper level, to do research and to discover that the Founding Fathers really were brilliant and the document that they produced is still relevant today," she said. "You just really realize the brilliance of the Founding Fathers."

East's Sirois said the program has gotten his students so immersed in the Constitution that they begin to relate it automatically to current events.

"They literally go through a Constitution withdrawal," he said. "That's how real the Bill of Rights and the Constitution become. They become life-long lovers of government and active citizens."

Sirois and his group of students were not able to attend the ceremony because as state winners they were competing in the We the People national competition in Washington, D.C.

"We won't be there because we're going to do what we got the award for," he said.

The We the People competition helps students immerse themselves in the Constitution. Students study the Constitution and the Bill of Rights and then answer questions demonstrating their knowledge of the principles and their ability to find the relevance of the documents to both historical and contemporary issues.

"It's very important because it teaches so thoroughly not only the history of the Constitution and the founding principles of the Constitution, but it teaches kids how to apply the Constitution to their lives," said Hilgendorf of Tri-Unity.

Students use prepared responses to demonstrate knowledge of history, then answer questions from the judges applying the principles of the Constitution and the Bill of Rights to current events, Hilgendorf said.

Union's Logsdon said she and the other coaches had to attend a seminar and go through the same format the students would experience to prepare for coaching.

"We kind of knew what to tell them and how to prepare them for it," she said.

Logsdon said she thought the students learned about more than just the Constitution.

"It got kids involved in something they hadn't been involved in," she said.

Many students are involved in sports in high school, but academic and intellectual clubs are not as popular.

"It's a little different," Logsdon said. "I think these kids took a risk getting involved because of the stereotypes that can go with that."

The students didn't worry about whether they were going to be teased about their involvement; they were dedicated to the program, which demanded about four weeks of intense study in the fall, Logsdon said.

"I was very proud of them," she said.

East Kentwood's Snow, who won the Liberty Bell Award for her individual work in 1992, said We the People is especially important at this point when schools are making heavy budget cuts.

"I think right now is a wonderful time for We the People to be recognized because I think our members of Congress need to understand how important this is," she said.

Snow said she thinks the award also is a great way to recognize non-lawyers who contribute to the legal community and to the ideas of law and justice.

"It's a wonderful idea that the Bar Association of the United States awards people who are not lawyers," she said.    

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