The students are ‘the people,’ and well educated in Constitutional issues, too

Lincoln Southeast High School won the ‘We the People’ competition, while Lincoln East High School finished second. Southeast is eligible to attend the national competition this spring in Washington, D.C.

If you want a glimpse of the types of conversations students are having about constitutional issues, a We the People competition is the best place to start.

Three expressive and knowledgeable students sit at one table, well studied on current affairs related to government.

Meanwhile, three judges - each with a different background, usually in the legal or constitutional field - listen to the quality of the student answers.

In one room, students from Lincoln North Star High School open their hearing with introductions. The judges introduce the topic: How has the constitution been changed to further the ideals contained in the Declaration of Independence?

The students start by reading a prepared response.

The next part is the challenge: Judges start a Q&A, asking specific questions about the issue, sometimes providing counterpoint arguments for the students to consider.

So - on the spot and with the clock running - one of the three students must answer the question effectively, spontaneously and succinctly.

And then ... another question, often representing a viewpoint not heard, but perhaps an argument from a different political angle. Like, could we offer a tax break to get more people to vote?

"The tax break, that is classic! If that's not America I don't know what is," said Roger Lempke, former adjutant general (TAG) of the Nebraska National Guard. "You did a good job of a number of prior amendments that applied to voting that some other groups had not done yet.”

Caleb Osmond, one of the three North Star students currently competing, stresses the underlying responsibility students have.

“What we are doing right now, is a very good thing because we are learning how important it is to vote,” Osmond says, “and starting it early so youth understand just how important it is to vote.”

This North Star team gets credit that all three of students were involved in answering the questions, and for simply asking the judges for clarification on the questions.

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In another hearing room, Lincoln East students face a series of questions on foreign policy. Their prepared reading is very specific, filled with data on the United States' involvement in conflicts around the world.

They relate it to domestic matters, and how the two relate. They are quite willing to take a stance on a policy approach, while still giving credit to, in this case, from President Woodrow Wilson.

Next they relate the matters to constitutional issues, again providing specific cases and opinions, some perhaps well known to a wider audience, and some more obscure.

And now the questions from the judges.

The truly impressive aspect is that in some cases, the responses to the judges are well prepared and yet not overly obtuse. While not sounding rehearsed, each student takes a turn answering each question while providing a different viewpoint to consider.

The search is not for the right answer, but for the well-supported argument.

One of the judge’s questions relates to a news story heard that very morning regarding President-Elect Donald Trump. The answers from students show no partisanship, but rather broader considerations that past, current and future administrations need to acknowledge.

“I was particularly impressed with your reasons and the ability to cite specific cases as examples to support your augments,” one judge says. “That's important to being an effective citizen.

“It's not so much in my mind the competition but the education around this event,” he continued. “I want to compliment you on taking that various serious preparing yourself well, and presenting yourself well.”

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In the final round, Lincoln Southeast High School students draw a question about the framers intentions for the Constitution. The judge reads more about the topic, signifying the specific direction the judges want the conversation to go.

Before the hearing begins, Southeast teacher David Nebel runs through a few last points to remember, such as:

- When reading, hold your paper above the table to make it easier to make eye contact with the judges;

- Emphasize unique information, as the judges have heard various answers from other students in earlier hearings.

These students actually push for a bold idea in changing how we vote. When the judges questions begin, the students do not hesitate. They are well versed on these topics, even if they don't know the specific topics until the hearing begins.

Their fellow teammates are in the room, likely rehearsing their own answers in their head, and nodding when they hear a good point.

And then, a question they perhaps could not have foreseen, at least not specifically: Is it in the nature of humans to create good governments?

There was just one initial moment of hesitation, but then two of the students respond to the question with completely different yet supporting viewpoints.

One student uses an example that was less than 72-hours old, showing that not only do these students study their history books, but they also watch and read their news and apply it to what they have already learned.

A judge gives big compliments for knowing the issues, especially current events.

"You are way above 99 percent of the people in this country," he said.

Published: January 10, 2017, Updated: January 10, 2017