Friday, November 3, 2017

Taking Risks: 8th Grade Congressional Hearing Simulations

This is NOT meant to be easy. It is meant to CHALLENGE you. 

Because when you are CHALLENGED you discover talents you never knew you had. You learn what AMAZING things you are capable of. 

If it was easy...we wouldn't be spending out time on it. 

I probably said this everyday for the last two weeks to my 8th graders. We were all embarking on something new. Something we were a little unsure of how it would look on the final day. And it was going to challenge us all.

This year, I decided to leap forward and attempt the "We the People Congressional Hearing Simulation" project.

I was first exposed to this, last year when I was asked to sit as a "Constitutional Expert" judge for the Seniors of Halstead High School who were preparing for their congressional hearings. I was BLOWN AWAY.  The level of constitutional knowledge the students portrayed really impressed me. I decided, that day, that I needed to do something like this with my 8th graders.

Luckily the materials for "We the People" have a middle school section with topic questions that are more on the 8th grade level. (But still above what my students are used to when we study the Constitution.)

Here are a couple of examples of some of the questions:

The very first amendment, added to the Constitution in 1791, contains guarantees freedom of religion.

  • Why did the Founders think freedom of religion was so important?
  • Explain the difference between establishment and free exercise clauses.
  • Do you think limitations should ever be placed on the free exercise of one's religious beliefs? Explain your answer.

Voting is one way a citizen may participate in politics. Many other activities are possible.

  • What activities besides voting are available to citizens?
  • Which of these activities, if any, do you think is the most useful? Explain your answer.
  • How should a citizen decide which of these activities to participate in?

I ordered a set of 10 of the We the People textbooks. I'm not a big user of textbooks, but at the right time they can be a very valuable tool. This is one of those times. I could have my students go out into the world of the internet to research their questions, but I wanted something that they would know would be accurate and written at an 8th grade level. Many reputable websites out there would help answer the questions, but the level of vocabulary would be enough above the majority of my students that they wouldn't understand the material.

Understanding is key.

I divided my classes into teams of three or four students and each group was given a topic and question. Their job was to research and prepare a statement response to their assigned topic/question. I required each team to combine their efforts to write (at least) a 5 paragraph essay. Then they would have to present their answer to a team of constitutional experts who would also ask follow-up questions. Teams would be "under fire" for 10 minutes.

We spent four class periods researching and working on the essay. I gave them a graphic organizer to help plan and write their essay. I'm not an English teacher, so I struggle to tell them the proper way to write a large essay with a solid thesis statement and conclusion. I looked to graphic organizers to help guide the kids along.

On the 5th day, students were given the chance for a "soft deadline."  The soft deadline is something I stole from my work with PBL. This gives students the chance to practice their presentation for valuable feedback before the final due date. I have come to feel that the soft deadline is the best thing for my students when we do large projects for and extended time. The result of the practice and feedback is ALWAYS a better product than before.

Students met with my principal, high school student intern, and the high school social studies teachers for their soft deadline.  This was the final day to prepare for the big presentation with our team of constitutional experts.

Making things REAL. I have worked to make any project my students do have a "real" audience. They take it more seriously and produce higher quality work when they know the work has an audience other than me.

My Constitutional Experts:
Our state Senator: Dan Kerschen
Our local mayor: Linda Ball
High School Social Studies teachers: T.J. Warsnak and Derek Schutte

It doesn't get anymore real that that!

The Congressional Hearing:
The 8th graders showed up that day dressed and ready to impress! And impress they did. I was so proud of how well they did on stage. Sure, there were some groups that did better than others, there were content errors mentioned, and there were times when they couldn't answer some of those tough questions from the committee. But they did a GREAT job overall. They were poised, professional, and surprised themselves with what they were capable of doing.

That's what I wanted. I wanted them outside those comfort zones, challenged in ways they hadn't been challenged before, so they can see that THEY CAN DO THINGS LIKE THAT! Even after it was all over, they admitted that they were proud of what they did and even had fun!


  • I loved the LEVEL of content my students had to deal with. I LOVED that it was difficult for them and they had to find ways to understand it. 
  • As always with group projects, there were some teams that didn't divide the work evenly. My future idea is to have each team member write the essay on their own and then combine the best of each essay. I had this down in my original requirements for each team, but we ran short of time due to a schedule conflict so I had to change it up a bit. 
  • I loved having our state lawmaker and local mayor on my team of experts. It is amazing to me who is willing to participate in classroom activities when teachers reach out and ASK. 
  • I really think this would be an awesome cross-curricular activity to pair up with the ELA teacher, the difficult part with that is timing. Definitely something to consider for the future.
  • I loved taking it to the auditorium. My future goal is to have it held down at City Hall, but this would involve the cooperation of the other teachers in the building, to adjust the schedule so that students would and could be late to classes. Definitely something I think we could discuss.

Whenever I try something BIG that's new, I know that its a risk. There's a chance we could fall flat or not work out in my head the way I see it in my imagination. But more times than not, it is worth it! Taking risks inside the classroom, forcing myself and my students OUTSIDE THAT COMFORT ZONE, yields some amazing results over and over again!

Curious about "We the People"? Click HERE


  1. Hi Jill! I am actually working with my English 3 team teacher to do a similar project with our students! Would you be willing to share with me what resources you have left from when you did this? I also really appreciate your blog! It has helped me tremendously with my planning for this year!

    1. I can share what I have, can you shoot me your email?