Monday, April 4, 2016

My Lawmaking Project

Understanding the political process is vital to becoming a well-rounded citizen, but it is so darn hard to explain to middle schoolers.

So instead we are acting it out.  The following post is about my lawmaking project, which takes place over a few weeks in between other activities and assignments.  I think it is a good way to explain how to make a law, but also engage students in a civil and meaningful discussion.

The first thing I had to do when I began to plan this assignment was find a way to make it relevant to kids.  Major political issues present a couple of problems; they are either too complex or too controversial.  Instead, I decided to stay local and focus on school issues.  Fortunately our school handbook works well as "compiled statutes."  I simply codified the handbook and update it each year.  I won't lie, that took some time, but once it is done, it's done.

Students spend the first day searching the statutes for something they want to change, repeal, or ideally add.  Students then use a simple Google Form to get their ideas down on paper.  You can check out what it looks like below:

 This all compiles into a spreadsheet that I grade more on completion than on accuracy.  After all, this is pretty new to my 7th graders.  They use their information to create a working bill using this template.  Here's a quick look at it:

Then students begin to replace the red text with their own.  Here's an example of that:

This takes a couple of days, but then the fun part comes in.  Student bills are numbered and assigned to committees.  These committees discuss all bills on a given topic (dress code, behavior, cell phones, etc.)  Bills are either passed or "die" in committee.  Majority rules.  Students fill out a committee report as they discuss each bill.  This again is completion as it is a messy but fun process.  Students tend to be much more conservative than you think.  Very few "silly" bills get passed, which shocks me every time.

I am fortunate enough to have two sections of 7th grade.  One acts as the House and the other acts as the Senate.  I let the student with the highest grade act as Speaker and President of the Senate, respectively.  Bills that pass committee are added to an agenda for a second reading on the floor.  The entire legislative body then debates the bill and takes action.  I use a Google Sheet to keep points for discussion.  

3 points for a motion to revise the bill that gets seconded and discussed
2 points for sharing an opinion or relevant information
1 point for simply agreeing/disagreeing, repeating information, or making procedural motions
0 points for something that does nothing to further discussion or does not make sense (I don't penalize them for trying)
-1 point or more for something out of line, inappropriate, distracting, etc. 

Students have to get at least 10 points to earn full credit for this part of the assignment.

Parliamentary procedure and rules of order are not 7th graders strong points, so I provide them with a handout to help them.  Procedure gets followed to some extent, but it is tough and I do my best to coax students to go about things the way they have to be done.  We revise the bills in the House and Senate and put them to final votes.  Those that pass will go to the other house to repeat the process.

At the end of the process, the governor or president (me) vetoes or signs laws.  The students of course want to override me immediately, which is always entertaining.  The assignment ends with some sort of reflective writing portion where students have to explain what they did and speculate as to the importance of the work as well as its difficulty.

I videotape the kids so they can watch themselves debate and argue.  It is quite amusing, especially later down the road.

It seems like a lot of work, but once it is done you can always work to improve it.  Students love the chance to speak and work on things that are authentic to them and you will be quite surprised with some of the ideas (Many good ones!) that they can develop from their perspective.  These types of assignments are can't miss for any social studies class!