–by Joanna Hallac
Through the relatively short life of this blog, we’ve been able to bring you many stories related to the history of the Capitol and Congress, as well as a few other tales of historical import, which fits nicely into our overall mission of educating and informing the public about the history and importance of the U.S. Capitol and of Congress—both its members and institutions. Even though this isn’t our usual type of post, seeing as education is the main goal of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society, I thought it would be worthwhile to introduce you all to a program we use to help us further achieve our mission with the younger generation. It is called the We the People Constitution Program, and it is centered on an examination of the U.S. Constitution and the three main branches of our federal government. It is free and open to 8th graders in all DC public and public charter schools, as 8th grade is the big year for studying the Constitution and our government in most schools throughout the country.
On their tour, the students and teacher chaperones are picked up at their school by an Old Town Trolley and they start their day at the U.S. Capitol to learn about Article I of the Constitution and about the building itself. They then move onto Lafayette Square and stand outside of the White House while learning about the role of the executive branch of government before traveling to the steps of the Supreme Court building, where they participate in an educational exercise related to the role of the judicial branch. They also make a stop at the Lincoln Memorial, have lunch at the Department of Agriculture, and end the day looking at our country’s founding documents at the National Archives. The program is a collaboration of a number of historic sites and organizations throughout DC—USCHS, National Archives, White House Historical Association, Federal Courts System, the Children’s Concierge, Old Town Trolley of DC, and Sodexo—and it seeks to bring the Constitution to life for as many 8th graders in the District as want to participate.
Those schools that participate in the tour are encouraged to then take part in what is called the We the People Challenge. The Challenge is a means to extend the content learned on the tour and essentially serves as the classroom component for the We the People program and works by “challenging” teachers to go beyond what was taught on the tour and reinforce those concepts in their classrooms for the remainder of the school year. The schools that choose to participate are asked to demonstrate the work they have continued to do in their classrooms by submitting some examples for us to evaluate. Of the schools that do take part in the Challenge, the one that has shown the greatest level of commitment to continuing to build on the learning that began on the Constitution tour, determined by a panel of members of the consortium, is deemed the winner and receives a $1000 community grant from the Brown Rudnick Charitable Foundation, who sponsors the Challenge. Additionally, Brown Rudnick is a sponsor of the tour, along with the Morris & Gwendolyn Cafritz Foundation, Verizon, International Paper, and Pepco, among others. This year’s Challenge saw Cesar Chavez Public Charter School win for the second consecutive year, with Maya Angelou Public Charter School, Shaw Middle School at Garnett-Patterson, and Columbia Heights Education Campus garnering Honorable Mention plaques.
This program is a great example of the positive work people can do in a community when they join forces and work together to create a meaningful educational opportunity for our young people. Hopefully, through such an experience, they will begin to get truly interested in the study of our country’s history and government so that they may enter the adult world as informed and educated citizens. As an educator, the We the People program has been a wonderful experience to be a part of and hopefully more and more schools will continue to take advantage of the chance to participate in this unique educational opportunity.
For more information on this program and all of the educational programs we are involved in, please visit our website at www.uschs.org.