Ty James, a fifth-grader at Opportunity Elementary School in the Central Valley School District, explained to the judges an instance when the common good outweighs individual rights.
“You can’t yell fire in a crowded theater,” she said quietly.
Her teammate, Hailey Brown, elaborated that doing so would not only damage the common good of the people in the theater, but would damage an individual right of life.
It was part of Opportunity’s annual congressional hearings, a seven-year tradition for fifth-graders at the school.
This year, Opportunity welcomed 70 fifth-graders from South Pines Elementary, as well.
Opportunity Principal Molly Carolan said the idea for the hearings came from teachers Dina Murphy and Karen Carpenter. The event teaches students about the Constitution and their roles and responsibilities in society. Plus, they also get a nice send off before they advance to middle school.
“They are putting together what they’ve learned over the course of their elementary career,” Carolan told the audience.
School board members, principals from other schools and district administrators judged the hearings. The winners received medals.
“What we put into this event really makes a difference for kids,” Carolan said. She added that learning about the Constitution helps them to grow into citizens. They discuss why they need to vote and the rules and responsibilities that go along with freedom of speech.
Students were divided into groups of four or five. They had just a few minutes to discuss their theme before three judges asked them questions.
Carolan said she is always impressed by the confidence students show during their presentations.
South Pines Principal Walt Clemons agreed.
“This is way out of their comfort level,” he said. “I’m excited for them.”
James and Brown’s group, which also included Jacie Higbee and Caleb Richey, spoke about what basic ideas about government the founders had when writing the Constitution.
“The purpose of government was to preserve the common good,” James said.
Terrie VanderWegen, assistant superintendent of learning and teaching, asked the group for examples of things they can do to preserve the common good.
Richey suggested cleaning up a playground. Higbee suggested recycling. James said donating to a charity.
School board member Amy Mason asked the students how the government is different today from what it was during the 1770s.
They all noted that not everyone could vote during the infancy of the American government. African Americans, Native Americans and women were not allowed to vote.
“Now all have the freedom to vote,” Brown said.
Judges spent an hour and a half listening to groups discuss what they have learned. When it was over, everyone gathered in the gym to find out which groups would receive medals.
For the students at Opportunity, it wasn’t just a chance to celebrate their promotion to middle school. The students also said goodbye to Carolan, who will be principal at Summit School next fall.
Two students presented Carolan with a bouquet of flowers before everyone broke up into groups.
“Thank you, fifth-graders,” Carolan told them. “You guys are awesome.”
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