‘Being better citizens’: Middle school students prepare for state competition


A group of 24 Brown County Middle School students are preparing to compete in the upcoming We the People state competition on Dec. 5 in Indianapolis.

We the People is a country-wide program organized and supported by a network of state bar associations and foundations, colleges and universities and other civic and law non-profit organizations to promote teaching and learning about the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

A few competitions are held each year, where schools compete against others in their region. The competitions are structured as mock Supreme Court hearings.

A panel of judges made up of lawyers, lawmakers and former We the People teachers ask the students questions that they have researched and prepared speeches to answer.

The BCMS We the People team competed in the regionals competition earlier this year, where they were the only small county school to compete. They scored in fifth place.

The students were selected for their units by BCMS social studies and history teacher Courtney Atak, who is leading the team for her second year.

At regionals, the top three scorers automatically move forward to the State-level competition. However, BCMS will still compete at state because they were drawn as a wildcard competitor from a list of nine schools that did not make the top three.

In the beginning of BCMS’ experience with We the People, it was the only school in its region.

In some cases, Atak said, they were chosen to go to regionals by default for many years.

“But the We the People program has grown over several years, and now we’ve got the wildcard thing.”

Students said they are very excited for the State competition.

Plans have been made to stay overnight in Indianapolis, go out for dinner as a team and even be guests at a naturalization ceremony, where a group of people will be sworn in as U.S. citizens.

“I’m excited to have a night with my friends,” We the People member Colbie Van Zuiden said about the trip to the state competition.

Atak said that she posted on Facebook that the group was going to the state competition, and not long after that someone reached out to her from the Brown County Community Foundation (BCCF) with a $900 donation.

Atak thanked BCCF for the donation that helped make the trip possible.

“Because state happens not very long after the regional competition, we haven’t had the time to raise any money, so that was a really generous thing for them to do,” she said.

There is also a national-level competition held in Washington, D.C. in April, which any school can compete in, regardless of previous scores.

Atak said the kids are “very keen” on going to D.C., especially following the past two years of COVID-19 restrictions.

“Last year’s competitions were all virtual. It was a completely different experience,” Atak said.

“They are really excited, they really want to go to D.C., but we would have to raise some more money to make it happen.”

She said the kids will be putting effort into fundraising for the trip in the spring.

“I know in the past the community has been really supportive of the We the People group. It’s been a while, so maybe we could get some community involvement,” she said.

“You may see students around town, doing fundraisers or things like that.”

‘Given better insight’

The BCMS We the People team is made up of six units, each focused on a separate topic that relates to the U.S. government’s formation, functions and laws, and the rights of citizens within the country.

“I placed them in certain units according to what I knew about them at the beginning of the year — if they would like the more history-based units, or citizen-based or whatnot,” she said.

“And then there are some students that are more activist-types.”

The students in each unit work together to research their assigned topics and prepare speeches to present to the panel of expert judges.

“Some of these kids, they know things about the government or the Supreme Court that their parents, or even I, don’t know, because they have researched it in such depth,” Atak said.

The We the People program challenges the students, but they said their involvement has benefitted them in many ways.

Hayden Blackwood is a member of Unit 3, which focuses on the Philadelphia Convention and the making of the Constitution.

“We the People teaches a lot about citizenship, like the strong and weak points, and how it was made,” Blackwood said.

Dallas Becraft said it’s made him understand the Constitution a lot more.

Becraft is in Unit 1. The unit focuses on English philosopher John Locke, whose ideas contributed to the idea of natural rights of our government, like liberty and property.

Another student, Ayden Jackson, emphasized the positive impact from working with a small team of classmates.

“In a small group environment, it definitely helps you to interact with each other, and it’s a big stepping stone in getting into the real world and having to deal with other people,” he said.

Jackson is in Unit 6 said it is focused on rights to citizens, including voting and all the different things in which they can take an active role.

With what they have learned from We the People, the students also said they feel more confident about their futures.

“I think it’s going to help me vote in the future, because I understand the government more now,” Van Zuiden said.

Elayna Stanley is member of Unit 5, in which she and her teammates focus on the First Amendment and the rights it protects for U.S. citizens.

She said the program has helped her become more informed and involved in discussions.

“Being in We the People class has taught me how to be a better citizen, taught me what our government has gone through to get where it is today, and has given me a better insight on politics and all that’s going on,” she said.

“You don’t feel ignorant anymore when people talk about politics, like you can actually contribute, you can have opinions.”

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