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Senators for a Day

Senators for a Day

Students can craft and debate legislation at the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute. By Wayne D’Orio

When the bus finally pulled up to its field trip location, history teacher Steven Moynihan rushed off.  Heavy Massachusetts traffic had delivered his students to their destination about an hour late but that wasn’t the reason for Moynihan’s haste.

“I wanted to see my students’ reactions when they entered,” he says. He wasn’t disappointed. When his Barnstable High School students came through the doors of the new Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston, they were wide-eyed.

That’s because the centerpiece of the 68,000-square-feet building is a nearly exact replica of the Senate Chamber. Moynihan’s students were there to play senator for a day, designing and debating an immigration reform bill that they would vote on. But their first order of business was to take in the heady feeling of being on the Senate floor. The students, some dressed in business attire, others a little more informal, including one in a fedora, couldn’t help but look up at the gallery or check out how it felt to sit at one of the 100 desks. Quickly, actors leading the day’s events swore in the students and they got to work.

The institute opened on March 31 as the realization of Edward Kennedy’s desire to make the Senate and its work meaningful to future generations of students. Being senator for a day helps students “understand the tenets of democracy,” says Nell Breyer, the center’s director of programming and education. Like a compressed version of the Model Congress program, the institute allows students to craft a bill, debate appointments, consider amendments, and ultimately vote on their work, all in a two-hour block.

The heart of the activity is a carefully created simulation that plunges students right into matters as current as immigration or as historical as the Compromise of 1850. While Kennedy was a longtime Democratic leader, the institute takes pains to remain bipartisan. The offices of senators John McCain and Harry Reid vetted the immigration Senate Immersion Module (SIM), and the institute’s content advisory committee includes both Richard Baker, the Senate historian for more than 30 years, and Alan Frumin, the Senate’s chief parliamentarian for more than 10 years. New SIMs are being readied, Breyer says, and soon students will be able to debate the Civil Rights Act and the Patriot Act. All the SIMs are created to sync with Common Core standards, she adds.

“There’s a humility in students and an earnestness to solve problems,” Breyer says. “I’m amazed at how serious they take this.”

The institute uses technology to engage and inspire students, handing each of them a tablet when they enter. The tablet is preloaded with all the specifics they’ll need to play their role for the day. The students are randomly assigned to a party and a state, are told what key points their constituents are worried about, and are given their personal strengths.

Moynihan says one of his students stated that she definitely didn’t want to be a Republican during the exercise. But when she found out she was, she gamely went along. At the end of the day, she was happy for the opportunity to see the other side of the issue.

“It’s a safe environment for talking about contentious matters,” Breyer says.

Moynihan, who sits on an advisory committee for the institute, says some of his students didn’t like the somewhat simplistic talking points presented on their tablets, saying it limited what they could consider. However, with a lot of ground to cover in a short time, he says the restraints are necessary. “It allowed them to focus on the skills of negotiation,” he says. The institute does offer both pre- and post-visit activities to help deepen the learning.

The SIMs eventually will be available to schools without having to make the visit to Boston, Breyer says. But on this day, the sense of place was a big part of the experience. “As high school students, it was cool for them to be treated like senators. That elevated their participation,” says Moynihan. He added that he will definitely bring future classes back, and said he is looking forward to hearing students debate the Patriot Act.

After being sworn in, Moynihan’s students broke into small groups to discuss appointees and various parts of the legislation, and to bargain with one another for support. The students considered using biometrics to track immigrants’ whereabouts but eventually rejected the measure as unconstitutional. Staff members fondly mentioned that a student on a previous visit staged a filibuster during his class’s SIM.

When students are ready to vote, they return to the Senate floor and one by one state their preference. Moynihan says some of his students complained that their peers didn’t stick to the role they were assigned to when it came time to cast their vote. The group’s law, to allow immigrants a path to permanent residence status, passed 26-8.

The institute, which is booked for the rest of this school year, is free to students from Massachusetts. Out-of-state students pay $8 each, although group rates are available. The institute can host up to 100 students at one time. Some eighth graders have visited, but most participants are from high schools and colleges. The institute is located on Columbia Point, next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum and just steps away from the University of Massachusetts.

Edward M. Kennedy spent nearly 47 years in the Senate, and one part of the institute is a reproduction of his Washington, D.C., office, right down to the tennis balls he had on hand for his Portuguese water dogs. Around the replica Senate are interactive exhibits that show the history of the legislative body.

A star-studded cast of politicians that included President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and numerous senators were there for the opening. The re-creation of the chamber is so realistic, says communications coordinator Natalie Boyle, that many senators went straight to their chairs at the beginning of the ceremony.

Image: Courtesy of the Edward M. Kennedy Institute


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