Westfield students find success in We the People competition
WESTFIELD — Westfield Academy and Central School Social Studies teacher Greg Birner’s We the People students have once again competed against the giant eastern schools and have returned with honor.
The 15 students who, as Birner said, “rolled up their sleeves and faced the fire,” came home with third place overall in the annual state competition, which took place in the Justice Resources Center on the Martin Luther King Jr. campus in New York City last month.
In addition to third place overall, one team gave a perfect performance and was awarded first place for Unit 6, Birner said. The students in this team were Unit 6 Mat Emmons, Katie Bodenmiller and Brad Belmondo.
Westfield also received two second place finishes. Allyson Schaaf, Isaac Caballero, and Jessi Rickerson received second place for Unit 4 of the competition and Dhananjay Patel, Brad Belmondo and Katie Bodenmiller took second place in the Unit 5 competition.
The other students who helped achieve the overall third place finish include Savanah Lashbrook, Cooper Harris, McKayla Wolfe, Keegan Carnahan, Josh Kiswani, Abigail Warner, Hayden Backus and Ryan Jafarjian.
“I have said it before and will say it again, this is a special breed of student that wants to push themselves to enhance their research, team work and public speaking skills.” Birner said. “I sat back a couple of times, looked at the other chaperone, Mr. Cooper, and said, ‘That was darn near perfect!'”
The students themselves said the experience was rewarding. “When I found out we were 3rd place in the state I was very pleased and proud. Mainly because we beat five other schools, mostly whom were large New York City schools,” said Abigail Warner.
Her classmate, Matthew Emmons agreed. “I was so ecstatic and proud. I knew each and everyone in our group worked hard and it showed and payed off in the competition.”
Katie Bodenmiller said she was “shocked” when her unit won first. “While I knew we did our best and I was proud of that, I did not think that we were going to win first place.”
The competition was not without a degree of anxiety, Bodenmiller said. “When the judges entered, I got very nervous. I felt prepared for the presentation; however, it is very nerve racking to sit in front of constitutional experts and talk about it.”
Jessi Rickerson said the judges actually had a calming effect. “I was nervous leading up to my turn, but seeing the judges in a way helped me calm down. They were laid back and generous to the members of my group.”
Birner noted that many of the students who took part in the We The People program will be taking AP government class in the spring. “It truly makes teaching one of the most enjoyable professions when students want to work hard and in many ways make me want to work even harder,” he said.
Birner said that the real outcome of the students’ hard work will be that they are prepared to seek out the truth in a “polarized and sometimes hysterical political climate.”
Many of the students expressed similar thoughts. “We The People jump started my interest in politics and the government,” said Isaac Caballero. “It helped me create a voice for me to state my opinions and beliefs. This class helped me gain a ton of knowledge that I will use for the rest of my life.”
Bradley Belmondo concurred. “There is something so incredibly important to me about knowing what is going on in my country. By going through the We The People course, I care even more about the happenings of our government and politics,” he said. “Confidently knowing more about our government than most of our country, our We The People team should look forward to seeing our nation from a different point of view.”
Birner said his students often ask him “with all the biased news outlets, crazy social media sites and propagation of extreme conspiracy theories, ‘how are we to keep our republic?’, as Ben Franklin said.”
Birner said he tells them that they must educate themselves first, and then act. “Too many people in today’s society act on a few bombastic comments made on cable news or social media outlets,” he said. “My fear for our democracy is we have lost our way in civil discourse.”
Birner said that the We The People course will help his students be capable of intelligently discussing controversial issues. “My class comes from multiple backgrounds, but they all have the ability to listen, and discuss rather than hear, then yell,” he said.
Birner said he is always very pleased with how his students develop as American citizens. “At the end of the day, it is all about becoming a better citizen, but 3rd place was a pretty nice honor,” he said.