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Westfield a finalist in We The People competition

WESTFIELD — Greg Birner, Westfield Academy and Central School’s Social Studies teacher, and his We the People Team have experienced unprecedented success this year by placing second at states with an invitation to nationals.

Birner has been coaching We the People teams since 2007. To date, the best any team has placed was third overall in the state competition. This year, the 14 students who made up the We the People Team placed second overall and were marked as above average or excellent by 21 out of 24 judges, Birner said.

Only the top two placing teams in the state are invited to the national competition. Birner said that nine out of the 14 students have chosen to compete in the nationals, which will take place in late April.

In the We the People competition, participating students make up six teams which research areas of the US Constitution.

“The class culminates in a ‘Congressional Hearing’ where our students face off with experts on the Constitution and have to defend the Constitution and how it functions today,” Birner said. “This year, our team took second place at States and are now invited to nationals to represent New York state with the first place team (Half Hollow Hills East). I have always loved the We The People program. More than anything, it gives my students an intense research-based class that focuses on how the Constitution was formed, how our nation worked with this government over time and how the Constitution applies to this very day.”

The competition benefits the students in many ways, Birner said.

“The class is designed to work on public speaking, civil discourse and analytical thinking skills,” he said. “Three skills, I dare say, that are sorely needed in today’s turbulent, and, in many cases, misinformed political environment.”

Birner said he refused to let the pandemic become an issue or an excuse for lack of preparation.

“One of the things that I started last Spring was pushing my students right out of the gate,” he said. “My students would tell you that my expectations were really high.”

Having the competition virtually had its advantages and disadvantages, Birner said. Some of the students were more at ease speaking publicly in a virtual setting. On the other hand, the virtual setting did not allow for “non-verbal” communication that goes on between teammates, he said.

Birner said the students memorized all of the speeches which gave them an edge on many other schools.

“We also noticed that it was easy to see that students were reading speeches and that looking into the camera and memorizing the speeches might be an advantage to us,” he said. “Some of the judges noticed and complimented us on our eye contact.”

The 14 students who took part in the competition are: Brooke Carlson, Hunter Dellow, Owen Bates, Emma Heim, Richard Barney, Jay Northrop, Matt Schumaker, Kaleb Johnson and Dylan Rammelt, Logan Miles, Gracie Szablewski, Morgan Spann, McKenzie Wolfe and Elber Lopez Hernandez.

Birner is not alone in his reaction to this year’s competition results.

“I was honestly in a state of shock,” said Emma Heim when she found out how well the team had done. “The first thing I did was ask my teammates if I had heard correctly. Then I started celebrating and dancing around my room. It was really an incredible thing to watch all the memorization, preparation and hard work culminate into the highest rank Westfield has ever received.”

Dylan Rammelt is in complete agreement with Heim.

“I was ecstatic, and a little surprised,” he said. To hear that we are only the second group of Westfield students to go to nationals is an accomplishment in itself.”

McKenzie Wolfe said she carried away a great experience of pride.

“I felt proud of not only myself or my team, but the whole class. It was a combined effort that we could not have achieved without everybody’s hard work throughout the semester,” she said.

The students also expressed the personal benefits they received from the experience. Jay Northrup said: “More than anything it gave me a sense of confidence and responsibility, knowing it was just the three of us that could do this.”

Logan Miles noted how the class increased his self-confidence.

“I not only took away pride, but I also took confidence out of this class. I now feel way more eager to do things like carnival games even if people are watching,” he said.

Gracie Szablewski said the experience will help her prepare for her career.

“I plan on pursuing journalism after high school, and this course has definitely prepared me for that,” she said. “It gave me a chance to collect information through current events, textbooks, and news outlets, that I would later write about in my speech.”

Emma Heim described how the program helps students become better citizens in a democracy.

“We the people gives us this amazing opportunity to discuss our democracy not only with our peers, but also with esteemed lawyers, judges, and professors. Through the class we learn how to have civil discourse with people our age or older,” she said. “I think we the people creates better citizens who are ready to take on the responsibility placed upon them in a democratic form of government.”

Nearly all of the participants said they would recommend the We the People class to juniors. Jay Northrup said that despite the fact that it was at times a difficult class, he would encourage juniors to take it.

“It was probably my favorite class throughout the entirety of high school,” he said.

Richard Barney agreed that the class is a lot of work, but also a lot of fun.

“I will say that this class was one of the most fun classes I’ve taken, and winning second place is a nice cherry on top,” he said. “So, if any juniors are thinking about taking this class, I highly recommend it. If you aren’t afraid to do a lot of work and research, then this class is worth it.”

Brooke Carlson said she has already told a junior to think about taking the class.

“I was talking to a junior yesterday about joining WTP. This class is definitely something that I’d recommend to any junior, even if they don’t have faith in themselves,” she said.

Owen Bates said “I would always recommend this class. I have learned so much about our government, how to collaborate with others, and it has also improved my public speaking.”

Bates said he learned a very important lesson about government from the class.

“If I have learned anything this semester, one of the most essential aspects of our government is debating,” he said. “Being able to argue and spread your ideas and opinions helps our government grow. Not pushing our opinions on someone, but having a civil discussion is crucial in our society.”

Morgan Spann concurred, saying “I’d recommend this class to any junior, although it’s fast paced, it is still doable and will help them throughout their public speaking journey.”

Hunter Dellow and Matt Schumaker, two of the nine students who have decided to compete at the national level, noted that they have learned a lot about the government.

“Throughout the class I was able to grow and learn a lot more about the Constitution and this will be kept with me forever,” said Dellow. “I will always have the memory of placing second in the New York State We The People competition.”

Schumaaker added “I learned a lot about federalism and gerrymandering. I also learned a lot about how power shifts between the state and federal government, and I learned about the election process.”

Birner says he is very proud of his students’ success and he is eager to continue working with those who have chosen to go on to the national competition in April. Nationals will also be virtual, he said, and will therefore be a lot less expensive than if the students had to travel to a central site.

” I am very proud of my class for working as hard as they did for States, and extremely proud that nine students stepped up to give nationals a shot,” Birner said. “These students want to challenge themselves against the best of the best and I look forward to working with them throughout this journey.”

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