Any attempt to chronicle the history of the Legislative Semester at West Chicago Community High School will surely be inadequate. The events that have unfolded in the past ten semesters are too numerous to cover in a few pages. What follows is a brief overview of the Legislative Semester, as well as a listing of key people who have contributed to its development. What started out in 1993 as just another legislative simulation has evolved into a school wide culminating activity that gives seniors a chance to put all of their skills, values and beliefs to work in a semester long enactment of the legislative process. It is no longer a simulation, it is a real experience in democracy. During the semester students: 1) examine their own beliefs and values, 2) determine their own position on the political spectrum, 3) declare their party affiliation, 4) form interest groups to study issues, 5)choose elected officials, 6) write bills, 7) hold committee hearings on bills, 8) and ultimately conduct two legislative general sessions to decide the fate of their ideas and dreams.
Throughout the process, students utilize technology to communicate with one another, write bills, publish calendars and tabulate votes. Involvement and enthusiasm by students has been phenomenal. Many students discover for the first time unknown talents of persuasion as they swing the votes of committee members to attain a majority vote for their bill. Everyone discovers that their vote is equal to everyone else.
The idea for the Legislative Semester came out of numerous trips to Springfield during the 1980's. Throughout that decade, I took small groups of students to Springfield for the day (usually twice a semester). We would spend the day meeting with Representatives, attending committee meetings, listening to legislative aids and staff members conduct mini-workshops for us, and working on the floor as Pages. The trips were always a highlight of the semester for me, and my students were typically thrilled with the experience. I was always frustrated that so few students had the opportunity to experience the legislative process, so I decided to bring the Legislative process to West Chicago Community High School. I started conducting classroom legislative simulations. After one semester of conducting four separate classroom simulations, I decided to put all my classes together into one big simulation. It worked. The excitement generated surpassed anything I had ever seen. The next semester other teachers' government sections were added so all seniors participated. Over the course of the last three years we adjusted the curriculum and expanded the experience into a thirteen week program.
There is no way to express my gratitude to the several hundred former government students, who, during the spring of 1993 and fall of 1994 allowed themselves to be a part of what was then an experiment. At that time policies and procedures were not well defined or available to students. Chaos and confusion were constant. Students simply thought the simulation was a good idea and blindly jumped into the process. It worked because of their willingness to try something new. I am especially grateful to those former students who assumed the leadership positions and performed so magnificently with so little direction provided for them.
Nothing in my thirty year teaching career can match the challenge and excitement of creating, organizing, and managing the Legislative Semester. I have been extremely fortunate to have colleagues who had the willingness to share their considerable talents and expertise. Mary Ellen Daneels was the first to jump on board with me, combine her classes with mine and make the program a senior experience. Mary Ellen made many contributions to the early structure and organization of the program. Barb Laimins, a former legislative aide, provided invaluable assistance in establishing correct legislative protocol. Representative Tom Johnson and Senator Bev Fawell attended one of the General Sessions in 1996 and offered further suggestions to make it more authentic. Todd Reimer read, reread, and edited many of the materials used to describe the program. Todd and Barb's help was especially appreciated since they are not directly involved in the program. Pat Procuniar has entered the program every other year as an additional government teacher, and provided enormous help defining student expectations. Andy Glowaty, Director of Media Technologies, and his staff, undertook the task of transforming the auditorium into an authentic General Assembly Hall, and converted the Learning Resource Center into committee rooms. Andy provides additional assistance as we incorporate slide shows, web pages, and internet services into the program. The LRC staff directed by Sally Olson has been incredibly cooperative and helpful from the very beginning. There would be no simulation without their research assistance. George Strecker, Social Studies Department Head, and Dr. Alan Jones, Principal, have provided encouragement and support as I tinker with the curriculum and alter the school structure. Mary Rash has been involved as a government teacher for the last four semesters. Because of her willingness to work with me, we are able to create one large group out of 5 separate government sections. In addition, Mary has provided constant organizational detail to the program and her political experience has allowed her to offer countless suggestions for improvement.
I am especially indebted to all of the hundreds of students who have given their time, talent, enthusiasm and support to the Legislative Semester. They have made it successful beyond my wildest dreams.
The future of the Legislative Semester seems bright. There is little doubt that changes and innovations will continue but the basic premise of the Legislative Semester will remain; to give students an opportunity to experience democratic decision making. Legislative bodies such as local School Boards, State General Assemblies, and the U.S. Congress are the arenas for reasoned and controlled resolution of conflict. Those arenas are filled with passion, punctuated with rational thinking and nearly always exciting. The Legislative Semester is no different. The potential for powerful and meaningful dialogue makes every semester a time to anticipate. Students often comment at the end of the simulation "I really thought I was a Representative". Hopefully, one day that will be the case.
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