Tate Williams

Replicating the Senate Chamber for Kids With iPads

Tate Williams May 31, 2015
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Originally published in the Worcester Telegram May 31, 2015.

BOSTON – About 100 students from Worcester’s South High Community School managed to pass a comprehensive immigration reform bill Friday, and they pulled it off before lunch.

Granted, it was just part of a simulation, held at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate. But getting that many teenagers to work together on anything, much less one of the most complex and heated political issues in the country, is impressive.

The students visited the institute, which opened in late March, to participate in its Senate Immersion Module, one of the museum’s core features. It allows a group to role-play the passage of a bill in a near-exact reproduction of the U.S. Senate chamber. The institute, situated next to the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum, was envisioned by the late Sen. Edward M. Kennedy as a participatory way for visitors to learn about the history and importance of the Senate.

“This is really an exciting thing for a museum, because you the participant are making the experience,” said Institute President Jean F. MacCormack. “This is about engagement. Democracy is about engagement.”

For the students visiting Friday, that meant they were thrust into a mockup of real legislative proceedings quite unlike what they experience in a classroom. They even had a quick pep talk from state Rep. Daniel M. Donahue, D-Worcester, who stopped by to check out the proceedings.

“I’m so excited that you’re going to be doing what I do, and I hope you do a better job than I do,” Mr. Donahue joked.

For a two- to three-hour program, it’s fairly elaborate. With the aid of tablet computers, each participant was assigned a senator to play, complete with home state politics and party leanings. They were briefed on the issue of the day and then broke into committee meetings. They weighed provisions and amendments, arguing the pros and cons from the perspectives of their roles. Mr. Kennedy was a famed liberal, but known for working with both parties, and the Institute is bipartisan.

When students reconvened, they first voted on some nominations, then took on the bill. This involved some fiery speeches, including one supporting an amendment that would end deportation for those with children who are U.S. citizens. Despite the opposition’s case comparing homeland security to a school locker, the amendment passed, as did the bill.

The most impressive feature of the program, and the museum itself, is the recreation of Senate chamber. Visitors who are not part of the SIM program still have the opportunity to do a brief version of a Senate simulation, and are invited to speak in the faux chamber.

Mr. Kennedy insisted on the feature so more people could have the experience of setting foot there, which he thought was a powerful feeling that conveyed the seriousness of governing, Ms. MacCormack said. It seemed to have an effect on the students, who were more focused on the issue than one might expect.

“As soon as they walked in, they were there. Mentally they were there, physically. They were ready to do it. As soon as they walked in, they bought into it, so it made a big impact,” said U.S. history teacher Josiah Burden.

Museum leaders hope the institute will inspire some people to actually pursue becoming lawmakers – a job with a rough reputation these days – but at the very least that it will convey that legislation is a tough business that requires both public participation and compromise.

“It’s not quite so simple that you file a bill, and everybody votes for it, and it wins and it loses. It’s a human process. Most people don’t get to see it up close and personal like that,” Ms. MacCormack said.

Photos by me.

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