Students Role-Play DC Statehood

The Magic of Student-Centered Experiential Learning

GDS is a magical place! Last week, during a mock congressional hearing for the DC statehood bill (H.R. 51), High School room 215 stopped being a classroom and became Congress. My students stopped being 9th graders and transformed into members of the House Oversight and Reform Committee (Chairman Elijah Cummings, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez), engaged citizens testifying in favor or against the bill, and reporters (Peter Baker from the New York Times, Ezra Klein from Vox), advocates (Roger Pilon from CATO and Bo Schuff from DC Vote), and graduate students attending the hearing to write memos, newspaper articles, or college papers about DC statehood.

Whether testifying, asking questions to presenters, replying to questions from the committee, or keeping track of what was going on in order to later report on it, they did not break character. They played out their roles in a professional and informed manner. My students were completely engrossed in the congressional hearing. That is the magic of student-centered, experiential, and interactive learning at GDS.

Yes, it was magical and fun, but the road that led to that thoroughly enjoyable day involved serious work and learning. We built up to the activity by studying the history and current status of the DC statehood issue and concrete arguments in favor and against this bill. Students were also introduced to the basic setup, roles, and purposes of a congressional hearing. The experience allowed them to understand the issue of DC statehood and how it relates to power, race, disenfranchisement, and inequality. They were also making connections to prior knowledge gained in this course, including when and how Washington, DC was created, its constitutional roots, and its history.

In playing the roles of actual citizens affiliated to real advocacy groups and organizations—including DC Vote, Neighbors United for DC Statehood, Cato Institute, and DC Statehood Student Association—students had the chance to not only learn about those groups, but also get a taste of what engaged citizenry means in the context of participating in a congressional hearing. Students were encouraged to examine the assumptions behind arguments in favor and against the bill and how these relate to race, identity, partisanship, or actual rights-based ideas. They also grappled with the notion that just because it is unlikely that a bill will pass does not mean we should refrain from trying, particularly if the topic involves fundamental rights.

Participation in this activity allowed students to apply and further develop a variety of skills, including: critical thinking and analysis, public speaking/presentation, argument building, formulating and answering questions in real time, note-taking and memo writing, among others. I want them to be self-aware of their individual learning process, so I asked them to reflect on which skills they thought were developed or practiced during the activity. They deeply valued the interactive nature of the activity, noting:

  • “I learned more through this than reading about it.”
  • “I was able to practice public speaking, especially unscripted speaking during the question period.”
  • “I used research skills and also had to think on the spot and use reasoning to answer questions.”

Clearly, the Q&A session that followed the testimony of each witness was a big hit:

  • “I think I became better at thinking on my feet.”
  • “I learned how to answer and ask questions on the spot.”

Seeing my students entirely “run the show” for the whole class period made me reflect on the importance of facilitating student-centered experiential learning. As teachers, we need to provide students the tools and guidance they need to understand a topic. We also need to get out of their way and provide the space for them to engage with the issue and experience it by themselves. Only at one point did a student break character to ask for my advice. My reply? “You’re the Chairperson.” And he went back into character and handled it flawlessly.

Student Participants:

  • Sophie Axelrod ’22
  • Charlie Baar ’22
  • Julien Berman ’22
  • Max Grosman ’22
  • Seth Riker ’22
  • Isabelle Schiff ’22
  • Bruno Sullivan ’22
  • Oakley Winters ’22

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