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  • September 07, 2022

    Constitution Day: Mock Trial Teacher-Coaches Connect Students with the Constitution

    Constitution Day is Sept. 17. Here's how teachers in Lodi and Brookfield teach the Constitution – and apply it to their mock trial training programs.

    Shannon Green

    Lodi High School teacher Kelsie Barlow smiles at the camera and shows her pleated skirt made of fabric with U.S. flags, Abraham Lincoln, the Liberty Bell, an eagle, and the words We the People

    Lodi High School teacher and mock trial coach Kelsie Barlow shows her "We the People" skirt. She wears the skirt each year to celebrate Constitution Day.

    Sept. 7, 2022 – Kelsie Barlow’s “We the People” skirt is enough to let her students know about a special day.

    A social studies teacher at Lodi High School, Barlow spends about a month on the U.S. Constitution during her government class. “If I’m lucky, Constitution Day falls during that month,” she said. On that day, she wears the skirt – a 1950s style skirt with pockets, crafted by her talented grandmother – and walks around asking students and colleagues:

    “Do you know what day it is?!” Constitution Day and Citizenship Day, designated by federal law, “commemorate[s] the formation and signing on September 17, 1787, of the Constitution and recognize all who, by coming of age or by naturalization, have become citizens.”

    “Yes, I’m a hard-core nerd about the Constitution,” she said. And her fashion for related clothing “really sets the tone,” she says. “It’s honestly my favorite part of teaching about our government.”

    Plus, there’s the traditional playing of Schoolhouse Rock’s “The Preamble” song, which “gets stuck in their heads – and in my head,” Barlow said.

    Teaching the Constitution: The Light Bulb Moments

    In Brookfield, Wisconsin Hills Middle School teacher Jon Vogt also teaches about the Constitution – as part of his “Founding Fathers and Documents” unit.

    “I’ve always found it interesting for students to realize how many rights they truly have when we study the Bill of Rights, but to also contrast that with reasonable limits in real-life court cases involving students who have not yet graduated high school,” Vogt said.

    Vogt is in his eighth year of teaching U.S. and world history, primarily to seventh graders, and his sixth year teaching about the Constitution.

    He is also the head teacher-coach of mock trial at the middle school and Brookfield Central High School. When teaching about the founding of the U.S., “we look at those who founded our country, and the important documents such as the Declaration of Independence, U.S. Constitution and the Bill of Rights,” he said.

    “It is important for students to understand what powers the government does and doesn’t have. More importantly, it helps students understand that the people as a whole give those powers to the government at their discretion in the form of elections,” he said.

    “One of the most important aspects that I enjoy students learning is that the government doesn’t provide the people rights – its role is to protect the rights all citizens have when they are born. The Constitution and Bill of Rights are in place to make sure the government protects those rights,” he said.

    Teaching the Preamble to the Constitution is his favorite lesson.

    “It sets the tone for what is to come. The Constitution is simply a list of limits set forth to secure freedoms the people already had. It’s just in place to make sure all citizens can continue to enjoy those natural rights.” He also includes discussions of court cases as examples in the Bill of Rights. “In the past, we have toured local courthouses to watch trials.”

    In her class, Barlow covers the Federalists and anti-Federalists, checks and balances, the 27 Amendments, the Bill of Rights, and the Constitutional Convention. “We go over why the Constitution was created and why it is important to learn about it,” she said.

    “One of my favorite things to teach is the 14th Amendment and the incorporation of the Bill of Rights,” which isn’t currently included in her one-month unit, Barlow said.

    The lightbulb moments that draw the most passionate responses from the students occur especially when discussing civil liberties – such as the right to remain silent, and the right to an attorney, Barlow said. “There’s a lot of gray areas that pop culture portrays inaccurately. One of the big things is to explain how law-and-order television shows are woefully incorrect.”

    Brookfield Central's mock trial team coach Jon Vogt

    Brookfield Central's mock trial team coach Jon Vogt, left, poses with his team in March 2022. The team finished at the top in 2022 and competed in the national tournament in May.

    Coaching Mock Trial is ‘Inspiring’

    Both Barlow and Vogt do more than teach – they are also coaches for their schools’ mock trial programs, where Constitutional rights are an ongoing part of the discussion.

    Vogt leads Brookfield Central’s four teams – about 35-40 students. At his middle school, Vogt coaches six teams – totaling 60 students, with teacher-coach Tammy Dentice. Currently, the teams have no attorney-coach.

    Some students participate year-round – Vogt offers a summer case with competition in July. At the start of the school year, the student team captains lead review sessions.

    “Once I finish coaching girls tennis (in the fall), we jump right into it. Everyone is welcome based upon their commitment level and availability.”

    The program, which involves getting students involved at the middle school level, has produced results: Last year (in the 2021-22 academic year), Brookfield Central’s senior team won the State Bar of Wisconsin’s High School Mock Trial Tournament and competed at nationals.

    In Lodi, Barlow begins her fourth year as assistant coach for mock trial, working with head coach Renee Potter and attorney-coach Kevin Calkins. The high school program, which started in 2003, typically involves two teams with around 22 students.

    Barlow says she grows more confident each year in her coaching skills. “I really am passionate about the Constitution, history, and social studies – and this is an offshoot of that. Every day there’s some new connection with mock trial.”

    Shannon Green Shannon Green is communications writer for the State Bar of Wisconsin, Madison. She can be reached by email or by phone at (608) 250-6135.

    Their program involves students from all grades and abilities – and watching them grow is very satisfying, especially when the students take over to lead the program.

    “It’s great to give that leadership and ownership, and watch the students help each other. Especially being a small town school, you see the students in a new light – mock trial brings them out of their shells,” said Barlow.

    Questions involving constitutional rights regularly arise within mock trial, Vogt said. “One major example is when the State Bar’s competition case includes a defendant not speaking to police. We have to be careful not to say anything about that in court in front of the jury, and that is a great connection for students.”

    The connection with certain rights varies with each case, Barlow notes. “The procedures – exclusionary rule, hearsay, why certain testimony is not allowed in – comes from due process. I explain that this comes from the Constitution,” she said.

    Vogt is dedicated to coaching mock trial because of the skills they learn involving critical thinking, public speaking, and improvising.

    “We prepare for months, but once they walk past the bar, they are on their own with their teammates. To see students handle themselves as real life attorneys would is inspiring.”

    The program inspires some veterans to pursue law, with others “pursuing all sorts of amazing careers,” Vogt said.

    Lawyers: Volunteers Needed for Mock Trial Competitions

    The High School Mock Trial tournaments will be held in person in 2023, for the first time since 2019. State Bar members are needed as volunteers for the High School Mock Trial program – both as:

    • attorney-coaches with a high school team; and
    • referees for the regional and state tournaments in early February and March 2023.

    The mock trial tournaments require a total of about 450 volunteers. The regional tournaments are Feb. 4, 2023, and will be held in Appleton, Waukesha, La Crosse, Eau Claire, Milwaukee, Kenosha, Wausau, Juneau, Madison, and Green Bay.

    The state semifinal and final rounds are held in Madison, March 3-5, 2023.

    For more information and to volunteer, contact Katie Wilcox via email or at (608) 250-6191.

    Wisconsin Law Foundation

    The Wisconsin High School Mock Trial program is funded by a generous grant from the Wisconsin Law Foundation, the charitable arm of the State Bar of Wisconsin, supporting law-related education and public service programs statewide.

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