Creating the next generation of leaders: Missouri Bar Citizenship Education
Vol. 78, No. 1 / Jan. - Feb. 2022
Nicole Roberts-Hillen is assistant editor of the Journal and communications coordinator at The Missouri Bar.
As a junior at Jefferson City High School, Danielle Atchison and her AP Government class competed in The Missouri Bar’s 2005 We the People competition – now known as Show-Me the Constitution.
The competition is a mock-Congressional hearing where students are challenged to research and deliver oral presentations about topics related to Constitutional issues surrounding current events. After students present their arguments, contest judges ask questions to gauge students’ knowledge and understanding of the topic.
That competition was critical for Atchison, now a business immigration lawyer with Mdivani Corporate Immigration Law Firm. At the time, she aspired to attend law school and saw the competition as an opportunity to test her abilities.
“That pivotal moment was the We the People competition. The entire semester was scary and exciting and changed my life,” says Atchison, who now judges Show-Me the Constitution.
Show-Me the Constitution is just one of many ways The Missouri Bar’s Citizenship Education Department aims to inspire students to engage in civics.
Lighting a spark
The Missouri Bar’s Citizenship Education Department creates resources to help teachers discuss government and constitutional issues, along with programs to help students understand and engage in civics.
The department offers a plethora of PowerPoint presentations, test questions, and interactive classroom activities that educators can implement. It provides ideas for research projects, as well as movies and TV shows teachers can play in their classrooms to illustrate complex governmental ideas. These resources are available at MissouriLawyersHelp.org.
The department also hosts trainings like the annual Summer Institute, a free, multi-day event where civics and government teachers can master innovative ways to explain Constitutional issues. The institute may focus on an amendment, like freedom of speech or search and seizures, or it could dive into a part of a governmental institution, like the presidency or the courts.
No matter the topic at hand, the goal is to help teachers even better make these matters exciting to students.
“We’re not only wanting to help teachers get through a semester of this, but we also want to light a spark within these students that’s going to be there for the rest of their lives,” says Tony Simones, director of the Citizenship Education Department. “You do that by raising issues that are timely and relevant.”
Trish Baumgartner, a teacher at Jefferson High School in Festus, regularly participates in the Citizenship Education Department’s trainings. She says the programming has developed her teaching style.
“Really understanding a concept requires more than memorization,” Baumgartner says, noting that methods shared by The Missouri Bar ask students to use what they’ve learned. “It requires students to look at both sides of an issue and assess where they stand.”
Through the Citizenship Education Department’s work, Baumgartner’s students have been exposed to new people and ideas, expanding both their abilities and their self-worth.
“I have introduced my students to the Supreme Court of Missouri judges and talked with (presidents George H.W.) Bush’s and (Bill) Clinton’s chiefs of staff,” she adds. "It is beyond exciting to watch your students learn that they are more capable than they were aware."
Simones understands that when educators find unique ways to teach government, they’re more likely to capture students’ attention, and the young learners may be more likely to grasp complex topics. In Atchison’s case, We the People helped her better understand due process.
“Government classes can be fill-in-the-blank and memorize terms, but I mastered due process because of that competition,” Atchison says. “It was practical, hands-on skill sets where I was building the muscles to dig into a concept that was maybe way too difficult at first sight.”
The U.S. governmental system was created with the idea of having an “informed and involved citizenry,” Simones explains. When students participate in the governmental activities in their classes – such as arguing First Amendment rights or discussing how judges are appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court – they discover that they have opinions and their ideas matter. Students also grow more confident in expressing their opinions and develop trust in the system, Simones adds.
“The empowerment that you see from that kind of situation, it’s what creates the next generation of leaders,” he says. “If we can instill in the students confidence and commitment and interest, that could be a new world.”
How lawyers and judges can help with civics education
While the classroom materials Simones creates are predominately implemented by educators, it’s also easy for lawyers and judges to utilize these resources when they speak to classes or community groups.
Simones and Atchison encourage legal professionals to ask their local teachers about speaking to their students. They can also chat with The Missouri Bar’s Citizenship Education Department about volunteer opportunities and available resources.
“The more people know about our courts, the more they’re going to believe in the courts and the more they’re going to strengthen our courts,” Simones says.
These programs and volunteer opportunities are also a great way to humanize lawyers and judges.
When Atchison competed in the We the People competition, she remembers Hon. Duane Benton, with the 8th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals, and the impact he had on the students. Volunteering as a competition judge, Benton continuously smiled at students as they presented their arguments and answered his questions.
“He’s a kind person, so to sit across from him – who’s very prestigious in his own right – as a 17-year-old was so scary but also so comforting to know that this is a human being sitting in front of me,” Atchison says.
That humanization can inspire students to pursue careers in the legal profession, Simones adds.
Some lawyers and judges are hesitant to participate in civics education programs like Show-Me the Constitution because they are worried about the time investment and preparation, Atchison says. The Missouri Bar offers resources legal professionals can use when speaking to classes at MissouriLawyersHelp.org. Lawyers and judges don’t need an abundance of preparation given that they understand the Constitution and have support from the bar’s Citizenship Education Department staff, Atchison adds.
“The little investment you give, the benefit is exponentially greater for the students you’re working with,” Atchison says.
To learn more about the work of The Missouri Bar’s Citizenship Education Department and how you can get involved, visit MissouriLawyersHelp.org.