LAKEWOOD RANCH -- The Supreme Court justices, dressed in their robes, made their processional into the media center at Nolan Middle School. The defense attorneys and prosecutors had just tested their microphones, and became more antsy when they discovered they worked. The reporters stood with notepads drawn, until a seventh-grader gave the go-ahead for everyone in the courtroom to take their seats.
Nolan Middle School civics students simulated a Supreme Court hearing Monday morning in their own version of the real-life pending Supreme Court litigation regarding tighter voting laws that followed the Shelby County v. Holder case.
The seventh-graders eloquently debated North Carolina's new election laws, including the voter ID requirement, reduction of early voting days and elimination of same-day voting registration.
"It is an actual law they are determining the constitutionality of," social science and civics teacher Jaimi Lowe said.
Lowe said the students are taking ownership of the project by pretending to be attorneys and Supreme Court justices, including Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and John Roberts. Students researched the backgrounds of the figures they are portraying.
"They are asking questions through the eyes of
that person," Lowe said.
Lowe required her students to follow proper court procedures, and each student must participate by either asking questions or presenting information, depending on their role.
Lowe did a survey before the project to cast her students as justices, attorneys or reporters.
Student Alex Thompson, who fervently asked questions as Justice Scalia, said he enjoyed the research.
"We learned the about the justice's personalities and how they are outside of the Supreme Court," Alex said. "It's very intriguing."
Student Anjolie Berninger, who defended the North Carolina voter policy changes in the scenario as an attorney, said they prepared two weeks for the mock case.
"You have to do your research and be quick on your feet," Anjolie said. "The prosecution has all the information in front of them."
The students, all in seventh grade and around 12 years old, said the simulation prepared them for when they will eventually will cast ballots at the polls. It has also sparked an interest to see how actual Supreme Court cases pan out.
"We have learned what the Supreme Court looks like and what the protocols are," student Brieanna Andrews said.
Brieanna, portraying a newspaper editor for the project, is charged with writing an editorial on her classmates' ruling.
Lowe said she wishes she could expose her students to more experimental learning days throughout the year.
"There is not enough of it," Lowe said. "To really master a topic, students need to have the experience and take ownership of it. This is a great stepping stone to being active participants in the community."
Lowe said the biggest hurdle to having more projects like this outside of the classroom is time.
"You have to be willing to dive in," Lowe said. "Kids, and even adults, see the government as far away and on a pedestal. Exercises like this bring it to life."
The simulation will carry over into Tuesday when students will make a ruling. When day one of the "hearing" ended Monday, some students stayed in the media center through lunch to work on their closing statements.
"It's interesting because it is learned through their eyes," said student Grace Hagopian, prosecution attorney. "Both sides have valid points, but I think we're going to win."
Lowe said she did have her concerns about keeping a group of seventh-grade students interested in civics, but could not be prouder of their performance Monday.
"At this age they start off with no interest," Lowe said. "But when they see that these decisions really affect people's lives, they are more apt to make their voice count."
Erica Earl, education reporter, can be reached at 941-745-7081.