Eighth-graders at Rim Country Middle School don't learn about civics and government by sitting quietly in their seats reading a textbook.
They have debates.
They must go to the sources of government to complete their civics portfolio.
"It is wonderful to watch students over the course of the year begin to develop opinions and then to articulate them," said social studies instructor Ted Tatum.
"With everything that has been going on lately, we just have a big push on current events. The television is always on when kids enter my room. We've had some good discussions over Katrina and the president's role in Iraq, and right and wrong."
The first day the media showed the devastation of Katrina, Tatum's students asked, "Why isn't the United States sending the National Guard or the Army in there? Why aren't they helping them?"
Tatum had to explain the federal system. Unless the governor of Louisiana invited the Guard or the Army, the president did not have the authority to send them.
"We need to change that law," students said.
That led to a discussion of the ramifications of changing a law, especially one dealing with states' rights versus federal.
"Who is John Roberts, and what is happening with him right now?" Cindy Owens, the other eighth-grade social studies teacher, posed to her students in mid-September.
One thought a TV personality, another, Julia Roberts' husband. CBS has an anchorman named John Roberts. One student brought in a paper on him.
That was good, but the John Roberts Owens wanted her students to learn about was the (then) Supreme Court nominee.
"My kids are very angry right now about the infighting in Congress." Tatum said. "They don't understand. They ask, ‘Why aren't they just doing the right thing instead of fighting all the time? Why does it have to be Democrat against Republican, no matter what?'"
"When we get further into the year and we start looking at the (political) parties, all of the debates that go on in class are incredible," Tatum said. "Some of the kids are informed and some are just hot-headed, and it is really interesting to watch the interplay."
All the political parties are discussed in each teacher's class.
Tatum said he could tell if his students are gaining an understanding or just parroting what they have heard.
He wants them to understand why they are in a particular party and does not care which one they choose.
"So many from (my) generation chose a party because that is what their parents chose," he said.
Owens said most of her students have never talked about politics with their parents. Learning about the political parties, whether in class or by investigation of Young Democrats or Teenage Republicans, generates conversations at home, starting with, "What political party do you belong to?"
"I've had some students come in and say, well my parents said they don't believe in any of that stuff, but I think I'm going to be a Democrat," Owens said.
It is important to both teachers that their students begin to follow current events.
Students choose 20 items from a list of more than 30 to investigate or perform as part of their civics portfolio. A sampling includes real world things an adult might do: volunteering in the community, applying for a job, registering a vehicle, circulating a petition or survey.
Katie Welker applied at Safeway for a job at Starbucks and registered her Mustang at the department of motor vehicles.
Ben Sandoval and Chandler Sylvester attended a school board meeting.
Wesley Wisner sent a letter to the editor on the community's current water issues.
Chelsea Smith is working on a survey of 100 students on the question, "Do you believe that government money (should) go toward stem cell research?"
It is an issue Smith said she feels passionate about.
"I am almost 100 percent against stem cell research," Smith said. "I would like to find out what the other kids believe about it. I believe that stem cell research is creating life to destroy it. You create a human being, a living being, and then you use them for things that you wouldn't use a normal human being for. You basically destroy the life."
Students with the opposite opinion have told me that stem cell research will help cure diseases that will help other people's lives. While Smith agrees, she thinks that the pros do not outweigh the cons.
The portfolio is a long-term project with checkpoints throughout the year so students are not overwhelmed with the March deadline.
So if an RCMS eighth-grader inquires about your political party affiliation or your opinion of stem cell research, they aren't being nosy. They are just doing their job.