Michigan teachers chosen as ‘U.S. House Fellows’

Program to help high school instructors teach House procedures

Mickens and Schlack
Maxine Mickens and Jaime Schlack

In less than two years, many of Maxine Mickens’ students at Millenium High School in Detroit will be eligible to vote in their first presidential election. She wants them to be ready.

A teacher, precinct delegate, one-time Detroit City Council candidate and former congressional intern, Mickens returned to Congress in July as part of the first-ever House Fellows Program of the U.S. House of Representatives. The program is designed to teach secondary school educators about the history and practice of the U.S. House.

Mickens and Milan High School teacher Jaime Schlack joined nine other teachers from across the country for the one-week program, where they attended committee hearings and briefings and visited the Library of Congress and the Smithsonian Institution. The program is organized by the Office of the House Historian. Dr. Fred W. Beuttler, the Deputy House Historian, told Michigan Education Report it was his idea to bring the teachers to Washington.

"Our mandate is to preserve and protect the history of the House of Representatives," he said. "I thought the best way to do that would be to bring in high school teachers, because that’s the last time history and government have to be studied."

Rather than choose teachers by state, Beuttler chose them by Congressional district, giving preference to the most senior members of the House. Thus, Mickens and Schlack were selected based on the seniority of Rep. John Conyers Jr. of the 14th District, and Rep. John D. Dingell of the 15th District, respectively.

Schlack and Mickens also both participate in "We the People: The Citizen and the Constitution," a program focusing on civic competence and responsibility that was developed by The Center for Civic Education, an independent nonprofit corporation based in California.

In designing the Fellows program, Beuttler said he wanted the teachers to visit Washington during "extremely busy weeks," so the pilot program took place in July, the final week of session before the summer recess.

"The minimum wage bill was the big deal," Schlack said. "I had a Congressional staff badge, so Friday night at 12:00 I walked over in my jeans and watched the House floor vote." The group also was allowed onto the House floor to hear Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki’s address and attended the signing ceremony for the extension of the Voting Rights Act.

It was a return visit, of sorts, for Mickens. As a University of Michigan student, she was an intern in Conyer’s office in 1972. Always interested in politics, she currently teaches history and geography at Millenium, but previously taught government and economics at Henry Ford High School in Detroit. She also ran for a spot on the Detroit City Council in 2005, coming in 52nd in a field of 120 candidates in the primary.

"The very first thing I did (this fall) was set up my classroom like the House. That was so exciting. The kids loved it," Mickens said. Each student took on the role of a legislator as they talked about how bills are passed and the roles of legislative aides, she said.

In Milan, Schlack said she incorporated a mock Congressional hearing into her Advanced Placement government class last fall, a suggestion from "We the People." Four community leaders and a representative from Dingell’s local office attended to hear her students "testify as constitutional experts."

Several national groups promote civic education through teachers, among them The Center for Civic Education and the Bill of Rights Institute in Arlington, VA.

"Our mission is to help teachers and ultimately students understand the founding documents and founding principles … and how those documents remain alive and vibrant for 21st century students," said Claire Griffin, the institute’s vice president for educational programs. The institute offers free online materials, weekly "e-lessons" in historical or contemporary issues, and printed curricular supplements for history and government classes.

In addition, it offers professional development seminars for teachers that explore documents like the Constitution and Bill of Rights as well as ways to teach about those documents. The institute presented such a seminar in Grand Rapids last fall.

"There are many teachers who are just hungry for the content," Griffin said. More recently, the institute has developed an outreach program aimed directly at students, including a student Web site, essay contest and pilot summer camp.

The Center for Civic Education contracts with the Michigan Center for Civic Education to administer the "We the People" program here. The program is probably best known for its state competition, but "that’s sort of the tip of the iceberg," said Jim Troost, director of programs. Teachers like Schlack, who conducted mock Congressional hearings in their own classrooms, are invited to compete in mock hearings at the Congressional district level. Winners there go to state finals. This year’s winner was East Grand Rapids High School, and that team now goes to national competition.

But aside from the competition, the program also offers free instructional material to 25 teachers per Congressional district per year, Troost said. The material focuses on the U.S. Constitution and Bill of Rights.

"The whole philosophy behind ‘We the People’ is that responsible citizenship requires certain knowledge, but also certain skills," Troost said.

Helping students understand the connection between their own lives and what Congress does is key to their future civic involvement, Mickens said. "As I told my students this morning, they are two years from casting their first vote for president. They need to be informed."

Reader Comments

It's great to hear that these teachers are participating in this program. What great news for their students!
- Adrienne Brock, reporter, Dearborn Times-Herald.

Thanks for informing us of these great opportunities. Hopefully, in the future, we can extend these opportunities to elementary teachers and students as well.
- Brian S. DeRath, principal, Williamston Community Schools.

It is good to know about the limited free instructional material available to each Congressional District. It must be very exciting for these educators to participate in this program. Their future students will be fortunate with the experience the educators gain in Washington, D.C. I wish them well.
- Mike Hein, administrator, Christian Civic League of Maine. Augusta, ME.

I think that it is a great way to bring relevance back to the districts that these educators work. It is an avenue of continuous learning, and allows people to model as a learning community. I wish I had this opportunity when I was teaching, I would have applied as well.
- Scott Dunsmore, superintendent, Gobles Public Schools.