Fergus eighth-graders get serious about improving school, community [UPDATED]Published 11:12am Wednesday, March 27, 2013 Updated 12:01pm Wednesday, March 27, 2013
By Rian Bosse
If eighth graders ran the school, some changes, like different foods served on the lunch menu, might not come as a surprise.
As Kennedy School Social Studies teacher Gary Hoffbeck has found, however, other changes would be more serious than some might expect.
Hoffbeck has been using a mock-legislature game he came up with 15 years ago to teach students about how bills become laws. The class elects leaders and each student is assigned to write four bills that they vote on as a group. At the end of the game, Hoffbeck gathers all the bills and polls his students on their favorites.
“I saw some high-quality bills and good debate this year,” said Hoffbeck. “Students really showed that they do care about what happens here.”
Some bills the classes voted as favorites include ones for a city recreation center, a water park and more stores for teenagers in the mall. The group also voted to keep the Regional Treatment Center in order to convert it into a museum or amusement park.
The students also voted on a variety of changes to the school and its rules, from serving smoothies in the lunch line to having core balls — most typically used for exercising — to sit on during class.
For Hoffbeck, the activity is not only educational, but gives his students a sense of empowerment in the community.
“I want them to realize that these items can be passed on to the mayor, principal or mall managers” said Hoffbeck. “They should know there are ways to make their dreams come true.”
In the past, Hoffbeck said the activity has led to real changes in the school. After students voted for a bill two years ago to install a drinking fountain near their classrooms in order to get drinks after gym class, one was provided in the location they had suggested. Hoffbeck said that after the change more students were on time and better prepared for class.
The bills certainly varied this year, but the consensus through the class was clear: Kids are looking for things to do in Fergus Falls and are concerned about what that means for the city.
“I think a lot of kids are drawn to going to Fargo and Minneapolis because there is so much to do there,” said Evan Aanerud. “If we brought some of that stuff here I think we’d really see a spark in town.”
“If we brought more here, people would have more stuff to do in the summer,” added Logan Hobbs. “We have lakes already, but that’s all outside of town and hard to get to.”
While students struggled with the challenges of compromise that often hinder real legislation, Hoffbeck’s message of an active democracy that includes the community’s youth carried through to the end of the game.
“It showed us that even though we are younger we can make changes to the area,” said Cameron Hendrix. “Even if they are small, we can still do things to help people.”