Mock debate offers lessons in civic duty

State Sen. Buono moderated event at Herbert Hoover


Staff Writer

 "I want to get the kids more engaged in the process so they can run for office, register and vote."  -  Sen.  Barbara Buono  “I want to get the kids more engaged in the process so they can run for office, register and vote.” – Sen. Barbara Buono EDISON – The kids have the facts, and they are voting yes.

Students at the Herbert Hoover Middle School conducted a mock debate over a law banning cell phones in schools as part of the “Legislators Go Back to School” program Thursday.

State Sen. Barbara Buono (D-18) moderated the event as part of a push to get youngsters more involved in the political process.

“I want to get the kids more engaged in the process,” Buono said, “so they can run for office, register and vote.”

The program consisted of a short introduction by Buono, where she gave details on how government really works, beyond the typical instruction most students receive. She then showed a short video created by the state government to emphasize the importance of strong civic duty.

The debate itself pitted a dozen eighth-grade students, half debating each side, in a point-counterpoint exercise regarding the potential banning of cell phone use in school. Buono moderated the highly engaging debate, while interjecting occasionally to highlight parallels between what is happening on stage and what happens in the Statehouse.

“The purpose is to demonstrate how difficult it is in a representative democracy to find common ground,” Buono said. “We have a diverse state.”

Cliff Shapiro, the core content leader for social studies at Herbert Hoover, said that the students in the debate were chosen because they were “passionate and articulate” in the classroom.

The students argued both sides, focusing on distraction, bullying and academic-integrity issues that come along with cell phones in the classroom, as well as what to do in emergency situations and the double standard that could exist with students being denied cell phones while teachers are exempt. In the end, those arguing against the ban proposed a compromise that would allow for a full ban for students in kindergarten through fifth grade, and a ban on cell phone use during class but would allow possession of cell phones for all upper grades to be used during emergencies.

“About all the cyber bullying and

passing notes and rumors,” Peter Nielson, of the anti-banning group, said during the summation, “if you ban cell phones for that reason, you should probably ban paper and talking because you could spread rumors the old-fashioned way.”

Buono said that the program was not supposed to be a civics lesson in the typical sense of the word, but more an interactive way to learn the implicit rules of democracy, compromise, consensus and participation.

“When you really get down to what it takes to reach a consensus on public problems,” Buono told the eighth-graders, “you see how it can be very difficult because most people don’t agree on most things.”

Buono said she hoped that the students could learn how to debate and not let things become personal. She also wanted them to learn how to put their trust in government despite the actions of politicians she called “bad actors in the political sphere.”

“To not vote, to not become educated on the issues – that is bad for our democratic process. The strength in our representative democracy is in all of you,” Buono said.

When the debate concluded, the even-handed compromise forged between the opposing factions for the mock cell phone ban was the clear consensus among the voters. The voters spoke, by show of hands, and all walked away better citizens.

“We have a lot to learn from you down in the New Jersey Legislature,” Buono said.