Newly Minted Lt. Governor Attends MHS Event

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Cameron Bren
Wisconsin Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes made a stop in Middleton on Jan. 8 to address a mock legislature event at Middleton High School. He spoke to the students about the importance of compromise and civility.

MIDDLETON–On one of his first day in office, Lieutenant Governor Mandela Barnes spoke to an auditorium full of 10th graders during a mock legislature event, part of Middleton High School’s (MHS) required U.S. government and politics class. Barnes spoke on the intent of the program which teaches kids about government by acting it out and emphasizes compromise and civility. 

“Change all across the world has always been led by younger generations, so when my time is done, when I’m no longer in public life I want to be able to look back and count on you all and the work you are doing,” Barnes said. “The fact you are learning here today puts you ahead of so many other people in this state and country that have very little idea about how government is run and that’s how we get to a place that we don’t want to be.”

MHS U.S. government and politics teacher Janel Anderson said the students have been participating in the mock legislative session since 2012 when it was adopted at the suggestion of former social studies teacher Kate Ullman whose father Steve Arnold developed the course as a social studies teacher in West Chicago. 

Anderson says since implementation Middleton has become a leader in the nation and has sent a teaching team to national conferences to teach other districts about the model.

MHS junior Yousef Gadalla is a great example of the impact the course can have on a student, Anderson said. Gadalla was elected by his classmates to be the speaker of the house despite beginning the semester with no interest in politics. 

“I wasn’t originally thinking of running but my teacher urged me and after I started, I learned how fun it was,” Gadallla said. “It was fun talking to people I hadn’t spoke to in a while and the campaigning itself was a lot of fun as well.”

Gadalla says the class is not what he expected it to be. 

“The first day of school I had thought this was going to be a really boring class that I would despise going to everyday, but it turned into one of my favorite classes,” Gadalla recalled.

Since getting involved Gadalla said has begun paying more attention to politics and is even considering making a career out of it. He said he plans to seek out internships with politicians in coming years.

“I think it is a really good idea to have this class because it creates more unity between students,” Gadalla said. “We know more about each student and we end up looking past how they feel about their specific views whether Democrat or Republican or somewhere in between and teaches us to be more moderate and work together.”

The bills debated and voted on in the mock assembly floor reflect real life debates in the local, state and national arenas including changes to affirmative action, making schools a religious free zone, gerrymandering and changes to child adoption law. 

Anderson says the students debate using their own ideas. Most students begin without much exposure to political ideology and develop those throughout the class, she said. The students study political parties and their differing philosophies. 

“We often see kids move a lot on the spectrum,” Anderson said. “The debate here is all them. We help them do research, we talk to them about making strong arguments and coming to them with evidence.”

Anderson explained the goal is to help kids develop their own beliefs and advocate for them.

“One of the main goals of the course is teaching them how to advocate for things they believe in and to move it through the systems of government so that what they think are problems in the world they perceive as something they can actually solve,” Anderson said.

The course also maintains a focus on civility and respect, something that can be hard to learn from real life politics, Anderson said. She said students review examples of government officials not being civil. 

“They are shocked by the way the adults act,” Anderson said.

Like the course intends to do to students, Barnes says he was motivated to run for office by his personal convictions and values. 

“Spending on prisons in the state of Wisconsin has surpassed spending on our entire UW system,” Barnes said. “To me I felt like that means we have priorities mismatched, I always felt like we should prioritize education over incarceration because the more money we put into our schools the less money we’ll have to put in prisons.”

After his advocacy efforts fell flat Barnes decided to run for office himself. He told students to take their values to the street, people’s doors and phone lines. While he won his first race in the Wisconsin Assembly, he lost a race for state senate. He told students that he learned more from losing than he did from winning and suggested students consider that in their own shortcomings. 

Barnes stressed the importance of local government, telling students it matters more than they think. Changes at the local level will likely have more impact on their lives, he said. 

Barnes also talked about the importance of diversity and embracing differences. He said despite what people may think he and Governor Tony Evers are very different people. 

“We bring a diverse set of experiences, we’ve lived very different lives,” Barnes said. “We come from two different generations and I think that is ultimately what will make us very effective at government. We are able to talk to each other about things we would have otherwise never known.”

Barnes said while Evers has spent his career in public education, he comes from one of the poorest and most incarcerated zip codes in the country. He said everyone should have the same opportunities regardless of their background. The next governor or president may have been in the auditorium that day, Barnes said. 

Barnes ended his speech by welcoming students to visit him at the state capitol.

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