Block Island students see Washington 'Close Up'
Last week six Block Island School students traveled to Washington, D.C. with history teacher Shannon Booth to explore how democracy and government functions in the United States as part of the Close Up Program. Close Up is a nonprofit organization with the mission to “inform, inspire, and empower students to exercise the rights and accept the responsibilities of citizens in a democracy.”
Alongside 146 other students representing 13 states, and including four other Rhode Island students who accompanied them on the trip, Alex Brady, Grace O’Neill, James McNerny, Griffen Hall, Thea Monje and Tadhg O’Neill engaged in a detailed study of government led by Close Up and its staff.
Participants enjoyed four days full of onsite visits, workshops, seminars, museums, and debates. They visited the memorials of numerous historical figures, including Franklin Roosevelt, Thomas Jefferson, Martin Luther King, and Abraham Lincoln. They also visited the WWII, Vietnam, and Korean War memorials, and some students were able to chat with visiting veterans. And, of course, they didn’t miss all the iconic must-sees of DC, such as the White House, the Washington Monument, and all of Capitol Hill, including a tour of the House of Representatives Gallery.
Throughout the week students also made frequent museum stops, visiting renowned institutions such as the Smithsonian Air and Space Museum, the National Museum of the American Indian, the Holocaust Museum, and the Smithsonian Museum of American History. When they weren’t touring the city with instructors, they were given time to themselves to explore areas such as Georgetown and Dupont Circle, to delve into the neighborhoods and take in the atmosphere (and visit lots and lots of cupcake shops…). They were also a part of three seminars, one on drug policy and the war on drugs in America, a second with the American Red Cross where they were informed about the reality of child soldiers in the world, and the third with Felicia Sonmez, a political reporter for the Washington Post.
Back at the hotel, students participated in a “Capitol Hill Simulation” as a mock congress, and discussed bills that are currently being examined in Congress. Close Up also hosted a “Domestic Issues Debate,” where a liberal and a conservative volunteered to face off as students asked questions concerning issues they find critical. In smaller workshops, students also discussed the fundamentals of government and democracy, stated opinions on certain issues, and formed ties with other students.
The Rhode Island students were given the opportunity to head up to The Hill and sit down with senators Jack Reed, Sheldon Whitehouse, and a representative of James Langevin to ask questions about issues facing Rhode Island, the federal government, and bills currently being debated in congress. Questions included the prospect of wind farms being placed off Block Island’s coast, problems in the Rhode Island school system, and their stances on gay marriage, gun control, abortion, and marijuana legalization.
On the first day, students were asked to rate themselves on a scale of one to ten on how much political efficacy they felt they had, and most ranked themselves between a 10 and a 4. However, when asked on the last day, the numbers had jumped to a range between 5 and 10.
When asked about their experience with Close Up, students from all states seemed to have only positive feedback.
“I feel as though most kids my age don’t think they can have any influence on what happens in a democracy. Many kids didn’t know the difference between liberals and conservatives, or democrats and republicans when we arrived in D.C. Close Up efficiently and productively informed me about how to become an involved member of our democracy. Aside from the political aspect of the trip, I also met dozens of incredible people from all ethnicities, backgrounds, and states, some as far reaching as California, Washington, and Nebraska.” – Grace O’Neill, 17
“This trip was a life-changing experience and I feel as though it made me grow as an individual. It changed my perspective not only on my government, but also about kids from around the country. I didn’t realize how much in common I have with kids from California, Nebraska, Ohio, Washington, and numerous other states. And I also got to see what’s different about our lifestyles and where we live. I made so many new friends whom I will definitely be keeping in touch with.” – Alex Brady, 16
“I found Close Up to be an experience that assisted me in learning about our country’s past and present, but in particular, the steps that my peers and I can take in creating a successful future for the United States. The program also allowed for a massive amount of cultural infusion. The students that went to D.C. for Close Up hailed from all over the country. And after spending just a week with them, we learned so much about different ways of life in places like Wisconsin, Nebraska, and California. Despite our different backgrounds, Close Up did a fantastic job of educating us about how the voice of every single U.S. citizen can make a difference in this country.” – Thea Monje, 15
“I learned that you really don’t need more than one person to make a difference in America.” – Tyrone, 16, Woonsocket, R.I
On behalf of all the Block Island School students who were involved with this year’s Close Up, we would like to thank everyone who contributed to our trip and gave us this incredible opportunity.