Committee What? My Experiences with Educator Day on the Hill

By: Wendy Rush

In February of 2018, I had my first experience at Educator Day on the Hill at the Utah State Capitol.  I am a part of the first cohort of the Utah Teacher Fellows working in conjunction with Hope Street Group. Each year, as fellows, we meet as a group at the State Capitol to attend Utah’s Educator Day on the Hill to speak with our legislators and disseminate our annual data collection and report findings.  I had visited the Capitol many times both as a visitor, and as a teacher leading students on tours throughout the building. But I had never had an experience like this! I had no idea what to expect, and I felt completely overwhelmed and out of my depth.

When I first arrived, I was guided by signs into a room where I was greeted by passionate, informed teachers and members of the UEA.  We were lead through the events of the day, the education bills to pay close attention to, and were briefly trained in ways to effectively and ineffectively interface with legislators.  The members of the UEA were very knowledgeable, answered a few questions, and then set us free to roam the Capitol during the legislative session.

I had NO idea where to go.  Lucky for me, my colleague, Deborah Gatrell was there, and she took me under her wing.  She suggested that we step into a chamber housing a committee meeting. Committee what? I am embarrassed to say that I had no idea what a committee meeting was.  

I entered the room, sat in the chairs at the back, and soaked up as much as I could.  There was a large semi-circle desk at the head of the room. Legislators were all sitting behind the desk with microphones and name plates. A straight table with about 4 chairs and as many microphones faced the legislators. At this table, many different people had the opportunity to sit down, plug in a laptop, and make a presentation to the legislators, for or against the bill being discussed.

The bill that was being discussed that day in committee was a bill related to traffic laws. With the use of PowerPoint, videos, and powerful testimony by law enforcement, lobbyists from the ACLU, and general citizens, the presenters all had the chance to sway the votes of the committee members to get their bill onto the floor.  Bills that make it to the floor to be voted on, have a chance to become legislation. But, over 90% of bills are killed in committee hearings.

I was fascinated as I listened to testimony and watched how each party made their case for why or why not this bill should continue to the floor to be voted on.  I noticed how the committee members were deeply swayed by personal testimony backed up by solid data and effective presentations and visuals. I realized, this is all argumentative writing!!! This is what I, as a High School English teacher, worked tirelessly to teach my students to learn how to do, and HERE IT WAS being used in action!!  I began to see how I could use this information to light a fire under the English students at my school!!

Later that day, as I continued to meet and interact with legislators, I heard a legislator say off hand, that there are so many bills to be voted on that many of the legislators will look to the decision of the committee members to decide how to vote on a bill that has made it to the floor. If the committee voted to put it on the floor, many times, the legislator will vote WITH the committee!  What I realized in that moment was that what happens in committee is maybe the most important part of the legislative process, and up until I stepped into that room, I had no idea committee was even a part of the legislative process!

I was beyond excited as I began to realize how important it was to learn to write argumentatively. I realized that if students could learn to make effective arguments, and present those arguments to a group, they could learn to affect real change in their local and state governments!!

I began a quest to teach the students in my school the importance of argumentative writing. I worked with the English teachers at the High School to teach the importance of argumentative writing in the legislative process. I worked with the history teacher to create and deliver lessons about the role of committees in the legislative process.  Then, in February of this year, the history teacher and I took a group of students to the Capitol, had them sit in a committee hearing, and present information to their legislators.

Watching the students engage in the committee process was exhilarating for me as an educator. I see it as a huge accomplishment that I was able to teach and pass on my passion for making an impact in government!  Attending Educator Day on the hill last year set my whole year on a different course. It is an experience I would recommend to every educator!

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