Congressman visits Hauser 6th-graders

Students talk immigration, climate change with new representative

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By Bob Skolnik

Contributing Reporter

First term Congressman Jesus "Chuy" Garcia (D-4th Congressional District) came to L.J. Hauser Junior High School last week to discuss climate change and immigration with sixth-graders who had written him, urging him to take action to address those issues as part of a class unit about government. 

The sixth-graders had been studying government and were learning how to make change. After reading newspapers on Fridays, they decided to focus on what they considered the two most talked about issues: climate change and immigration. 

Students wrote letters to Garcia, senators Richard Durbin and Tammy Duckworth, state Rep. Michael Zalewski and Riverside Village President Ben Sells, asking them what they were doing to address these issues. 

While Durbin and Duckworth responded with detailed letters, Garcia's office wrote back asking if he could come to Hauser to talk about these issues with the students.

On May 27, Garcia spent about 90 minutes at Hauser. Sixth-grader Tommy Kos, who had written to Garcia about immigration, was excited to meet the congressman and was impressed by the visit.

"I was surprised he came," Kos told the Landmark afterwards in a telephone interview. 

Hauser sixth-grade social studies teacher Julie Chomko was also thrilled.

 "I had never met a congressman, so I felt honored that he spent his time here," Chomko said. "He was very friendly and engaging and warm."

Garcia, who was elected to Congress last year, first met with all 200 or so Hauser sixth-graders in the auditorium. He introduced himself, told the students about himself, made general comments and took questions. 

"I thought he was very relatable to sixth-grade students," said Riverside Elementary School District 96 Superintendent Martha Ryan-Toye, who observed Garcia's visit. "That impressed me."

Afterward, Garcia went to the Hauser library to participate in smaller 10- to 15-minute roundtable discussions with students who had written to him. Students presented their problem-solving ideas and asked Garcia detailed questions that they had written on note cards in preparation for the meeting.

"I think it was opportunity for our sixth-graders to be able ask questions, share ideas and really engage in a dialogue with him," Ryan-Toye said. "It felt like a great real-world application of their learning." 

There were two roundtable groups, one focusing on climate change and one on immigration. Each roundtable had a student assigned to facilitate the discussion.

"They were very excited," Chomko said of the students. "They were nervous, but I felt like they were definitely well-prepared." 

The students pressed Garcia to take action to halt climate change and solve the problems at the U.S. Mexico border by supporting more aid to Central American countries from which most recent border crossers were coming from. 

Kos participated in the roundtable about immigration. He said that he felt Garcia truly listened to him and his classmates.

"I thought it was nice being able to share our opinions about the topic," Kos said. "We were able to explain the causes and explain some of the solutions to make the immigration problem better. He took notes, which I also liked, so that he could report back."

Garcia apparently was impressed with the concern and knowledge of the Hauser students.

"It was refreshing to listen to the Hauser Junior High students' concerns and ideas about critical issues like climate change, health care and immigration," Garcia said in an emailed statement issued by his communications director. "Their letters made me think about engaging more with young people in my district, so I decided to visit and have a conversation with them."

The Landmark requested permission to observe and cover Garcia's visit to Hauser, but Ryan-Toye barred the newspaper from being present for the visit.

"Our goal is not to politicize this event at all," Ryan-Toye said before the visit. "It's a purely educational event, and it's a sixth-grade social studies unit and it's our preference not to have the press."

After the visit Ryan-Toye said more about the decision to exclude the press.

"We wanted it to be a very core educational experience for our students," Ryan-Toye said. "We didn't want our students to feel self-conscious."

Ryan-Toye's decision to exclude the press might have been influenced by concerns raised about the visit by former school board President Mary Rose Mangia, who expressed concern that students were not being presented with all sides of the issues and said that she didn't want students to be brainwashed. She also had concerns about encouraging middle school students to become activists. 

"I'm concerned about any school system or course at the elementary and middle school level that encourages advocacy," Mangia said. "I don't want to pay for advocacy on the part of the students, the teachers, or politicians" 

Chomko said that while the goal of the unit was to teach kids how to be active, engaged citizens and to show them how change is made, the class unit had no particular ideological bent.

"This is just purely curricular, and it wasn't a political type project in nature," Chomko said. "We were just researching the root causes of why people are coming to America and escaping poverty and certainly not putting any type of partisan bent on that, nor is climate change a partisan issue, either."

Mangia, who raised her concerns and sought information about Garcia's visit in the phone conversation with Ryan-Toye, wasn't assuaged.

"They made no effort to get people who represent another point of view other than Chuy Garcia's," Mangia said. 

Elizabeth Kos, Tommy's mother, thought the whole exercise was worthwhile.

"I think it gets kids to start thinking about the importance of paying attention to what's going on in our community and advocating for the things that are important to them," Kos said. "I think that's an important lesson for kids to learn."

Garcia told the students that he himself immigrated to the United States. Some of the students participating in the roundtables had parents or grandparents who were immigrants.

"One of the students kind of made a connection with him on that topic, so I think it was pretty special in that regard," Chomko said." I don't think it was something that the students will ever forget."

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Reader Comments

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Lisa Kay  

Posted: June 26th, 2019 12:05 AM

Mary Rose, I'm not going to follow you down the rabbit hole. I did read about Oberlin College, but it has nothing at all to do with this. Nor will I debate you on your misguided notions about teachers' unions. I will simply say that there is no better way to learn than through authentic life experiences. I see nothing wrong with kids learning about how government works by asking questions of elected officials.

Mary Rose Mangia from Riverside  

Posted: June 25th, 2019 8:55 PM

I don't think you will find any comments that I made indicating general distrust of educators. It's a tough job. I am concerned that Public Employess promote the left leaning views because they essentially are paid to. Their compensation package is bankrupting several states, but political activism might be necessary to maintain such a lucrative compensation which is unfair to the taxpayers. Just yesterday, I read about "Drag Queen Stories" in public libraries with elementary school students the target audience. Do you want to promote that amongst that age group? I am an advocate for my views, but not among 6th graders. I do not consistently bring speakers into classes that promote only one view. I did not read that Chewey Garcia created a distinction between legal and illegal immigration. When there are actually Angel Moms in the classroom, you can wonder about my position. The fact is there are no plans to have another point of view other than Representative Garcia's who supposedly was not there as an advocate. As best I can tell, there was no even handed discussion about the obstacles in Congess to implement a solution, which would have been educational. As for climate change, has anyone told the students the substantial sacrifices they will have to make to implement some of the solutions? I expect educators to present both sides and talk about costs and sacrifices. Advocacy on either side should be avoided in public schools. Did you read the info on Oberlin College? Are you proud of the students and the Dean of Students? Do you you feel that if the administrators had tempered the advocacy of the students, that the Oberlin community would be better off? BTW, there is nothing the matter with helping refugees, but there are costs and tradeoffs that should be presented. Is a discussion of the economic impact of immigration and climate change solution a skill set of a middle school social studies teacher?

Lisa Kay  

Posted: June 25th, 2019 6:29 PM

I've taught middle school students, Mary Rose, and I can tell you that many of them have vastly different opinions than the adults around them and are often eager to vocalize them. Challenging students without being a bully is not only possible, but it is an essential part of teaching. Asking them to think about issues and defend their positions is crucial to their learning. Is that what was happening? Who knows, since neither of us were there? But I am willing to take the adults who were present at their word when they claim that this was a curricular exercise, not a political one. You, on the other hand, continue to display your distrust of our public school and educators that marked your time on the board. ?? You are an advocate of your views. I wonder what you think is the proper age one must be to be an advocate and at what age it is okay to learn how to advocate. I wonder why you feel that children should not be able to ask questions of the people in power and hear their answers. It is, after all, the children who will inherit this world shaped by the decisions of those in office right now. I wonder if in another situation where the Angel Moms might have been invited instead of Representative Garcia, whether you'd have been advocating for actual refugees who had been granted asylum to provide a counterpoint.

Mary Rose Mangia from Riverside  

Posted: June 21st, 2019 9:02 PM

Lisa, I think you might be missing the point - several of them. 1. Children this age are often parroting the opinions of adults. However, if you challenge children on their opinions, you can be deemed to be a bully. Children are often used as a proxy for adults. If Mr. Garcia was listening to their parents or a broader group of constituents, it might be more appropriate, which leads me to point number 2. Meetings between elected representatives and constituents are not normally conducted on school premises during class room time. 3. While serving on the board, I definetly became aware of advocacy on the part of students. There is no doubt in my mind the students were guided by the teacher and were not challenged on their conclusions or the logical consequences of them. 4. I encourage everyone to research the recent verdict on Gibson Bakery vs Oberlin College. This is where student activism can lead. 5. That nice photo of Rep. Garcia looks like a great campaign or newsletter ad to me. I have no clue what D 96 was thinking, but as a politician, he saw an opportunity afforded to no one who might have a different perspective. Would D 96 ever invite Angel Moms? That's educational too. 6. Our new Governor just signed legislation that increased educator raises from 3% to 6%. Educators are incentivized to present the views of their coalition. I don't think Representative Garcia should have been allowed to be there without a counter balancing message. Somehow I do not think the Superintendent, whom I respect, was aware of this visit before she heard it from the community. She seemed to be blindsided by potential objections to it When I spoke with her and she seemed to be in catch up mode.

Lisa Kay  

Posted: June 5th, 2019 1:49 PM

Mary Rose seems to have missed the point of this. Mr. Garcia was there to listen to the kids. They may not be able to vote for him, but they are his constituents. Since he represents them, he was the appropriate person to come, answer their questions about the issues, and help them understand how their government works.

Thomas Jacobs from Riverside  

Posted: June 4th, 2019 8:13 PM

From his time as president of Columbia University in the years after World War II, Dwight Eisenhower advocated that "The true purpose of education is to prepare our young women and men for effective citizenship in a free form of government". Hats-off to Hauser Junior High for acting on this deep insight and connecting students to the democratic process. The reason our children want to engage with elected officials about the climate crisis is that they know we are in an emergency that threatens their very futures. They are asking us adults what plans we have to allow them to grow old. They are figuring out we don't have good answers. As an elected official, my advice to students is simple: it will take a few years for you to officially become my boss, at which point it will be your citizenship duty to hold me and my colleagues accountable. Until then, have the courage to speak up if you don't get satisfactory answers. Teenagers around the globe are leading the way.

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