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IPLE team travels to D.C. for national competition

The Institute for Political and Legal Education (IPLE) class found out three months ago, after competing at the statewide “We the People” competition, that it would be going to nationals for the second year in a row.  But how did it get there, what has it done to prepare, and what does an IPLE class even look like?

IPLE is all about understanding the Constitution and preparing for competitions that require students to answer questions about law and history.  “We have been focused almost solely on the competition since day one,” senior Jonathan Gelb said.  An AP teacher wants her students to get 5s on the end-of-year exam; IPLE is equally focused on success in competitions.  The class is broken up into several “units,” each with an overarching theme and three questions that the unit must prepare for.  These are the questions the students are expected answer, with profound intellect and skill, at nationals.  In IPLE, students spend each class conducting extensive research on amendments, court cases, and congressional proceedings to answer these questions as thoroughly as possible.  To aid in the class’ preparation, renowned constitutional scholar Akhil Reed Amar visited the class on April 21 to coach each unit; he “eviscerated them,” IPLE captain Rohit Purma said, “which was good because now we know where we can improve.”

The “We the People” competition is more than just reading from a card and hoping that the information is sound.  “Each competitor should know their part with great confidence and fluency.  They’re allowed to look down, but it should almost be like they’re having a conversation with the judges,” IPLE teacher Albert Paulsson said.  Ultimately, they have only their personal knowledge of the Constitution and American history to use against difficult follow-up questions that the judges ask to probe the competitors for information.

Every year, a good portion of the students in IPLE also take AP Government and Politics. IPLE and AP Gov topics overlap, so students who take AP Gov have a strong advantage in IPLE and vice versa. “It is great to see my students in the competition answering a follow-up question with something they learned in my class,” AP Gov teacher Linda Dean said.  Dean is also highly involved with IPLE. She helps with the students’ follow-up questions and makes sure their presentations don’t go over four minutes.

A day in IPLE often looks like a competition in itself.  “If you walked into our class on any given day,” senior Shreya Sunderram said, “you would see us debating our questions, reading articles online, quoting constitutional scholars, and in general just having a great time learning about the politics of our nation.”

While Dean and Paulsson strive to better their students’ knowledge of the Constitution, and equip them with the skills necessary to perform well in competition, the class teaches more than just constitutional savvy.  “In college, and later in life, you’re going to have a job, you’re going to be responsible for doing research or promoting a product or building a case, and you’re going to have to work with others,”

Paulsson said.  “You’re going to have to create something that is going to articulate sophisticated sources, that you’re able to embed in a presentation, that others will want to listen to, and that will draw people into what you’re saying.  And, in the end, people will not only like what you said, but they will respect what you said, and believe what you said.”

Although IPLE is a lot of work, the students certainly enjoy the class. “I love working with my group and learning about our government,” senior Connor Munsch said.  Each day is structured in such a way that every student can freely express his or her opinion and bolster it with advice from classmates and with further research.  “I really love the atmosphere that IPLE produces because we’re constantly voicing our opinions, sharing our ideas, and gaining new perspectives on different topics,” junior Natasha Dandekar said.

The IPLE team left on Friday, April 24 to compete at the national competition in Washington D.C on Tuesday, April 28.  Only on the first day of the event did the students realize how massive the competition was: teams from all 50 states and judges including the president of the Indiana Bar Association and a New Mexico Supreme Court justice.  In competition, they performed well, under enormous pressure.  Even though they did not finish in the top ten, they came home proud and ecstatic.  After presenting their arguments and defending their claims, they received praise from the judges for their enthusiasm, knowledge, and speaking skills.  “It was really cool because kids who previously knew nothing about the Constitution were able to apply their knowledge,” Sunderram said.

They filled in time outside of competition by visiting memorials, the Supreme Court, and other tourist attractions.  “It was like a second Washington Seminar for most of us, only a thousand times more fun,” senior Colin Stern said.  They nearly crossed paths with the Prime Minister of Japan when “a white sedan pulled up, the two doors flew open, and two burly National Guardsmen came out and frenziedly asked us to leave; the area was being locked down,” Stern said.  On the last day of the trip, the entire team visited the Supreme Court to mingle with protesters ahead of oral arguments in the same-sex marriage cases pending before the court.

On Monday, the team found out it hadn’t won any awards for its performance.  “I was pretty bummed out when we didn’t make top ten.  I really thought we would win something, but we were going against kids who had prepared two years for this,” Purma said.  At many schools, students take IPLE over the course of several years, while at North it is a year-long class.

For three months, the team did its best to prepare for the competition, and now that it’s over, most feel they did all they could to get as far as they did.  “Now, 35 more kids in America have had a strong civic education and will know why it’s so important to vote and participate in democracy,” Sunderram said.

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