Kids at the Capitol bring back fond memories

Published 11:05 am Wednesday, May 11, 2011

A rite of spring is apparent at the Capitol. The granite columns and marble steps reverberate with the sounds of children visiting their statehouse. Many are making their first and maybe only visit to the State Capitol while on a field trip with their classmates; it is enjoyable to watch the next generation learn about our government.

The first week of May is especially appropriate for these visits as it is National Teacher Appreciation Week. It is easy for me to recall a teacher who made a difference in my life. Mrs. Onsgard was my fifth grade teacher. She loved learning and shared that infectious enthusiasm with all her students. Mrs. Onsgard brought history to life! Learning about the Civil War through music, story-telling and re-enactments were the highlight of elementary school. When she brought her banjo or played the piano and we sang songs from the period, it didn’t feel like work – it was fun. Mrs. Onsgard was an exceptional teacher among many in my life. She demonstrated trust and allowed her students to develop their independence. She even let us arrange our desks to sit where we wanted, not by an assigned seating chart. Thinking back to those days I remember how empowered I felt by that one gesture. She prepared me for life beyond fifth grade and I will forever be thankful to have had such a generous and strong teacher.

Local lawmakers are invited to meet with student groups from their districts. This past week students from three schools in Mower County visited the Capitol. Sixth graders from Grand Meadow, LeRoy-Ostrander and Ellis Middle School met with legislators, toured the Capitol and learned about the lawmaking process. During these excursions, tour guides from the Minnesota Historical Society shared political stories about lawmakers from long ago. Students learned about the architecture of the State Capitol, one of the four largest marble domed buildings in the world.

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Among the many great things about American-style representative democracy is accessibility. How many school children around the world can walk in and meet with the elected official who represents them? Better yet, in how many countries can these same children lobby for what they believe is important? Most of the testimony legislators hear in committee comes from adults, either members of the public or paid lobbyists. But some of the most impactful and stirring persuasion comes from kids. Student visitors have previously talked to us about everything from the smoking ban, mandatory seat belt laws and school funding.

Eddie Cochran (an Albert Lea native) had a more pessimistic view of the process when he wrote Summertime Blues. There is a verse in the song where he asks a Congressman for help and the deep-voiced response is, “I’d like to help you son but you’re too young to vote.” That attitude hopefully has not carried over into this century. Getting young people engaged in the process early on is important as we need good thinkers and problem solvers to prepare for their role in leading us 10, 20 and 30 years from now. Policymakers need (and ask for) a wide variety of perspectives to consider when voting on bills. Students can be part of the mix of opinions we gather for consideration.

Civics education is a key component to any curriculum. In addition to core topics such as math, science, reading and writing, a young citizen should learn how to be engaged with the world. Of course parents have a strong role in this education too, but teachers plan field trips, giving students access and perspective to topics that are more difficult to replicate in a classroom. When students explore the world outside of the walls of the school, they can experience a new and expanded world.

Trips to the Capitol are a key part of this education and we can only hope these opportunities remain available to Minnesota’s future leaders. Thank you to all the teachers like Mrs. Onsgard who dedicate their lives preparing our children to be active citizens and productive workers.

I welcome comments and suggestions from students and adults alike. If you would like to be on my e-mail update list, please send your e-mail address to I also hope you will continue to contact me with your questions or suggestions regarding our state budget. I can be reached by email, or at 1-888-682-3180 or 1-651-296-4193, and by mail at 291 State Office Building, 100 Martin Luther King Blvd., St. Paul, MN 55155.