MHS students stage 1860 presidential press conference
By Matthew Stewart | (email@example.com)
Maryville High School’s students recently got the jump on the Nov. 6 general election, staging a presidential press conference to talk about the issues — in America’s pre-Civil War era.
Students in Dr. Penny Ferguson’s and Mark White’s Honors English and U.S. history classes participated last week in a mock presidential press conference in which American poets Ralph Waldo Emerson and Henry David Thoreau were candidates for the Transcendental Party. Both men are considered to be prominent figures in American transcendentalism, which was a literary, political and philosophical movement of the early 19th century.
Students volunteered to play certain parts in the campaign including foreign affairs, national affairs, economics, religion, education, nonconformity, image and speech advisers. Some students volunteered to be reporters and publicity agents.
Campaign advisers spoke to their peers about prominent issues in the pre-Civil War era. They talked about isolationism, Manifest Destiny, Native American policy, working conditions, the Industrial Revolution and the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.
Reporters were required to ask three questions, which could be addressed to the advisers or candidates, in the class exercise. Reporters scripted questions prior to the conference, and teachers also encouraged them to create impromptu questions that might arise from an adviser’s speech.
Educators were pleased with this year’s mock presidential press conferences.
“The students were fired up about getting to do this today,” Ferguson said. “It’s a combined study that asks them to connect authors to then-contemporary national and political thought. They have to know the material and figure out what Emerson and Thoreau might have thought about the issues. They must own the material and put it in a new form with little help from teachers.”
The conference covers material before the U.S. history curriculum, White said. However, the issues — including industrialization, women’s rights, civil rights and civil disobedience — build a foundation for the semester.
“As I tell my students, history is unfinished business,” he said. “We’re still arguing about we saw, and what we should learn from it.”
After the successful exercises, both educators are excited about the semester’s future offerings.
The mock presidential press conference sets the tone and pace for the two courses, Ferguson said. “They hit the ground running and take responsibility for their own learning. They’ll do wonderful things throughout this school year.”
Students put a lot of effort into the exercise.
“It was definitely stressful,” said Connor Gavlick, who portrayed Thoreau in the conference. “I put in some long nights, trying to get everything accomplished. However, I had a good time. It’s a fun way to learn.”
“I did a lot of writing, editing and practicing my speech,” said Taylor Best, who portrayed the campaign’s national affairs adviser. “I also performed a lot of research, because I didn’t know what questions the reporters would ask me. You can’t be entirely prepared for it, but I wanted to be better prepared for it.”
The conference also helped students to better understand contemporary events.
“After today, you can sympathize with the real presidential campaign workers,” Best said. “We normally laugh at them when they make mistakes. However, we understand it more now. You have to truly know where you stand on the issues.”