Bringing Lawmaking to Life

For too many of us, learning about lawmaking involved a dull high school lecture on “how a bill becomes a law.” Believe it or not, learning about lawmaking can be fun, exciting, and thought provoking, even for the youngest of homeschoolers. Try out some of these resources on the legislative process with your family, and watch lawmaking come to life before your eyes.

Lawmaking for Younger Homeschoolers

Schoolhouse Rock’s “America Rock” cartoons

Schoolhouse Rock’s “I’m Just A Bill on Capitol Hill” from the 1970s is arguably the most famous single educational resource on lawmaking of all time. This catchy, 3-minute animated song explains the entire legislative process through the eyes of a cute, rolled-up piece of paper with eyes and feet named “Bill.” in the “America Rock” cartoon series, your family can also learn about the three branches of government in “The Three-Ring Government,” memorize the Preamble to the Constitution, and painlessly absorb a little American history, all to a 70’s rock-and-roll beat. Suitable for preschoolers through adults.

The song lyrics are also available via the Web at School House Rock.

“Mice Way to Learn” by Peter W. Barnes and Cheryl Shaw Barnes

Peter and Cheryl Barnes of Alexandria have written a series of colorful, entertaining picture books that explain the workings of the three branches of government through charming, rhymed stories about mice. In House Mouse, Senate Mouse (1996), a classroom of mouse children sends a letter to Congress suggesting that they designate a “national cheese.” The Squeaker of the House and the Senate Mousejority Leader work together to push the bill through the Mouse Congress, with a few fights and compromises along the way. The delightful illustrations in this book are full of detail and bring the various rooms in the U.S. Capitol building to life for young readers. This book is geared towards elementary school children, but younger children may enjoy the pictures and the rhyming text. (If you like this book, you may also want to read the other books in this series, Woodrow the White House Mouse, Woodrow for President, and Marshall the Courthouse Mouse.)

The Barnes also wrote curriculum guides for teachers who wish to incorporate their mouse stories into their lesson plans. In A Mice Way to Learn About Government (1999) and A Mice Way to Learn About Voting, Campaigns and Elections with Woodrow for President (1999), the Barnes provide numerous activities, additional readings, websites, art projects, crossword puzzles, etc., that teach the three branches of government to elementary-aged and middle school students.

These guides are definitely designed for a classroom setting and leave little to the imagination; they even tell you how to read the picture books to your students! However, some homeschooling families may find these guides helpful.

The Travels with Max series by Nancy Ann Van Wie

(MAX’s Publications; currently out of print; some copies available online)

Max is a V.I.K. (Very Important Koala) who travels around the U.S.A. teaching social studies to children through his puzzle and activity books. The Max books combine cartoonish explanations of history and civics with puzzles, mazes, coloring pages, and brainteasers. Max�s Travels: the U.S. Capitol Building (1994) not only explains the history and workings of Congress, but also could be used to interpret a tour of the Capitol building itself. Max’s Travels: How a Bill Becomes a Law (1999) focuses more on the lawmaking process itself “from your community to Washington, DC.” While these books are billed as “fun for ages 6-12;” early elementary aged kids might have difficulty with some of the reading, writing, and spelling required for many of the puzzles.

Virginia General Assembly Activity Books

Available through the Virginia House of Delegates Information and Public Relations Office, Richmond, Virginia.

You can obtain these free booklets for your family through your local legislator or the above website. These activity books contain useful facts about Virginia and the state legislature, coloring pages, mazes, puzzles, and scavenger hunts to play while visiting the General Assembly building in Richmond.

The series currently includes four booklets. Perhaps the best known in the series is WelCome to the General Assembly: A First Book on the Legislative Process, a pink-covered booklet with a smiling cartoon bill on the cover. Other titles include A First Step to the Virginia General Assembly (Kindergarten), Your Guide to the Virginia General Assembly (Grades K-3), and Virginia General Assembly: An Information and Activities Book (Grades 4-8).

Lawmaking for Older Homeschoolers

As with so many subjects, the legislative process becomes far more interesting and understandable through hands-on learning. These activities can make lawmaking come alive for your older homeschoolers:

Go on a field trip to Richmond’s General Assembly or Washington DC’s Capitol Building, to see the legislative process in action. Your local legislator may have important information about the best time for a visit.

Track state or national legislation that interests you or your family. Learn to use the Legislative Information System (LIS) online database for Virginia legislation or the THOMAS online database for Congressional legislation. Follow your bill as it makes its way through the House and Senate chambers. LIS and THOMAS are free, easy to learn, and easy to use.

Talk with your local legislators about the legislative process and issues of interest. Your Congressperson, U.S. Senator, or state legislator may be willing to come and discuss legislation with a group of homeschooled teenagers or adults. Your legislator’s office may also have information to share about lawmaking in general and certain legislation in particular.

Talk with local advocates and lobbyists about how they use the legislative process to work for change. Wherever you live, there are people in your community who would be happy to explain how they use lawmaking to solve local, statewide, and national problems of interest to your family.

Work for change at the grassroots level. Advocates of all political stripes and persuasions need volunteers to help them with their legislative work. This could involve drafting or helping to draft legislation; monitoring bills in the legislature; disseminating information on certain bills to interested parties; helping with public information campaigns; or lobbying for or against legislation in Richmond or Washington, D.C. Local legislators may need volunteers to help out in their office, especially around election time.

Participate in special legislative role-playing programs for teens, like the annual Model General Assembly, Girls State and Boys State summer programs, or the free online programs sponsored by the Youth Leadership Initiative. Additional role-playing opportunities may exist in your local community. (See sidebar for more information)

Work in the Legislature. Teen Pages in the Virginia General Assembly and on Capitol Hill do clerical work, run errands, and get valuable paid work experience while learning firsthand about the workings of government. These are highly competitive programs in which the student spends months away from home. Teen Girl Scouts in Northern Virginia may serve as volunteer Congressional Aides during the summer months. (See sidebar for more information.)

More Legislative Learning Opportunities for Teens

The annual Model General Assembly, run by the Virginia YMCA, gives high school students an opportunity to learn about the legislature through role playing and writing legislation. For more information, contact your local YMCA, or visit the above website.

The highly competative Girls State and Boys State summer programs, run by the American Legion, offer rising high school seniors the opportunity to hone their leadership skills while role-playing different positions in state and local government. Note that the admissions requirements for homeschoolers vary significantly between the two programs.

The Charlottesville-based Youth Leadership Initiative provides free, downloadable mock election and mock legislative exercises and curriculum plans for interested parents and students. “E-Congress” is an online simulation that allows middle and high school students to learn how a bill becomes a law and then apply this knowledge as they research, draft, debate, and pass original legislation.

The Virginia General Assembly Page Program is open to Virginia students who are 13 or 14 years old. Students must have a strong academic record and letters of recommendation from their sponsoring legislator and their school principal (or equivalent). Pages live in a hotel in downtown Richmond during the week while the legislature is in session, and travel home on the weekends. The term of service coincides with the meeting of the Virginia General Assembly in the winter, and lasts for 7-9 weeks. For more information on the program, see the above website or contact your local legislator.

Congressional Pages on Capitol Hill must be at least 16 years old and in their junior year of high school. Students are sponsored by a member of Congress, and must have a strong academic record and no medical problems involving their feet. Pages reside full time in dormitories on Capitol Hill, and attend a “Page School” during their term of service. There are opportunities to serve for an entire fall or spring semester, or for one or two months in the summer. The House and Senate programs are administered separately. For additional information about the Senate Page program, contact your U.S. Senator. For additional information about the House Page program, contact your local Congressperson. Your Congressperson�s website may have more specifics about the program.

The Congressional Aide program is for registered Teen Girl Scouts ages 15 or older who wish to volunteer on Capitol Hill during the summer. Selected Girl Scouts from the Washington DC Metropolitan area are assigned to work with individual Representatives and Senators, doing clerical work and assisting office staff. Contact your local Teen Girl Scout Leader for more information.

Additional Resources for Learning About Lawmaking in Action

The following resources make it easy to learn more about lawmaking in action:

United States/Federal Government

The THOMAS online database, administered by the Library of Congress, allows the public to identify and monitor Federal legislation from the comfort of home. You can use this easy-to-learn database to search for information on any bill introduced by Congress from 1995 to the present. THOMAS also provides online versions of The Congressional Record, vote records, floor activity summaries, the text of federal laws, resolutions, and treaties, and much more.

At the official websites for the U.S.House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate you can find information on your U.S. Representatives and Senators; do bill searches; read the Congressional Record; learn how government works; and read lots of interesting historical trivia about Congress. The Senate website also has some nice artwork.

The U.S. House of Representatives administers Kids in the House and Educational Links. Kids in the House, geared mainly towards elementary aged students, includes colorful information, activities, games, and puzzles, as well as lesson plans for all ages of students. “Educational Links” features online versions of the government publications on lawmaking, How Our Laws Are Made and Tying It All Together. This website also provides the complete text of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and other important documents, and more.

Ben’s Guide to U.S. Government for Kids is a colorful, easy to navigate website which explain how government works in a straightforward, accessible manner. “Ben’s Guide” (administered by the Government Printing Office or GPO) is organized by grade levels and contains much useful information on the legislative process. The site also includes a nice tutorial for older children and adults on how to track federal legislation through the GPO database, using the International Dolphin Conservation Act bill as an example.

A similar but less comprehensive website, the Dirksen Congressional Center’s Congress for Kids allows students to take quizzes on their knowledge of government and Congress.

Virginia Government

The Virginia General Assembly’s website is unquestionably the best single source of information on our state’s legislative workings:

  • The “Citizen’s Guide” provides the history of the General Assembly; basic statistical and other information on the House of Delegates and Senate; explanations of how bills become laws; voter registration tips; and even helpful suggestions for citizens who wish to write their lawmakers or testify at committee hearings.
  • Capitol Classroom ” includes information, games, lesson plans, and activities for students of all ages and their teachers. This section also discusses various student programs like the Page Program, Girls/Boys State, and the Model General Assembly.
  • Tours” has virtual tours of the Capitol Square buildings and grounds, and provides maps and directions for families who are planning to visit the Capitol.
  • Publications” allows you to order free copies of numerous booklets, activity books, references, and resources, published by the Virginia General Assembly. Publications are available for all ages and all levels of legislative experience and interest.

The Legislative Information System (LIS) is free, easy to use, and a gold mine of information on legislation in our state. Use the LIS to track bills in the General Assembly, research existing laws, read voting records, check committee calendars, learn more about your local legislators, and much more. This is the best way to keep track of legislation that might affect Virginia homeschoolers.

Your local legislator is an invaluable resource for learning more about Virginia government in action. Your legislator’s office may have free copies of booklets on Virginia government for your family, including annual General Assembly directories with photos and personal information about your favorite delegates and senators. Your legislator may also have pictures of the General Assembly throughout history, maps showing legislative districts, and many of the publications produced by the Virginia General Assembly.

An especially popular booklet, “Virginia Government in Brief” (available through your local legislator or the Virginia House of Delegates Information and Public Relations Office), not only explains the organization of every branch of state government in detail, but also provides pages of fascinating Virginia trivia which you can use to amaze your friends. (Did you know that the American Foxhound is the official state dog? And that the official state beverage is milk?)

Happy Lawmaking!


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