Students Get a Taste of Politics at the Kennedy Institute

Ever wonder about the legal or political ramifications of having a superpower? Maybe not, but that was exactly the task laid before 28 Rivers students when they paid a recent visit to Boston’s Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate.
The students took part in a “Senate Immersion Module” created by the Kennedy Institute. In it, they grappled with—as the institute’s materials put it—“a fictional reality with real-world problems.” It’s an immersive role-play experience that takes place in an imposing, life-size replica of the U.S. Senate chamber; visitors take on the job of senators, debating proposed new legislation and ultimately voting yea or nay.

This was the first time Rivers students have participated in a SIM exercise at the Kennedy Institute. Faculty member Arturo Bagley visited the Institute last year and took part in a senate simulation activity. “I thought it would be a great experience for our students in AP U.S. government,” says Bagley, who, along with teachers Will Mills and Amy Enright, traveled with the students to the Institute, located next door to the John F. Kennedy Library in the Columbia Point area of Dorchester.

In the Superpower Rights and Regulations SIM, students are asked to envision a world where some, but not all, citizens have superpowers. The students were told that there had been a recent incident in which a person with superpowers had wreaked havoc on a Tulsa shopping center, using mind control. Now, their job as legislators is to debate what, if anything, the government should do to regulate those with superpowers.

The students could choose to be members of the Freedom Party or the Liberty Party, explained Bagley; the former essentially advocated for a hands-off approach, while the latter sought some level of government regulation.

As the students, in the role of senators, pondered their positions, said Bagley, “They were considering three things: What the party supports, what their constituents want, and what they personally believe.” Testimony from “experts,” portrayed by members of the Institute staff, helped to clarify—or confuse—those various criteria.

The students supported a measure pushing government investment in superpower suppression technology. More surprisingly, said Bagley, they also endorsed a measure that would force all people with superpowers to serve in the military reserve. “The kids were saying things like, ‘Great, we’ll be well protected this way’ and ‘Other countries are enacting similar laws, so we need to do this to stay competitive,’ ” said Bagley. But Bagley pointed out to them that compulsory service for some, but not all, citizens might raise questions of civil rights. “What if you were saying something like ‘All black people need to serve’? They saw that when you say it a different way, it doesn’t really sound right,” he said.

As in actual lawmaking, the outcomes were unpredictable and perhaps messy. But, says Bagley, the field trip had the intended effect, leading the kids to insights and aha moments about the legislative process. “They were very into it,” he says. “And the interactive aspects really brought it to life.”