Students get firsthand civics lesson

Photo by

Alexandra Retter


Area students in grades seven through 12 learn about the democratic process at the 58th session of the Winona Model Legislature last week. 



Area students put democracy in action last week at the 58th session of the Winona Model Legislature. 

Students in seventh through 12th grade from Winona Area Public Schools, Cotter Schools and Rushford-Peterson High School learned how to pass legislation on November 18 and 19 at Winona State University’s (WSU) Education Village. WSU and Minnesota State College Southeast students also participated. 

“These again are bills we have in the legislature,” said Representative Gene Pelowski, who led the event, in an interview. “They’re taking primary sources. We’re teaching them how to amend a bill, debate a bill, pass a bill in committee, debate and pass a bill on the House and Senate floor, and then work with the governor to get your bill signed.” 

Students were part of either the House or Senate, as well as a committee. Some students were pages who brought information back and forth between committees, the House, the Senate, and the governor’s office. Some students acted as speaker of the house, president of the senate, or governor. Committees focused on topics including commerce, education, environment and agriculture, health and human services, and transportation. 

As the event started, WSU President Scott Olson told students that growth, learning, and work happen through conversation. “I hope this experience will remind you that listening is more powerful than shouting. I hope it will remind you that compromise is a virtue. I hope it will remind you that together, we can do great things, but only together. That’s how democracy gets done,” he said. 

Students presented and debated legislation in their committees. Students on the education committee discussed a bill that would ensure funds raised by a school extracurricular group are reserved for that group. After passing it, they referred it to another committee. For the environment and agriculture committee, one piece of legislation centered on using artificial light while hunting, with the argument being hunting in low light would be safer with artificial light. 

While completing their legislative work, students used the Model Legislature’s updated website, which included online bill progress tracking and voting features. Students also used Education Village’s technology, such as display screens in classrooms. “This is hands-on learning with state-of-the-art technology,” Pelowski told students at the opening of the Model Legislature. “That’s what this Education Village was all about — bringing you in from private schools, public schools, charters schools, and across grades seven through 12, and learning together.” 

For the WSU students, the event represented the culmination of months of work. The students, who are studying to become middle or high school social studies teachers, began planning at the beginning of August. 

This year’s Model Legislature was also a return to the event taking place in person after it could not be held in 2020 due to the pandemic. 

Students’ experiences at Model Legislature may have continuing impacts. Pelowski said in an interview that some former Model Legislature members now work in the state capital as political staffers. 

The work of one former member of Model Legislature, Veronica Colletti, had a particular impact on the location of this year’s event. This member attempted to pass a bill focused on funding Education Village about a decade ago in the Model Legislature, but it did not initially gain approval, Pelowski said at the event’s opening. The member brought it back the next year, and it did pass then. This experience led Pelowski and other supporters of the bill to present about Education Village to the community and gain the public’s perspective before passing legislation for creating the village at the state level five years later. “We knew … if we could not get support locally, we could not get support in St. Paul,” he said.