Students link up with U.S. senator

Daily Inter Lake

by Hilary Matheson

In a classroom of 37 seventh-grade students, 28 raised their hands when asked if they had ever used Skype. When asked who had talked with a U.S. senator before, five raised their hands.

All 37, however, did both during Kalispell Middle School teacher Brian Fox’s social studies class Wednesday. They dialed Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., via Skype to ask questions of the senator.

Social studies students recently completed a unit on the U.S. Constitution and discussed the role of citizens in government. The most important role they learned was voting. While the students are a few years away from being able to vote, Fox’s goal was for them to realize they can participate in the democratic process in other ways.

“The big thing I want them to realize is as a citizen they need to be involved with government and their community,” Fox said. “They are important and their voice does matter.”

From webcams, Tester and students could see each other during the 32-minute call.

Students asked Tester  questions about his responsibilities as a senator, average day and salary. Other questions were more specific. Seventh-grader Matthew Heastan asked what laws should be passed to solve U.S. energy and oil problems.

“I’m one of the ones that would like to see the Keystone Pipeline built, so if there’s the possibility to do that, there are advantages to dealing with Canada over Saudi Arabia,” Tester replied.

Touching on an earlier question about last year’s oil spill in the Yellowstone River, Tester added that if a pipeline were built, it would have to be done the right way,

“We don’t want to sacrifice water for oil,” Tester said. “That’s not a good swap.” 

Airikka Martinez asked Tester if campaign donors influenced lawmaking decisions. Tester said while he appreciates campaign contributors, he does not know who specific donors are and they do not impact his political decisions.

Tester said he relies on his background as a farmer, former teacher, experts and consumer groups to inform his decisions.

Some students, such as Maddie Roberts, were surprised to learn that Tester works 12- to 14-hour days and receives about 300 to 500 emails, letters and phone calls daily.

From a family of hunters, Roberts had hoped there would have been more time for a classmate to ask Tester’s opinion about future wolf-hunting seasons as part of their population control, but she was glad to be part of the Skype session.

“It is not an everyday thing you get a chance to talk to a senator,” Roberts said.

After the Skype session ended, Amy Croover, a field representative for Tester, addressed the class. Whether students feel their school needs more funding for textbooks or the fine arts, they should contact legislators, she said.

“Don’t discount your voice as a young person,” Croover said. “Don’t hesitate to be passionate about a cause.”

This is the first of the series of Skype sessions Fox wants to hold. Fox has contacted the offices of Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and Rep. Denny Rehberg, R-Mont. requesting their participation in future  sessions.

“After a few years, I want students to be able to sit back and say that in seventh-grade social studies, they talked to two senators and their representative,” Fox said. “My hope is to break down classroom walls and have guest speakers from all over the country, all over the world, speak to my students.”