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Close Up program attracts Nome students to Washington, DC

By Keith Conger - Published in the Nome Nugget newspaper 05/04/2016

On April 23, in a hotel just outside Washington DC, Nephi Tidwell, a young congressman from Alaska was trying hard to get his 14 congressional teammates from around the country to end the debate that had gone on for nearly an hour. With the floor speaker announcing a one-minute call, Tidwell calmly urged the assembly to bring their bill to a closing show of hands.

Nephi Tidwell was not really a congressman, but rather an eighth grader from Nome taking part in a mock congressional exercise. He and 12 other Nome junior high students joined kids from many locations around the United States in the nation’s capital from April 23-28 as part of a long-standing program called Close Up.

“The program informs us of our roots as people, as citizens of America,” said Tidwell. “But, our groups were more than just learning about government, we were taking part in it.”

Nome-Beltz junior high teacher Jill Peters organized the trip for the local students. She had help from fellow teacher Rachel Ventress, who brought groups to attend Close Up each of the last two years.

Close Up first started directing junior high and high school students toward developing practical understandings of citizenship and the basic concepts and processes of our democratic government in 1971. The program boasts over 800,000 alumni.

“This is such a good program on many levels,” said Peters. “The first, and most obvious level is that we are going to take kids to visit the sights of Washington DC. What this program really does is that it adds these other layers, one being we have these guides that live here, and have experience here, who deeply know the interesting history of the place and guide us through exercises in democracy.”

The Nome kids were members of a larger group of 90 students that worked together throughout the week. Participants in this cohort came from Alaska, California, Colorado, Michigan and New Mexico. Tidwell said the experience put himself, and his fellow Nomites, out of their comfort zones. It was the first time out of state for three of the students.

“I think they did a  really good job of mixing up the groups, trying to make sure we are meeting somebody new each time,” said Nome participant Kenneth Hafner.

“They embraced the Close-up structure, and they were enjoying learning,” said Peters. “They gained confidence in areas that they probably never knew they had. And this type of experience helped them learn things that they couldn’t get in any other way.”

Nome chaperone and parent Greg Smith recognized the program’s elemental use of Immersion. “As I see it from my perspective, Close Up is a program that is modeled on the best practices of building positive peer culture, where students are immersed in an educational experience, where they interact in a structured manner with other students from all over the country. Not only did they get to meet these kids, but they learned how to interact with them and work with them in a diplomatic way,” said Smith. “They were learning how to debate real, current, controversial issues, as we actually do here in the United States.”

Smith also recognized the program’s element of Diversity of Participants. “This extremely effective model of instruction creates an equal playing field,” said Smith. “It doesn’t exclude people that have more challenges than others, it doesn’t exclude people from different socio-economic classes.”

The student’s Onsite Studies in Washington included visits to the presidential and war memorials, as well as trips to the White House, the Capital, Arlington National Cemetery, several Smithsonian Museums and the National Archives. Close Up groups also have the option of visiting places outside of DC, such as Philadelphia, Gettysburg or New York City. The Nome students spent a day in Virginia's Colonial Williamsburg.

Close Up's success rests in the hands of its talented program leaders who facilitated the mock student congress. Throughout the program's duration, they helped engage students with in-depth, small-group student interactions about the responsibilities of being a United States citizen.

“Your work does not end here, in fact it only just starts here,” said program leader Miranda Slifka as the students concluded their week of discovery. “This is sort of the beginning of what you should be bringing home with you, and what you should expect to continue doing throughout the rest of your life in order to become more engaged and active citizens. It requires you to do research, it requires you to use your voice, and to raise it up so that other people hear you.”

“Before it didn’t seem real,” said eighth grader Autumn Osborne as she compared her involvement in Close Up to learning about government through books and video. “But now we got to experience it more. I saw a protest poster about hunger, it really makes you feel something. It’s really powerful. I definitely feel more involved, and know more about politics. Before I didn’t really pay attention, but now I feel I could connect more. I definitely learned how to stand up for myself.”

Fellow student Kylie Evans agreed, “I learned a bunch of skills that I can use later on, like communicating, taking a stand, and how to use my voice.”

Peters acknowledged that all the hard fundraising was worth the effort. “Any exhaustion from work is erased when you get to watch these kids experience something like the Holocaust Museum for the first time, when you get to watch them look on the reflecting pool and stare up at the Washington Monument, and when you get to see them get excited and get on the Metro, and just experience all these things they’ve never experienced before.”

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