Purpose

Simulating a legislative hearing provides students with an opportunity to gain an understanding of the purposes and procedures of these hearings, as well as the roles and responsibilities of committee members. Students also gain experience in identifying and clarifying the ideas, interests, and values associated with the subject being discussed in the legislative hearing.

Procedures

Before class begins, follow these steps:

  1. Identify a lesson that calls for a legislative hearing or create one of your own. Choose a topic that is a current public policy debate that will interest students. It could be on any issue that might come before a town council, state legislature or the United States Congress.  
  2. Think about how to involve as many students as possible in the role-play. Options include:
    • Legislators: Five legislators is a practical number for a committee but this number may vary to meet class requirements. One legislator is designated as committee chairperson.
    • Witnesses: These people will testify in favor of or in opposition to the bill under consideration. They typically represent interest groups or others who have an opinion and/or a stake in the bill. They should represent a diverse range of views with a variety of reasons to oppose or support the bill. The number and nature of the witnesses will depend upon the topic being discussed and how much time you can allow for the hearing.
    • Recorder: A person is selected to keep a record of proceedings and of recommendations.
    • (optional) Journalist(s): This person or group will observe and report on the preparation and actual hearing. You may want to challenge the journalist to be impartial or you might choose to have different journalist represent sources that are typically considered liberal or conservative to see how the stories may be different.
  3. If there are many students in your class, you might consider assigning two students to represent each interest group so they can prepare their testimony and co-present. Better still, you might consider running two legislative hearings (on different topics) to maximize participation.
  4. Provide background information about the topic in the form of a fact sheet or data set(s). You may also allow students to conduct their own research. Build in enough time for either approach.
  5. Prepare a handout of the student instructions. Include background information on the topic, if necessary, a description of the roles you have chosen and steps for the preparation and hearing. Leave space for students to take notes. If you want different witnesses to have different perspectives, provide each witness with a short statement about them and their position. (It is best to have students design their witness statement by themselves rather than to provide them with a script.) You may provide the students with a bill to discuss, provide a list of possible legislative options, or have the legislators create their own legislation based on the hearing.
  6. (optional) Invite staff from the office of local legislators to assist in this lesson. Contact the local legislature, local interest groups, or local chapters of national organizations that have a concern about the topic of the lesson for information on the topic. Invite appropriate staff to attend class. (see Using Community Resource People)
  7. Arrange your classroom to look like a committee hearing room. You will need a table for the legislators at the front of the room, a desk for the recorder, and a desk that faces the lawmakers and/or podium for the witnesses. Other desks or chairs should be set up to face the front of the room.
  8. (optional) If your classroom will not accommodate this set up, you might use a theater, media center, or other space in your school. It would be even more exciting if you could arrange to use a hearing or committee room of your local legislative body or school board.
  9. (optional) Find a gavel for the committee chairperson and nameplates or table tents to identify each of the lawmakers and witnesses.

Once class begins, follow these steps:

  1. Describe the activity in general terms. Assign students to their roles. (See notes above for ideas.)
  2. Explain to students the purpose of the legislative hearing and the procedures to be followed. Distribute the handouts you prepared, if any. Confirm students understand their tasks and how much time will be allotted for each step.
  3. Allow time for students to prepare for the legislative hearing in accordance with their assigned roles. If witnesses are conducting their own research, give them guidance about where to start. Lawmakers and journalists can do research to help them fulfill their roles as well. Once the research is complete, each student should prepare for the hearing by writing a witness statement (witnesses), preparing questions for witnesses (legislators), or outlining questions and points to pay particular attention to (journalists). 

Once the hearing begins, follow these steps:

  1. The committee chairperson calls the legislative hearing to order, states the purpose of the hearing, and announces the order and time limits for witness testimony and questions from committee members. The following time limits are suggested:
    • Two to five minutes for a witness statement.
    • Five to ten minutes for questions from the chairperson and other committee members.
  2. Each witness is called to present a statement for a set amount of time, followed by questions from lawmakers on the committee. The chairperson is the first to question the witness followed by each of the other members of the committee.
  3. After the witnesses have been heard, the legislators on the committee review the testimony, discuss the problem, and make recommendations on what their next step(s) will be. They should do so in front of the class so everyone can hear them.
  4. Conclude the activity with a whole-class discussion and debrief. Here are some questions to consider:
    • What did you learn about the current issue we considered?
    • Which facts and arguments were most persuasive and what made them compelling?
    • Which facts and arguments were least persuasive and what made them so?
    • Did you agree with the perspective of the role you were assigned?
    • What was most difficult about your role?
    • What did you learn about lawmaking from the process of this activity?
    • Dropping your role, how do you think this issue should be addressed?
    • Assume for a moment, that this issue passed out of committee, what would happen next in the process before it could become law? Who would be involved in that process?
    • Do you think our (local, state, or national) legislature should address this issue?
    • If so, who could we contact to express our views? How should we contact them?
    • (optional) If a community resource person has helped to lead this activity, allow him or her to comment on the students’ work and to reflect on how it compares to “real life” hearings and the legislative process.