Onekama third graders explore civil liberties with Ray Franz


By Gretchen Eichberger
Sun contributor

In early March 2011 I invited the Representative of Michigan’s 101st District, Ray Franz to come and speak with my students at Onekama Elementary School about his role in our State’s government, I asked him to speak of current issues in Michigan that would be of interest to a typical third grader, and to answer student questions regarding our natural resources, energy, transportation, and our civil liberties. One may ask, ‘does the typical third grader even contemplate such topics?’ Of Course! The average eight-year-old is very dramatic and inquisitive. They are beginning to accept more responsibility, set personal goals, and understand the relationship between choices and consequences. Many will possess a “know-it-all” attitude.

Franz’s assistant, Jennifer Smeltzer, a Yale graduate, accepted the invitation on his behalf, thus the preparation for his visit began. I prepared my third graders for the visit with two lessons on the purpose for government. We read and discussed a short passage from the Declaration of Independence written by Thomas Jefferson. “We hold these truths to be self- evident, that all Men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Happiness — That to secure these Rights, Governments are instituted among Men.” A second quote from Article I of Michigan’s State Constitution was also introduced and discussed. “All political power is inherent in the people. Government is instituted for their equal benefit, security, and protection.”

Through our textbooks and our sacred American Documents, we identified that the purpose of government was to protect the “individual rights of citizens” and to “keep citizens safe.” The students then were introduced to the Bill of Rights and discussed the meaning of Liberty, which included having your own ideas and opinions and to express your ideas in public, and the right for people to meet in groups. Finally, the students were then shown the official website for Rep. Franz, explaining that he was our elected official for the people to express their ideas and concerns about their state and local region. Franz received the students’ ideas days in advance of the visit. The students were concerned with issues pertaining to the quality of our Great Lakes, in particular the issue of invasive species and increased fines for pollution. The students saw the effects of pollution when they picked up nearly 100 pounds of trash (mainly cigarette butts) at the beginning of their school year, along their beloved stretch of Lake Michigan just a few miles north of school.

Representative Franz and his assistant, Ms. Smeltzer arrived promptly at 2 p.m. Introductions were made, and our first topic on the list was announced: the protection of our Great Lakes. Franz stated, “the Great Lakes are our greatest asset. We do everything we can do to protect them. The states that border the Great Lakes have established the Eight-State Compact that forbids drilling for oil in the Great Lakes.” In addition to mentioning the Eight-State compact, Franz also commented on the current situation with the Asian Carp.

Windmills were a hot topic this year, and one of the nation’s largest energy companies, Duke Energy has proposed to build more than 100 turbines on high ridges that run near Manistee and Benzie counties. The students had communicated a reasoned position on whether they were for or against wind farms in their communities. Many students were also concerned with the smoke and pollution that were emitted from coal powered electric plants. The students felt that it was possible for today’s scientists to find a way to make clean energy. Many of the students felt that the windmills should not be in residential areas, but rather in areas that were sparsely populated.

Franz continued, “Where we are with energy is where we are with prosperity. We have to find new ways to produce energy. We need to create energy that is affordable and consistent. Wind and solar panels are too unreliable. We have not developed the technology for it to be consistent. I personally believe that nuclear power is our best option because they provide energy all the time. We will not be building nuclear power plants over tectonic plates like they did in Japan. In Michigan we do not have tidal waves or earthquakes.”

The rising cost of gasoline is something that today’s students hear plenty of at home, especially those who live in a rural area, where public transportation is limited. The students felt that gas prices should be lowered, for many did not quite understand the full realities of the commodity. Several students were savvy to the fact that newer technologies were currently available. “My dad’s friend has a car that runs on vegetable oil,” stated the confident and engaging Ali. Eleanor and Taylor thought that more cars could be made that ran on solar power. Colleen thought that bikes should be ridden more, and Savannah, Ella, and Hanna thought that cars should run on something besides gas. Nickolas liked the idea of returning to horses.

Franz told the students that, “A lot of people think we are running out of oil. The reality is that we are running out of the will to go get it. There is a lot of oil under the Great Lakes. We choose not to get it, because we have not found a safe way to get it. I hope some of you brilliant guys who want to become engineers can show us how to get the oil. That is your future and what you have to work towards. The new slant drilling technique is available. There is a potential that we will never run out of oil. We want to make sure that we have enough. “It is an essential part of the way we live.” This brought the jubilant Dalron to explain the process of slant drilling, to which Mr. Franz was very impressed. With a broad smile, he gave his approval and stated, “You are brilliant!”

The day following Franz’s visit, the students were given the opportunity to state their opinions and beliefs, and were reminded that the Bill of Rights guarantees our freedom to disagree with our leaders and policy makers. The protection of our Great Lakes was a theme that transcended all the issues discussed. Lahaila belived that nuclear power was “not our best option” because windmills were better. Ali thought that if an earthquake occurred in the Great Lakes region, she would “not like the possibility that we would be without fresh water.” Taylor thought that nuclear power was not our best choice because if it breaks it can kill people and humans are coming up with things, and he thought we could find better ways. (to produce energy).” Dalron wrote, “NO! I do not think nuclear power is not the best idea we have. We could create a big solar panel somewhere and we could transport it where we want. And if we had nuclear power someone could blow it up and we’d be done.” Justin stated that, “nuclear power could wreck the Great Lakes.”

Savannah thought we could find oil in a different place other than below our fresh water.” Aaron thought it would be a bad idea to “get the oil from the bottom of the lakes” and that “nuclear power should not be in Michigan in case a disaster happens.” Jackson agreed with Mr. Franz in stating that he believed that “nuclear power plants are the way to go because Michigan rarely ever has earthquakes, let alone tsunamis.” Hanna thought is was possible to “work harder to make windmills better.” Hayden said that nuclear power could “destroy America and it could get out of control.” Zackary thought that the “workers that helped make the nuclear plant could make it wrong and poison could get out.” Kelly stated that “nuclear power is not our best option even if it provides energy all the time, and we don’t need energy all the time and we can use the sun for some energy.”

Regarding the use of petrochemicals and how it is “essential for our way of life” as stated by Franz, Ella believed that “we don’t have to use plastic to make everything.” Taylor stated that instead of “working towards getting oil” as stated by Franz, he would work towards being in the NBA and will also do things to help the United States and the World. Jackson and Kolin thought it would be okay to drill for oil under the Great Lakes as long as the “oil pipe was safe and very strong.” Hayden believe that we were “running out of oil and that we can’t drill in the Great Lakes because it would poison them.” Cody believed that “there should not be plastic in the United States of America.”

It was evident that Mr. Franz enjoyed the time spent with the third graders of Onekama. He was impressed with their ability to articulate ideas, their maturity level, and their knowledge of Michigan. I was indeed very grateful that he displayed his honesty and genuine interest in the students’ ideas. He truly engaged the students in active citizenship, in an age where ‘we the people’ must be involved like never before.

Gretchen Eichberger teaches elementary school in the Onekama school district.