by Becca Heistad
Over the past four years, Mound Westonka High School has welcomed sitting members from various branches of government to political "round tables" with MWHS seniors. Last year, the high school was visited by Rep. Erik Paulsen, who spoke on his role in the U.S. Congress. This year's seniors had the opportunity to exchange ideas with a U.S. senator.
Sen. Al Franken addressed the entire senior class on Wednesday, Oct. 3. Franken spoke candidly about the challenges he currently faces in Washington and the reasons why he feels privileged to represent Minnesota in the U.S. Senate.
Two senior members of the MWHS Link Crew took the senator on a quick tour of the building—popping in on unsuspecting classrooms along the way. Sen. Franken even dusted off his Español in a Spanish class (“¡Hola! ¿Cómo estás?”) and showed off some football skills in the gym.
During the tour, Student Senate President Katey Nelson and Tyler Hebig highlighted some of the ways they use 21st century skills in the classroom each day, including their use of iPads and other wireless technology and utilizing "the cloud" for homework and group assignments. MWHS Principal Keith Randklev described the district’s commitment to personalizing learning for each student and helping students acquire skills they will need to succeed in college and beyond.
It was standing room only in the Little Theater when the senator addressed the senior class at 1:15 p.m. Franken told the audience that he didn’t want to spend too much time talking, as he was more interested in hearing the students’ questions.
Franken explained that a lot of what he does as a U.S. senator involves meeting with other politicians and sharing good ideas and best practices from Minnesota that could benefit the country as a whole. For example, Franken explained, Minnesota is currently ranked No. 1 in health care.
“If the country did health care the way Minnesota does health care, we’d be a lot better off,” Franken said. “We really have a spectacular state.”
Franken related some of what he has been doing recently to benefit his home state. He described meeting with Geoffrey Canada, leader of the Harlem Children’s Zone, about successful strategies for closing the achievement gap. He also talked about being blown away by the compassion and sense of community among flood victims in northern Minnesota and their determination to recapture their normal lives.
Franken also touched on issues of particular importance to graduating seniors, such as the rising cost of education.
“You guys are facing a whole different terrain than I did in terms of college costs,” Franken said, stressing the importance of making college affordable for motivated students.
Following his talk, Sen. Franken took questions from audience members, which focused on everything from his biggest challenges as a senator to issues Minnesotans will be voting on this November.
Franken said his biggest challenge currently is the same as that of almost everyone in Washington: getting things done. Franken said his hope is that, whatever happens in the upcoming election, politicians will be able to start working together to accomplish what they were put in office to accomplish after November.
As a final treat for his audience, Franken demonstrated a unique talent. He proved his ability to accurately draw all 50 states, freehand and from memory.
“No one should be able to graduate high school until they can do this,” Franken joked.
Franken closed by saying he was honored by the opportunity to come and speak to the students. He said being a senator is “an incredible privilege and a tremendous responsibility” and that he “works really hard.”
His words to the senior class: “Make the most out of the great lives you’re given.”
Political ‘Round Tables’ at MWHS
The political round table process at MWHS began four years ago as the indirect result of MWHS teacher Bob Kuehl's requirement that students in his advanced government class attend public meetings. A number of Kuehl's students attended a particularly eventful Mound City Council meeting, and afterward one of the council members asked if he could come and speak to the government class. Kuehl said that first connection and those formed in subsequent political round tables have really benefitted MWHS students.
Over the past four years, the high school has hosted a city council member, a state representative, a state senator and a Hennepin County commissioner, a U.S. congressman and, now, a U.S. senator.
Kuehl said he believes inviting various local government officials to speak to the government classes or to the whole senior class (as was the case for Rep. Paulsen’s and Sen. Franken’s visits) gives students opportunities they may not receive in a larger district.
“We try to educate [students] using real world experiences, and hearing directly from their elected officials and other government leaders benefits them greatly,” Kuehl said. “I have found that the guest speakers we have had have enjoyed spending time with our students and answering the various questions that the students have.”