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High School Students Debate Constitutional Issues Online

High school students took to their computers last week, but it wasn't to chat on Facebook. This time, they were applying constitutional principles to the issue of gay marriage.

The video conference with students from high schools around the country was part of a program called The Exchange. Based at the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia, it brings together high school students in moderated debates about important issues of the day. The idea is to help them learn to "do democracy" by engaging in civic deliberation.

Previous programs have explored how to balance students' rights with school safety and whether the government should ensure that every American has affordable health insurance. In March, students will explore whether a year of national service should be required for all Americans.

Prior to each debate, students study the issue at their schools, with resources supplied by the National Constitution Center. A scholar with expertise in the topic being discussed also advises each debate. The deliberative process that leads to the debate is interesting: Students engage in a structured conversation that helps them distill the key values raised by an issue, explore various points of view on it, and come up with a "compromise statement," offering a glimpse of how citizens can move forward with policy on difficult issues.

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