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February 5, 2014 at 5:00 AM

Want kids to care about school? Teacher says civics are the key

There are relatively few middle school teachers whose work in the classroom routinely generates correspondence from state politicians, Supreme Court judges and national experts. But social studies impresario Webster Hutchins tends to attract attention.

Officially, he teaches Washington state history at Madison Middle School in West Seattle. Unofficially, he is a one-man juggernaut, preaching the value of civics as a tool for education. The evidence, as he sees it, is inarguable:

According to national studies, 75 percent of high school seniors cannot name a power granted to Congress by the Constitution, and fewer than half of eighth graders tested understand the purpose of the Bill of Rights.

In Seattle, the curriculum mandates one semester of government for high school seniors and three units of related instruction for younger kids. But Hutchins, a veteran educator, believes this underserves youth and ignores a powerful method for increasing student engagement.

There is some data to support that claim: In 2012, the American Enterprise Institute presented  a series of academic papers asserting that civic literacy was as critical to academic success as mathematics and literacy.

And in 2008, a study funded by the Gates Foundation reported that 83 percent of students at risk of dropping out measurably increased their interest in school when its real-life application was made clear through civics.

“You’re giving kids an analytical framework which is the most important thing in teaching,” said Hutchins, whose pedagogy favors role-playing, mock elections and real-life signature-gathering on issues students care about. “The architecture of social studies becomes meaningful, personal and powerful because the kids can relate it to their own lives. I want every kid to have the chance to learn this stuff.”

In his history class on Tuesday, 25 eighth-graders were doing just that, by researching bills coming before the Legislature and devising arguments about those that were personally meaningful. Each student will soon be gathering signatures and presenting them to legislators in Olympia.

Members of the King County Council have drafted a resolution endorsing Hutchins’ Civics for All curriculum, and Hutchins says that several members of the Seattle City Council have verbally indicated their support as well, though votes in either body would be largely symbolic since neither has jurisdiction over the curriculum in Seattle schools.

Hutchins, bent on incorporating his brand of civics into every classroom in the city, is undeterred by this formality, and his students have taken up the mantle. Zenrique Tellez, whom Hutchins taught at Franklin High School a decade ago, testified before the Seattle School Board about the value of civics instruction to his own education.

“It was arguably one of the greatest experiences of my school career,” Tellez said. “It could “change the lives of hundreds of kids around this city.”

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