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Sweetwater Embraces Move From Textbook Civics To Civic Engagement

Francisco Nodal and Sequoia Kriss pose for a photo in front of their presenta...

Photo by Megan Burks

Above: Francisco Nodal and Sequoia Kriss pose for a photo in front of their presentation on gender inequality in politics, May 12, 2018.

Bonita Vista High School students Sequoia Kriss and Francisco Nodal, both 15, excitedly recounted their meeting with Chula Vista Mayor Mary Salas.

“She came out of her office and she was like, ‘Oh, hi! This is so awesome!’ Kriss said. “She was just a down-to-earth woman that was there to talk to two freshman kids about trying to solve a problem that is nationwide.”

The problem she’s referring to is gender inequality in politics. Their chat was part of an assignment that challenged students throughout the Sweetwater Union High School District to research a problem, talk to stakeholders and brainstorm solutions.

Kriss and Nodal outlined steps to start a Chula Vista organization that empowers women to run for office. Other students looked into voter turnout, high school dropout rates and militarized law enforcement.

This is how most California students can expect to learn civics in the coming years — learned through inquiry- and community-based projects, and sprinkled throughout their social science classes. In 2016, the California Department of Education adopted a new History-Social Science Framework that asks every campus to take the approach. Frameworks are official guidance for teachers on how to best help students meet the state’s academic standards.

Sweetwater piloted its projects through ninth-grade geography.

“Really, you can look at anything and approach it in a geographic way,” said Kelly Leon, who teaches a class called Human Geography at Bonita Vista. It looks at the interplay between places and social systems.

“So just thinking about in a society like the United States, we think of ourselves as advanced. But when we look at an issue like gender equality in representing us in the political process, we’re not as advanced as some other countries are,” she said, explaining how Kriss and Nodal’s project falls under geography.

Leon’s class also looks at industry, food systems and economies. But she said her goal is to get students thinking about geography through their own lens.

“To help students understand that education is not just about reading a textbook,” Leon said. “It should be in service of something bigger, and that something bigger should be looking at the problems we have in our community, looking at the problems we have in our world and figuring out ways we can impact them or solve them.”

Video by Matt Bowler

There are similar threads in the Common Core standards and the nation’s relatively new science standards. The result is that civics education is sprinkled throughout the curriculum and goes beyond the branches of government.

“There’s a big focus on authentic learning, on not studying the same questions that Napoleon and Churchill considered, but questions that ninth-graders in Chula Vista might have,” said Thomas Herman, a geography professor at San Diego State and director of a group that helps K-12 teachers improve geography instruction. “You’re really helping students to identify their own meaningful questions, and then pursue knowledge that will help them answer those questions.”

The framework urges teachers to go even further by providing opportunities for students to take action. Leon and her colleagues in Sweetwater hosted a conference where students shared their findings and ideas.

Herman defended this approach over traditional textbook learning.

“I think there are not many people who would spend much time arguing that the world is fundamentally the same now as it was in 1850 or 1650 or 1492,” he said. “Having people continue to learn through those stages of the past and then at the end of their education they’ve just been brought up to the present, it’s not very helpful when we have pressing issues and challenges that we’d really like our young people to be working on as soon as possible.”

The energy at Sweetwater’s conference suggested the model was a hit among students.

“I thought I was just signing up for the required class and we were just going to learn about the world and land,” Kriss said. “And I wasn’t really excited about it. I like focusing on issues around the world more.”

Kriss said the project has already given her some ideas about making clubs on campus more inclusive. But what about on a larger scale? Would she and her classmates call on change from elected officials like Mary Salas?

“Yeah, I think we will,” Kriss said. “Because finding out that she’s so easy to contact and sit down with and easy to talk to, that gives me hope that if we really wanted to change something around that world, that we could contact the senators of California or the House of Representatives.”

Leon said administrators at her school are excited to bring the process back next year.

California schools are adopting a civics education model that reaches beyond the branches of government to tackle real-life problems and build a more civil future.

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