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Teaching history as it happens: Columbia teachers build on current events

Monday, February 2, 2009 | 4:56 p.m. CST; updated 11:16 p.m. CST, Monday, February 2, 2009
Rep. Steve Hobbs speaks about the responsibilities of a state representative to fifth-graders at Grant Elementary School on Friday as part of the "Civic Month." "That's my favorite part of this job. ... when I get to go to my schools," Hobbs said. "(The children) have so many questions and (are) so eager to learn."

COLUMBIA — Maddie Mutrux, a fifth-grader at Grant Elementary School, was excited about a history class that didn't have her nose buried in a textbook.

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"I like the guest speakers, because I don't have to be looking at a book," Maddie said. "My favorite part is when they bring us gifts."

Her teacher, Matthew Kuensting, has taken the traditional topic of government history and paired it with real-life examples. Inspired by the political events of the past year, Kuensting has orchestrated a “Civic Month” during which state and local officials come talk to the students about Missouri's government.

“This form of teaching makes the students feel like they are in the moment," Kuensting said. "They are a part of what is happening and so they have a stronger connection to the material. When we are talking about 1763, it is hard for the students to wrap their minds around the time period.”

In a season of robust history-making, Columbia teachers are building on current events to enhance students' understanding of how government works and why it matters.

"Civic Month," for example, includes visiting a city council meeting. Classroom speakers have included a circuit judge and other state and local government employees. “When students see a real life person or visit a meeting, it has so much more meaning than a book and notes can ever have,” Kuensting said.

Last Friday, state Rep. Steve Hobbs, R-Mexico, visited Kuensting’s fifth-graders to talk about his job. Hobbs said the most important thing he does is vote on bills that come before the state House of Representatives.

"Passing a bill is a long, drawn-out process,” he said. “The bill should be looked at time and time again because you are affecting people’s lives.”

After Hobbs left, the students had Rice Krispies Treats.

"My favorite part is that we get to ask questions," said Mamie Davis. One of the class's questions was, What makes a great state representative?

“The most important quality a state representative should have is to be a people person," Hobbs told them. "Also, you need to have integrity. If you say you’re going to do something, do it.”

Hobbs’ visit was part of an ongoing assignment on current local government. This type of interactive learning is happening at other Columbia schools as they take notice of recent history and integrate it into their curriculum. Austin Reed, a U.S. studies teacher at Rock Bridge High School, has used recent political events to relate current events to the larger portrait of history.

“As a whole, in class I try to illustrate points by using analogies with my students," Reed said. "I try to make my students see why it is important to not only watch and know current events, but to be thoughtful and ask questions as history is unfolding around them ... Teaching as it happens is generally easier for students to get involved in."

Scott Wright, chairman of the social studies department at Oakland Junior High School, used the recent presidential election and inauguration of Barack Obama as a way to excite the students about history.

“The inauguration provided a good opportunity to contrast the presidency with England’s monarchy during (the U.S.) Colonial period students learned about earlier this year,” Wright said.

The junior high students held a mock election, electing Obama with 71 percent of the votes. “It was a great way to get students more involved in our democracy and consider its responsibilities,” Wright said.

After Election Day, students continued to participate in the political conversations on the Web site Net Day Speak Up, a site Wright introduced his students to as a way to anonymously submit suggestions to the new administration. Oakland students were part of 286,562 participants in the 2008 Speak Up campaign. These suggestions, which addressed both education and technology, will be reviewed at Capitol Hill on March 24.

“It is important that our students develop certain skills that allow them to be lifelong learners," Reed said. "We want them to view current events not as isolated incidents, but as a pattern that has a beginning somewhere in American History.”

Missourian reporters Kim Tran, Laura Petersen and Sara Jane Maaranen contributed to this report.


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