Lessons in Life : Innovative Social Studies Curriculum Uses City as a Textbook

Times Staff Writer

All the maps in Alan Haskvitz’s social studies classroom are hung upside down or sideways.

Doing that, the Suzanne Middle School teacher explained, puts all his students, whatever their ability or cultural background, on equal footing. No student can take the map for granted. Everyone looks at it as if for the first time.

Canted maps are proof that the Walnut school has a new slant on social studies. Four years ago Haskvitz and Department Chairman Darrel Ballman set out to transform the school’s curriculum from the usual dull blend of history, geography and civics to a program that would engage students, even change their lives.

At Suzanne, social studies is a “non-trivial pursuit,” Ballman said. “We don’t teach for school. We teach for life.”


Innovative Curriculum

The result is an innovative curriculum that ultimately takes students out of their seats and into the centers of community power. Along the way, test scores have soared and the school has won national recognition. Last week, its social studies program was deemed America’s best by the National Council for the Social Studies, an association of 25,000 social studies teachers and others active in the field.

“I think social studies is one of the most important things we teach in school because of the decisions we all have to make in government and economics and the like,” Suzanne Principal Laurel Kanthak said. Given the urgency of the subject, she thought students were poorly served by multiple-choice exams on the Constitution and other rote exercises typical of social studies classes. Do whatever it takes to make a first-rate program, she told Ballman and Haskvitz.

The teachers began by changing the rules. Students are now expected to do things, as well as learn things in social studies. Ballman’s seventh-graders, for example, not only study Phoenicia and other ancient cultures, they also make maps of the culture they know best--their own neighborhood. Students who perform well are rewarded with both good grades and “Ballman bucks,” classroom scrip redeemable for snacks and other prizes.


Perhaps the new approach is most evident in Haskvitz’s eighth-grade classes.

As the California Office of Education recommends, the eighth-grade curriculum deals with the history, geography and government of the United States. But Suzanne students learn about the country’s participatory democracy by participating, not simply by reading or holding mock senates and the like.

Mix of Cultures

“These kids not only know who the mayor is, they’ve had lunch with him,” Haskvitz said. Students routinely attend City Council meetings and take part in the life of their community. As the teacher explained, Walnut has an increasingly rich mix of cultures (15 different languages are spoken in the homes of Suzanne students). Aware of the community’s polyglot nature, students fluent in foreign languages have offerred their services to the police and other city agencies as translators. Currently, Esther Limb, who knows Korean, and Jason Gundersen, who speaks Norwegian, are among those translating a city flyer on recycling for non-English-speaking residents.

“In my class,” Haskvitz said, “you can’t complain. You’ve got to make it better.”

In recent years, students have done just that. They have proposed and testified in Sacramento in favor of state legislation, which goes into effect next year, that requires public buildings to be landscaped with drought-resistant plants. After visiting a polling place, students rewrote Los Angeles County’s baffling voting instructions in plain English. The revisions were subsequently adopted by the registrar of voters. The eighth-graders also serve as the official historians of Walnut, videotaping oral histories and collecting artifacts that are preserved for posterity by the local library.

Haskvitz said that his students “don’t have to know every president of the United States, but they have to know a president . . . and how he changed society. If he changed society, maybe they can change society.”

“We had a lot of parental concern in the beginning because it was very different from what the students had had,” Kanthak said.


Support from Parents

The new social studies can be unsettling. Students study the Walnut voter registration lists, Haskvitz said. “They look for their parents’ names, and if they don’t see them, they go home and ask, ‘How come?’ ” According to Kanthak, parents now overwhelmingly support the program.

Evidence of the curriculum’s success is dramatically improved student performance on the California Assessment Program test. In 4 years, Suzanne’s average eighth-grade social-studies score jumped from the 22nd percentile statewide to the top 10% of California schools.

“Just because they are small doesn’t mean they don’t have something to say,” Haskvitz said of his charges. Students use a directory of toll-free telephone numbers to make free calls all over the country to research problems that pique their interest. They are hair-trigger letter writers as well, quick to express their views to public officials. They are now worried about the gaping hole in the earth’s ozone layer and are trying to arrange an exchange on the subject with a school in Norway, where concern also runs high. They also plan to press for legislation like that already in effect in Michigan that allows teen-agers to register to vote at the same time they apply for a driver’s license.

Younger students say their program is “fun-ner” than traditional classes. Older ones say they like being called upon to weigh alternatives and make up their own minds. Haskvitz, too, finds satisfaction in the classroom.

“Education makes you young,” he said, “because you work with the kids. And it makes you proud.”