When Lahainaluna High School social studies teacher Robert Sternthall heard some of his students complain about getting harassed by police for riding their skateboards on the streets, he encouraged them to use the situation as a catalyst for change.

He suggested a classroom project in which the students write to public officials. So they did, drafting a letter to a Maui County Council member to make the case for a new skate park in the community. The teens also testified before the council.

Within the next couple of years, the Lahaina Skate Park was built.

“I use that every year as an example to my students,” Sternthall said. “Even though you aren’t old enough to vote, you can still make a difference.”

In Hawaii’s public schools, the term “social studies” is taking on new meaning as it moves beyond textbook-based learning or memorization of key dates, facts and historical figures whose significance may seem abstract to today’s youths.

Mrs. Amy Perruso discusses with her 9th grade students about two Bayonet Constitution political cartoons from 1887 in her Mililani High School class.

Students in Amy Perruso’s 9th grade social studies class at Mililani High School take part in discussion.

Cory Lum/Civil Beat

Instead, the subject can extend to community engagement and project-based learning that brings students closer to issues in their own backyard by developing questions, proposing solutions, using evidence to support claims and taking informed action.

The backbone of this methodology is the “C3” framework, which stands for “College, Career and Civic Life.” It was adopted in 2015 by the Hawaii Board of Education and is now being used to shape the rewriting of social studies standards across all grade levels. A national approach embraced by many states, C3 aims to foster more civic-mindedness in students alongside college- and career-readiness.

Teachers statewide have begun incorporating C3 practices in their classrooms. Examples range from staging debates over school dress code, to hosting public speaking competitions where students express thoughts on issues such as teenage drinking or mental illness, to sending them out into the community to interview and photograph people similar to the popular photoblog series, “Humans of New York.”

“Even though you aren’t old enough to vote, you can still make a difference.” — Robert Sternthall, social studies teacher

Hawaii educators say one of the goals is to teach students how to become better critical thinkers to enable them to problem-solve.

It’s still unclear to what extent the state’s social studies standards could change under the new framework, but educators hope it will shift toward a more action-based curriculum.

“In terms of my 10th grade Honors U.S. History class, I can barely make it through the curriculum as it is currently written,” said Joseph Cassler, a teacher at Kauai High. “We stay up to date on current events, but I can’t spend a ton of time on specific civic education in this course as the Hawaii Content and Performance Standards (HCPS III) are written.”

Cassler nevertheless sent his kids out into the community to document real-world issues through the “Humans of Kauai” project during a unit on civil rights movements. The teacher said he notices the level of student engagement through these projects.

“When we talk about action-based activities, it could be anything as simple as creating a poster for the school halls, to writing letters to representatives, to presenting to community stakeholders,” Cassler said. “The cool thing about this approach is one, it drives civics. Two, if students know there’s going to be an audience, the product is at a much higher quality.”

Instilling The Approach In Future Teachers

To prepare future teachers under this new pedagogy, University of Hawaii Manoa’s College of Education is including the C3 framework in teacher preparation courses while candidates at the Institute for Teacher Education are coming up with C3-inspired lesson plans, said Amber Makaiau, the director of curriculum and research at UH Manoa and a former social studies teacher at Kailua High.

“It’s not just having to know things, but having to think through problems of democracy and act on them,” she said of the framework. “It’s more about a learning process and process for thinking versus just knowing the facts.”

Civics education has particular relevance in today’s political climate, say proponents, and a unique brand of urgency in a state with a dismal voter turnout.

Residents voting at Keonepoko Elememtary in Puna on August 15, 2014.

Residents vote at Keonepoko Elememtary on the Big Island. Could a new approach to social studies increase Hawaii’s traditionally dismal voter turnout?

PF Bentley/Civil Beat

According to NonProfit VOTE, Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout in the 2016 general election, with 43 percent of the electorate casting ballots. (The national turnout was 60.2 percent, and Minnesota saw the highest voter turnout at 74.8 percent.)

In the last five presidential elections, in fact, Hawaii had the lowest voter turnout in the country, according to the nonprofit.

“Can you connect the dots of poor civics education with lower voting?” said James Shon, director of the Hawaii Educational Policy Center. “I don’t think you can, but you can make a plausible argument that it probably influences it.”

The current social studies curriculum for high-schoolers here consists of world history in the ninth grade, U.S. history in 10th grade, Modern History of Hawaii and Participation in Democracy in 11th grade and a social studies elective by 12th grade, which can consist of advanced placement U.S. history, sociology, economics or psychology.

“Every student must take four credits in the social studies realm. As long as it adds up to four credits, we’re happy,” Shon noted, of DOE’s current framework. Oftentimes the benchmarks for some courses are so packed, teachers struggle to cover it all, he said.

Amy Perruso, a social studies teacher at Mililani High, said the entire second semester of her Participation in Democracy class is about civic engagement, something that doesn’t revolve around just voting.

“It’s about identifying community problems, working with legislators to develop solutions and having students see themselves as part of the process,” she said.

Attempting to develop more civic-minded youth is a goal nationwide. At least eight states around the country have imposed a high school graduation requirement built around a mandatory civics exam based on the U.S. citizenship test. While such mandatory testing was proposed in Hawaii the last several years, it never gained traction.

Incorporating civics education through project-based learning has at least one proponent in the state education department: Hawaii’s new school superintendent, Christina Kishimoto. Civics education, she told Civil Beat in a recent interview, “is not through testing and not through mandates.”

“You impact civic education by connecting kids to their community, doing lots of hands-on learning opportunity and embedding civic education into that,” she said. “They’re learning the content anyway, it’s part of the curriculum.”

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