So Your 4th Grade Class Was Chewed Out by Lawmakers

By Ross Brenneman — April 24, 2015 3 min read
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For the past 26 years, New Hampshire teacher James Cutting has taught elementary students about civic engagement. This year, for the first time ever, members of his class pushed to be the most hands-on possible: By getting a bill passed by their state legislature.

The group of eight 4th grade students ultimately designed a bill naming the red-tailed hawk as New Hampshire’s state raptor. Cutting found a state legislator to introduce the bill. That legislator introduced the bill in March. And then the bill failed in a display of brutal apathy by Granite State lawmakers, as multiple outlets have reported.

Several lawmakers castigated the legislation, saying it set a bad precedent, among other things:

  • “We’ll be picking a state hot dog next.”
  • “We have little time to invest in this topic.”
  • "[The red-tailed hawk] grasps [prey] with its talons then uses its razor sharp beak to basically tear it apart limb by limb, and I guess the shame about making this a state bird is it would serve as a much better mascot for Planned Parenthood.”

Many of those critical of the lawmakers pointed out that the students are only 4th graders, and that this is the kind of legislation you pass because they’re young and it shows them the process works.

But, a month after their law failed, with time to reflect and national attention turned elsewhere, the students are all right.

“I think the attitude the children have is, some things aren’t going to go the way we expect them to go, and some people do and say [things] and act in ways that we sometimes wish they wouldn’t, and sometimes that’s adults and sometimes that’s children,” Cutting said in an interview with Education Week Teacher. “If anything, it solidifies their interest, their educational motivation, the drive they already had, their sense of leadership qualities that already were in place.”

Cutting said that the legislature might address the red-tailed hawk again, but his class’ involvement has formally ended. The ordeal created many surprises, he said, including the generous support that flowed in for his class after national scorn rained down on the lawmakers (though Cutting doesn’t think the lawmakers were trying to hurt anyone’s feelings). Praise for the students came in from all corners, and if it never gets New Hampshire’s approval, the red-tailed hawk now at least will serve as the official raptor for John Oliver’s HBO show “Last Week Tonight":

The students are only somewhat aware of the controversy that surrounded them, Cutting said, and they’re taking it in stride. “I think that the characteristics that made this group unique were magnified, all in a positive way.”

A number of states are getting on board with requiring that students pass a U.S. citizenship test in order to graduate, but for a crash course in civics education, nothing beats an interaction with a real-life legislator.

“I want the students in my class, just like I did back in September when we started, [to feel like] they can be empowered, they have a voice, and if they believe in something they should go for it,” Cutting said.

The project fit in with Cutting’s teaching style, which emphasizes a hands-on approach. Doing “real” work helps students better retain the information, Cutting said.

“I try and figure out how to make it as real as I can,” Cutting said. “Instead of maybe having the children read about government or read about ways they can become involved in their community and practice citizenship, I’d be more inclined to have them attend a selectman’s meeting, or create a government in the classroom.”

Will this lesson in legislative obstinance be repeated, though?

“If somebody in my class next year said, hey let’s see if we can get a bill through the legislature, I’m not sure I’d jump up and down—but I’d have a hard time saying no,” Cutting said.

Image: A mighty strong bird. Credit: Jason Crotty/Wikipedia

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A version of this news article first appeared in the Teaching Now blog.