Washington works to restore civics instruction, civic involvement

Elizabeth Washington has been smitten with social studies and civics education since her 11th-grade American History class. She remembers dressing up as Eleanor Roosevelt for American Heritage Day as a […]

Elizabeth Washington has been smitten with social studies and civics education since her 11th-grade American History class. She remembers dressing up as Eleanor Roosevelt for American Heritage Day as a class assignment and never looking back on her way to becoming a state and national thought leader in civics education.

“That definitely jump-started me and I got more involved in political campaigns my senior year,” said Washington, professor of social studies education in the UF College of Education’s teacher preparation program. “It made me see how much ordinary people can do to change things, but also how important it is to have good leaders who understand the constitution.”

Washington was recently named a Knight Effective Citizens Fellow at UF’s Bob Graham Center for Public Service, created in 2008 by former Gov. and Sen. Graham to give UF students an opportunity to experience political leadership and involvement outside of the classroom and a firm grounding in democratic government. The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation created the fellowship with a $3-million grant to support the center’s development and sponsorship of new programs promoting civic involvement for undergraduate students.

“A lot of civic education focuses on kids in school, but what happens when they leave school?” Washington said. “Capitalizing on an interest they have in civic life is a unique focus, and the Graham Center is in a great position to do that.”

Washington will work with six other Knight fellows from around the nation to design and implement a novel online civics course for UF undergraduates. One of her former master’s and doctoral students, Emma Humphries, graduated in the spring and now works as an assistant scholar at the Graham Center who coordinates the grant projects. Humphries said her professor had a big influence on her decision to pursue her Ph.D.

“If civics is your passion and you’re at the University of Florida, then you probably want to make friends with Dr. Washington,” Humphries said.

Washington’s approach to social studies education changed 10 years ago when she attended a conference for social studies education professors. She said the conference inspired her to make it her mission to prepare social studies students to be engaged citizens by integrating civics education into everything she does in the classroom.

Her new classroom philosophy would coincide over the ensuing decade with a changing curriculum standard in Florida education. In 2010, the Sandra Day O’Connor Civics Education Act established state standards for civics education by requiring a civics course for all seventh-grade students and an end-of-course examination in order to pass seventh grade – for a subject that had never been tested before in Florida.

Washington served on a state content advisory committee that designed the end-of-course exam—the first Florida statewide assessment for a social science discipline in more than two decades, according to the Florida Department of Education.

Washington and other social studies educators are hopeful that the subject’s inclusion on Florida’s standardized tests secures civics as a permanent fixture in Florida school curricula. Field testing of the civics exam will begin in middle schools this year, and the actual test will be implemented in the 2013-2014 school year.

Washington also serves as a senior fellow at the Florida Joint Center for Citizenship, a partnership between the Lou Frey Institute of Politics and Government at UCF and the Bob Graham Center at UF. She is helping the Joint Center promote civics education by developing a curriculum and professional development programs for seventh-grade social studies teachers whose teaching assignments now include civics, which requires them to learn new content and teaching methods.

Civics education is making a comeback in Florida thanks to leaders like former Gov. and U.S. Sen. Bob Graham, former U.S. congressman Lou Frey, former Gov. Charlie Crist and Rep. Charles McBurney, who influenced lawmakers to pass the O’Connor legislation.

“It didn’t hurt that (U.S. Supreme Court) Justice O’Connor made it her mission to focus on civics education after retirement,” Washington said. “When she addressed the Florida Legislature, they didn’t waste any time because she made it clear why civic knowledge and engagement are important.”

Washington stays civically engaged in her free time, too. Her husband, attorney Ray Washington, has a passion for Constitutional law and politics and ran for a Gainesville City Commission seat earlier this year. She said the experience with local government broadened her outlook on civic engagement and was a great learning opportunity for her entire family.

“I wouldn’t know how not to be civically engaged,” Washington said. “It’s my hobby to stay interested in politics and current events.”

Finally, the must-ask question: What does it mean to someone so civically smitten to have the same last name as one of American history’s most iconic figures—General George Washington, our nation’s first president?

“My students comment on that all the time, and I love mentioning it because it’s the perfect last name for a social studies devotee,” Washington answers without hesitation. “I like to talk about why George Washington is my favorite president, and I often begin discussions of civics with his famous Rules of Civility and Decent Behavior in Company and Conversation.”

“His portrait also hangs in my classroom,” she adds, “so, yes, I am a total fan of George Washington.”

Elizabeth Washington hopes to help raise a whole new generation of fans—of the Delaware River-crossing general with the same last name, and of social studies and civic engagement in general.


SOURCE: Elizabeth Washington, professor of social studies education, School of Teaching and Learning, UF College of Education, 352-273-4236, ewashington@coe.ufl.edu
Jessica Bradley, communications intern, UF College of Education
Larry Lansford, director, news & communications, UF College of Education, 352-273-4137; llansford@coe.ufl.edu