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Learning civics from the top judge

February 15, 2011

GLOCESTER — When Rhode Island Supreme Court Chief Justice Paul A. Suttell spent an afternoon with retired U.S. Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor during a judges conference in Colorado last year, he was immediately impressed with O'Connor's iCivics, a Web-based education project O'Connor founded to reinvigorate civic teaching and learning in schools.
It didn't take long for Justice Suttell to get on board to promote iCivics in Rhode Island.
Not only did he agree to be the iCivics Rhode Island state chairman, he enlisted members of the Judiciary, Rhode Department of Education and Rhode Island Bar Association to help promote the interactive program, which engages students with free digital “civic games” rooted in the democratic process.
iCivics uses computer games to engage students in problem-solving in which the student "wins" by mastering knowledge of the U.S. Constitution and essential foundational principles of our nation. Students learn about the division of powers between federal and state governments, and about the separation of powers among executive, legislative and judicial branches of government.
This week, Sutttell was out on the road touting the importance of teaching civics. On Tuesday, he visited Ponaganset Middle school, one of only three schools in Rhode Island chosen as pilot schools to introduce iCivics into the curriculum. The two other schools are in Johnston and Providence.
Suttell is the chief justice of the Rhode Island Supreme Court. He was sworn in on July 9, 2003, after former Governor Donald Carcieri appointed him to the court. In 2009, Carcieri nominated Suttell for the post of chief justice. He was unanimously confirmed by the Senate.
Suttell was joined Tuesday by Kara Picozzi, the Judiciary's deputy director of community outreach and co-chairwoman of iCivics Rhode Island; State Court Administrator J. Joseph Baxter; Rhode Island attorney Donna Lamontagne; and Craig N. Berke, the Judiciary's assistant administrator of community outreach and public relations.
The group spent more than an hour with the students of social studies teacher Michael A.Calenda, who has incorporated the iCivics as an extension to the school's existing civics curriculum. The Pongansett Middle School was chosen as a pilot school for iCivics because of its progressive civics curriculum and mock trial program.
"We're very excited to be here and we thank you for being the first students in Rhode Island to utilize iCivics," Suttell told the students gathered in the school media center.
Suttell quickly quizzed the students with two questions: could they identify the three branches of government? And could they name the highest court in the United States?
Calenda's students answered both questions correctly, which impressed Suttell.
"Very good. Those same two questions have been asked in schools across the country and not many students can answer them correctly," he said. "That's why Justice O’Connor founded this iCivics program. She was concerned about the lack of civics education in our public schools and that students were not getting the information and tools they need for civic participation. Our hope is that iCivics will inspire you to be active participants in our democracy and to have fun at the same time."
iCivics programs and materials were developed through a partnership of academic institutions and experts in the field of games and digital entertainment. It offers free lesson plans, Internet-based activities called “web quests,” discussion forums and games.
The lesson plans are designed to reinforce and expand on the games and also meet national and state standards. They are written and vetted by master classroom teachers and are searchable by standards in every state. Comprehensive teacher guides are provided to facilitate classroom use and integration into existing curricula.
On Tuesday, Justice Suttell mingled with Ponaganset students as they took part in the online iCivics game called "Do I have a Right," where students run there own firm of lawyers who specialize in constitutional law. As part of the game, students need to decide whether potential clients “have a right,” and if so, match them with the right lawyer. The more clients they serve, the more cases they win and the faster their law firm will grow.
"The content of iCivics is extremely interesting," Calenda noted. "We at Ponaganset place a strong emphasis on civics and mock trial so this will be a natural extension to our curriculum because a lot of this we've been doing already. We're committed to mock trial so when we were introduced to this new program by Kara we bought into it 100 percent."
Berke said Suttell will be visiting the two other pilot schools in Johnston and Providence in the coming weeks.
"Justice Suttell is very enthusiastic to get Rhode Island on board with iCivics," he said.

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