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Hutson's not teaching history by the book

December 02, 2002|by PEPPER BALLARD

pepperb@herald-mail.com

CLEAR SPRING - History may repeat itself but Clear Spring High School social studies students never see a repeat performance out of 28-year teacher Jim Hutson.

Looking at a book for 90 minutes would never work in his classes, the Vietnam War veteran said.

In history, there are so many dates, names and facts to remember, he said. Important lessons often are buried in the pages of an overwhelming textbook, so Hutson tries to animate landmark moments through documentary videos, illustrative bulletin boards and interactive discussions that put students in the shoes of the history makers.

"I try to make sure they don't get enough time to lop over their desks," he said.

For example, during his class' study of former U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower, Hutson showed a brief video of Eisenhower's running mate and future controversial U.S. President Richard M. Nixon's famous "Checkers Speech," in which Nixon made his first public plea that he was not a crook, before he coined the phrase.

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"They'll probably be able to remember that and answer it on a test," he said.

Hutson said that speech saved Nixon's political career. He makes a point to alert students to seemingly unimportant moments in history that have made considerably important changes to society.

What if infamous Cuban Leader Fidel Castro had succeeded as a young baseball pitcher, if Elvis Presley had never gyrated his hips or if the atomic bomb never was dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan?

"I use that as my, 'think about this a little bit,'" he said.

He redecorates his room almost weekly. He takes down posters, newspaper clippings and portraits that illustrate a studied decade and replaces them with a new design to correspond with the course material.

"I believe kids can learn as much accidentally as on purpose in my class," said Hutson.

When he stops being motivated to change those bulletin boards and push those visual aspects, he is about ready to quit teaching, which requires variety to stay interesting, he said.

When teaching students about the atomic bomb, he places a stool next to a fake switch and asks students to take a seat.

He then grills them. He asks them to take the position of the World War II pilot with the nuclear bomb in tow. Playing the devil's advocate, he questions students who say they would drop the bomb and then tells them to hit the switch if they are certain.

"That's a moral decision, not just a political one," he said.

Most of the lessons moralize themselves. For example, he said World War II is a perfect example of the kind of thing that happens if you don't finish what you've started.

"Sometimes you've got to be careful not to go too far," he said. His understanding of teenage sensitivities helps him assess what each of his students' breaking points are, what they'll laugh at and what they'll learn from.

"If they don't have any emotion, that doesn't mean they've gobbled it up, that just means they don't care," he said. Students who ask questions want to learn more, he said.

Teenagers are interested in different things, but all are ultimately interested in death as it relates to history, he said.

Hutson described his father-in-law's basement fallout shelter to his students in-depth, which prepared them all to ace a test question that asked how much dirt, steel or concrete is needed to effectively protect against an attack.

He is now the National Honor Society adviser again after a seven-year sabbatical from the club. His two daughters went through the school during that period and he didn't want other students to think he favored his children, so he stepped down as adviser.

He also is a co-adviser of the school's History Club.

Hutson said students know they can't put their arms around him, but they know they can come to him for help if they need it.

His fairness sometimes gets misread. He has heard students say he's unapproachable, but said, "That's an image I don't realize I project."

Hutson has been the Clear Spring High Blazers baseball coach for the past 27 years. Out of concern that students might think he's biased toward baseball players, he won't mention his team in class, except for his Fidel Castro reference.

"Had he been a little better baseball player, we never would have known him," he said.

"And the rest, as they say, is history."

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