Tuesday, September 02, 2008

Promoting Civic Engagement in the MySpace Age

This summer I was asked if I would be interested in being a guest blogger for the PBS: Media Infusion on the topic of using social media to promote civic engagement.

I was glad that my post hit this week as Will Richardson about Citizen Journalists and Wikipedia Editors. In his post, Will described the impact of media on the election and how he has been watching with his kids...
pausing the TIVO like every 30 seconds to ask them what they heard, what they think it means, and then explain why it doesn’t necessarily mean what is sounds like it means. I encourage you to read Will's post and think about the impact that this election will have on the kids we are teaching. In the comments, Scott McLeod urges us to all go out and teach our kids how to navigate the new landscape (like you are)! and Gary Stager replied... teachable moments require teachers with the courage and curiosity to teach, especially today. My comment....while reflecting and analyzing is not new to many of us who are involved in analyzing and reflecting in blogs, it IS new to many teachers. Reflection, analysis and higher level thinking is not a new skill or concept but the amount of new media available....and how it is used, blogs, wikis, youtube, discussion outside the walls of the classroom is new territory. Karl Fisch had an interesting post that talks about how wikipedia knew the VP nominees, before the public and yet wikipedia is discouraged and sometimes blocked in schools. Below is my post where I talk a lot about a resource developed by PBS teachers in collaboration with the Media Education Lab at Temple University in addition to some other great tools for helping your students "uncover" the election2.0 style. There are some great resources and ideas to help provide a framework for teachers who want to teach their kids to think critically about media, but are not quite sure how...

The post below is cross Posted at PBS: Media Infusion please visit and leave your comments at the PBS site and think about what you are going to do this year to use digital media to promote civic engagement in your classroom!

Election time is an exciting time for Social Studies teachers. Rock The Vote, whose stated mission is to “build the political clout and engagement of young people in order to achieve progressive change in our country,” comes to the forefront. It is a time when history is experienced in the making. Although this type of political advocacy has existed for quite some time, over the past four years an increase in new media and the political candidates’ presence on the Web has really changed the way people get their political information. Use of social media for teaching is a powerful way to engage students in the learning process and teachers need to learn the right tools to connect their students to this new world of information.

During the 2004 election, 75 million Americans used the Internet to participate directly in the political process. The statistics in 2008 are sure to surpass that as students who will be eligible to vote in this year’s presidential election were born the year Rock the Vote was established. In 2004, MySpace was one year old, Facebook had just launched, and YouTube didn’t exist. For the 2008 election, all of the candidates have accounts on these and many other social networking sites. YouTube You Choose is a common source of political videos and MySpace Decision 08 is reaching out to younger voters.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported in January of 2004 that 22% of all Americans use an online social networking site such as MySpace or Facebook, and that these sites may be playing a political role for some people, especially the young. Even more importantly to teachers, two-thirds of these Americans ages 18-29 report using social networking sites. Of this age group, 27% are using them to get information about candidates and the campaign and 8% of Americans under 30 have added one of these candidates as a “friend.” Students, however, don’t always make the connection between their social involvement in political issues and what they are learning in school. With the emergence of the read/write Web, the Web 2.0 world of information and media, students are already using the Internet to express themselves on their personal sites.

According to Russell Dalton, professor of political science at UC Irvine and author of The Good Citizen: How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics, this is the most educated, most tolerant, and most socially concerned generation in recent American history. Dalton uses a new set of national public opinion surveys to show how younger generations of Americans are changing their views and are creating new norms of citizenship. This is leading to an increase in democratic participation. These young people are ready to engage in the process in their school lives as well. Yet, very few of the sites where the candidates are delivering new media content are permitted for use at school. Although schools’ concerns may have some validity, students need to be given the opportunity to use these types of tools in “professional” settings.

What does this mean for teachers, responsible for teaching political concepts? Students are going to be exposed to a vast amount of media surrounding this election. The major media stations – ABC News: Politics, CBS News: Campaign 2008, MSNBC: Politics, CNN ElectionCenter 2008, NOW on PBS: Election 2008 – all offer RSS feeds and discussion forums within their pages, yet RSS is not often used in traditional instruction.

PBS Teachers has always been a great starting point for finding good lesson plans and activities. For example, NewsHour Extra: Vote 2008 has some fantastic links and lesson plan ideas to help teachers as they plan their election coverage. I also recently discovered the new Vote 2008 section of PBS Teachers, which offers a curriculum guide, lesson plans for elementary and secondary students, election-related online tools, RSS feeds and podcasts. The new Curriculum Guide – “Access, Analyze, Act: A Blueprint for 21st Century Civic Engagement” – was developed in collaboration with the Media Education Lab at Temple University and “is designed to help you discover the power of social media for teaching media and information literacy, critical thinking, communication, collaboration and technology skills while developing students’ understanding of the political, social and economic issues facing our country at election time.” The lessons within the Access, Analyze and Act curriculum help students explore ways in which they can take action on political and social issues using social media.

Most students have been asked to access information through traditional methods. However, in a world where information and digital media are so readily available, it is critical that teachers begin to use different types of information to grab students’ attention. Teachers also need to ask students to critically analyze the information that is given by participating in a way that meets individual students’ learning styles. According to Joyce Valenza, Library Information Specialist at Springfield Township (PA) High School and author of the NeverEndingSearch blog (School Library Journal), the high entertainment and high emotion of sites such as ballotvox and the Public Radio Exchange “hook” young people. Be forewarned if your district or school blocks YouTube, much of the media on this site will not be available on the school campus. However, providing these resources and setting students up with a blog for reflection turns their learning into an anytime, anywhere experience.

Digital media surrounds students, so it is critical for young people to develop skills that help them to analyze and critique media messages, skills that will serve them far beyond the election. In the Analyze section of the Blueprint, students not only learn about the role that media has played in other historical campaigns, but must focus on genres and persuasive techniques and then apply them to their own media messages, which they engage in as they act for student empowerment.

In the third section, Act, students begin to ask effective questions, compose speeches and express opinions using tools such as NPR’s Get My Vote and connect election issues from today with those of the past using American Experience: The Presidents. The majority of the tools, lessons, and quizzes offered in the tool section include widget code so that the tool can be embedded on a student’s personal blog or a class Web page providing them the opportunity for professional use of social tools. As a result, students begin to see themselves as being a part of a larger conversation.

So how do teachers go about planning for such a different kind of “election coverage” in the classroom? In addition to the resources right within the PBS site, Joyce Valenza has given us a head start. Her Election Pathfinder is a collection of the major portals, news sources, polls, convention information, blog portals, media, and education-specific resources. What better way for a teacher to model the process than to contribute to this fantastic collection.

While there are many great election resources on the web, the PBS curriculum ties them all together and requires students in addition to meeting the standards in the content areas to meet every one of the ISTE NETS*S Standards by requiring students to demonstrate creative thinking, construct knowledge, and develop innovative products and processes using technology. It requires them to use digital media and environments to communicate and work collaboratively and to apply digital tools to gather, evaluate, and use information. Students use critical thinking skills to plan and conduct research, manage projects, solve problems, and make informed decisions. They learn to understand human, cultural, and societal issues related to technology and practice legal and ethical behavior – all while demonstrating a sound understanding of technology concepts, systems, and operations.

But don’t let the students’ blogs fizzle as soon as the election is over. How about engaging your students in a Fantasy Congress league? Or expose them to Open Congress, which brings together official government data with news coverage, blog posts, and comments, and have them analyze the real story behind what’s happening in Congress. Rather than having only small groups of political insiders and lobbyists know what’s really going on in Congress, encourage your students to be insiders as well. What about comparing and contrasting current events with some of the free provocative documentaries on Free Documentaries and having students create their own documentaries to be posted to their sites?

Meeting curricular standards while creating socially aware digital citizens…can we afford to teach the election in any other way?

Here are some suggestions for further readings:

I would love to hear from you about the information I’ve presented. Also, please share your favorite resources for teaching about the elections and promoting 21st century skills.

*****  NOTE:  
I also received an invitation from Classroom2.0  that on Wednesday, September 10th, at 6pm Pacific / 9pm Eastern, the creators of the PBS multi-media AND social-media "Vote 2008" curriculum will be joining the Classroom 2.0 Live Conversation

Learn more about "Election 2008: ACCESS, ANALYZE, ACT: A Blueprint for 21st Century Civic Engagement", the latest multimedia curriculum, which was developed in partnership with PBS Teachers and Temple University’s Media Education Lab and the more than a dozen social media tools showcased in this curriculum to engage middle-school and high school learners in the political campaign process.

Following the overview of the resources available, there will be a question and answer session. You might consider taking the quick political quiz yourself (http://www.pbs.org/teachers/vote2008/blueprint/widget/)! A wiki for the project is located at http://21stcenturycivicengagement.pbwiki.com/.

To join the event on September 10th, check the instructions on the Classroom 2.0 Live Conversations page at http://wiki.classroom20.com/live+conversations/. This event will also be recorded and a link to the recording will be post soon after.


  1. Anonymous4:54 PM

    "Reflection, analysis and higher level thinking..." Isn't this what teachers are supposed to do, and to encourage students? We must understand how students think. See "Teaching and Helping Students Think and Do Better" on amazon.

  2. I completely agree...but in the new media landscape I think folks are unsure of what that looks like. and so many of the new media tools are blocked in schools so teachers aren't really quite sure how it all fits in. I think that is why I like the resources mentioned in the PBS curriculum. They are presented in a way that make sense. Will have to check out the book you referenced. Looks like an interesting read!

  3. Anonymous4:38 PM

    It's true that one of the best ways of motivating students who are digital natives is to engage them in the debate in a way that is natural to them - digitally.