Teaching Tolerance, Nurturing Democracy: Using Digital Media in the Classroom to Encourage Civic Participation and Social Action
7.27.11 | The goal at Facing History and Ourselves has always been clear. The 35-year-old organization has focused on professional development for educators that helps and inspires them to be more effective. At its core is a set of classroom resources for teachers and students that illuminate the constant need to combat bigotry and embrace the responsibilities of citizenship in a democracy. The combination of professional development and civic engagement has proven to be a powerful one.
In the past, according to Deb Chad, Facing History’s director of program technology, the organization used digital media tools mainly to bridge gaps. Recently, however, it saw the opportunity to do much more.
Using as its source material the 2009 documentary “Reporter,” which chronicles New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof’s 2007 trip to the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Facing History designed a program using digital media as a means of educating students about Africa, the role of journalists, and associated ethical concerns, such as when a reporter should remain an observer and when to step out of that role.
“We were looking to the future and wanting to be around for another 35 years,” Chad says. “We did something different than funding a study guide and a work plan around the film.”
A few years earlier, Facing History invited media scholar Henry Jenkins to speak to its staff about how students interact with technology. Jenkins stressed that young people are interested in more than consuming digital media—they also want to create it and collaborate around their creations.
“We wanted to take the work that we’ve traditionally done well and think about what new media adds to it,” Chad says. “[Jenkins] made us really think about how our projects could be done differently.”
With this in mind, Facing History launched a two-year professional development series to train teachers to incorporate digital media into their classrooms as tools to foster collaboration, increase media literacy, and spark critical thinking around complex issues, including those raised in “Reporter.”
At the end of the series, the organization invited 522 students from 15 different schools in the United States, Toronto, Shanghai, London and Cape Town to create a digital project addressing an issue related to the documentary.
The 15 participating teachers agreed to have their students take part in an online workshop at the end of the program. Students would post their work, view the work of others, and take part in two sets of online discussions based on “Reporter” and what they learned developing their respective projects.
Taking Ownership in Boston
Sandy Simpson, who teaches high school at an ACC (Another Course to College) school in Brighton, Mass., says that she wanted to provide her students with technical and digital literacy skills needed to become effective media users and creators.
“That was the idea for me,” Simpson says. “How do I get my kids in touch with the world around them and to take more ownership in the world around them?”
How do I get my kids in touch with the world around them and to take more ownership in the world around them?
– Sandy Simpson, high school teacher
Using “Reporter” as a jumping off point, Simpson’s students explored their own communities, specifically how journalism is created and the idea of compassion.
Simpson immersed her students in media literacy by analyzing election campaign stories in Boston and by creating podcasts and photojournalism essays.
To foster a collaborative atmosphere, students did team-building exercises and group work that made them see themselves as a unit, rather than simply a class. Technology, Simpson says, “tends to level the playing field a bit. A student who might not be seen as an academic leader can turn out to be a leader in the use of technology. So when a final project is tech-based, it gives this student a different role and encourages others to help that student in areas of weakness.”
The result, she says, was that her classroom felt more like a production studio in which students helped one another by sharing discoveries and techniques.
A discussion of compassion led to 30-second “caring” commercials on a topic chosen by students. They also selected an issue to be included in a newscast that the group produced.
The students, Simpson says, liked the hands-on aspect of the projects and that they were able to plan their own work. They also learned more basic lessons, such as the fact that every vote counts. The course also motivated kids in new ways to become more involved in the world around them. It changed their perspective.
“The kids surprised me,” Simpson says. “Those are the kinds of things I dreamed about when I went into teaching.”
Ethics and Hope
This was the third year that Marguerite Kling assigned her students at Nature Coast Technical High School in Spring Hill, Fla., to study an area in conflict or distress and then produce a documentary inspired by their findings—a project that encourages collaboration and student ownership.
As in previous years, the class opted to break into smaller groups, with older students tweaking the process from past experience and adjusting tasks based on the skills of new classmates. The five groups quickly became deeply invested in one another and the work they were doing together.
Although the students’ documentary focused on Haiti, Kling’s class used “Reporter” to examine point of view and reporters’ ethics.
“We really delved into bias and ethical reporting and what those meant,” says Kling, whose class developed its own mission statement and code of ethics for their film.
“When someone would ask, ‘Why don’t we just get something off of YouTube?’ it wasn’t me saying, ‘Nope.’ There was one girl who spent six months getting actual earthquake footage, permissions and letters,” Kling says. “It wasn’t always easy, but they held themselves to a higher ethical standard.”
Colton Lawver, a student in the workshop, says that he gained “a deeper appreciation for the conflict occurring in Africa and the heartache it causes and a greater awareness of the lack of positive reporting from these high-conflict areas.”
The latter became a driving force behind their film about Haiti. The students chose not to focus primarily on the destruction wrought by the earthquakes or the island’s tortured history.
Instead, Lawver says, the film centered on “the Haitian’s strength in overcoming these challenges and continuing to move forward. A lot of good could be done for Africa if more reporters focused on the hope and strength that conflicting times cultivate.”
The Value of Multiple Perspectives and of Teachers’ Roles as Moderators
During a post-project workshop in December, students said that they’d not only developed new skills and gained knowledge, but had also learned a great deal from the perspectives of others—including adults.
Specifically, when faculty and Facing History staff “stirred the pot” by posting their own comments during the online conversations, it prompted conversations of greater depth and meaning.
The perspectives of other students also added further nuance to the students’ understanding of ethical and other issues surrounding the situation in the Congo.
Responding to the initial question: “If you were a reporter, how would you choose to use your public voice? What would you write about? For what purpose?” a South African student who was originally from Cameroon, said that he would report on the negative impact of “tradition” in African culture, explaining, “I would choose the following topic because many Africans’ lives are affected because of tradition, and their deep ignorance causes many of them to suffer for their whole lives.”
Facing History evaluated its digital media program. For a look at their results read Making Media, Making Sense, Making Change at Spotlight.
The phrase “deep ignorance” created some controversy in the discussion. Prompted to explain what he meant, the student offered several practices (including polygamy, rape and the killing of Albinos in certain parts of Africa) to illustrate his point. From there, the discussion took on a new level of depth.
Sharing their work with classmates and students at other schools (and in other countries) made a tremendous impact, said Simpson, the teacher in Massachusetts.
“One of the real key components of doing any kind of work with students is the idea of actually publishing it and celebrating it,” she says. “This was a massive dose of that. Not only were our kids proud of their videos and the comments, but to know that people across the globe were doing the same thing was inspiring. The whole process opened their eyes to the rest of the world.”
In the end, both Kling and Simpson were struck by the same thing – the way in which using digital media had changed how their students related to “schoolwork.”
Kling’s students commented that they valued working together on their documentary in a genuinely collaborative environment. The project, she says, was more than just a class they took every other day.
Simpson’s group valued the way in which the project gave them a sense of responsibility.
“My kids were saying things like, ‘This class makes me pay attention. The work is different and the pressure is on me,’” Simpson says. “There is something about taking it to their playing ground that makes it work.”
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