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Teaching Civics with Social Web Tools

Giving students a "public voice" can teach civics and citizenship.

When 10-year-old Laura wanted to do something special to honor the memory of her grandfather during the holiday season, she decided to do one thing every day in December to make a difference in the world. But even better, she and her mom decided to start a blog about her efforts. Within a few days, the "Twenty Five Days to Make a Difference" site had received thousands of visits from around the world, and before Laura knew it, dozens of others were taking time each day to make a difference as well.

This new world of Web 2.0 tools gives our kids an incredible number of ways, both large and small, to contribute to and possibly change the world. Yet in our zeal to prevent students from using social technologies in our classrooms, we continue to miss an important opportunity to teach them civics and citizenship through meaningful public discourse.

In a chapter from a recently released MacArthur Foundation series on digital media and learning, author Howard Rheingold writes that for our students to "become effective citizens in the emerging era of networked publics" we must understand that "participatory media education and civic education are inextricable." In other words, we must teach our kids how to use participatory tools such as blogs and wikis and social networking sites to become an active voice in the process.

Making a Global Impact

Examples of children and young adults leveraging these connections are all around us on the Web. TakingITGlobal is a great example of the ways in which Web-connected teens have begun to make a global impact. Over 170,000 members are working on issues from climate change to genocide and having conversations with others from different countries and cultures. In addition, they are conducting large-scale voter registration drives.

There will be an expectation of participation that requires more than just starting a petition.

Or consider "Kids Galore Helping Kids in Darfur," which is a product of third-graders at Shorecrest Preparatory School in St. Petersburg, Fla. The students are writing blog posts and podcasts in order to inform others and encourage them to take action. But for the potential of these efforts to be realized, those students need a healthy sense of what participation means, both in a physical context and a digital context. Our role as educators, then, becomes preparing them for that participation in a variety of ways-from giving them an understanding of how to keep themselves safe, to teaching them how to use the tools effectively, to modeling for them how to create connections and conversations around whatever they are passionate about. As administrators, we must begin to look at our curricula with an eye toward fostering this type of participation at every turn.

Participatory Curriculum

Where can we create opportunities for students to organize projects by using blogs or wikis to bring interested parties together? How might we take presentations that are currently given in the classroom and turn them into informational videos or podcasts that can be distributed widely? Where are there opportunities to model the types of civic participation that are possible on a districtwide or schoolwide basis?

These technologies make participation easier, and many of our students are participating already. As these technologies develop and as more and more students take advantage of them, there will be an expectation of participation that requires more than just starting a petition or making a poster for the hallways. As Laura and many other 10-year-olds know, the Web is now a place that makes making a difference easy. The question that remains is when will they be able to use that power inside of school as well as out.

Will Richardson is a contributing editor for District Administration and The Pulse:Education's Place for Debate,