I was invited as the guest blogger for September for PBS Media Infusion blog to talk about using social media to promote students’ civic engagement and 21st century skills.  This article was also referenced in eSchool News’s Top News on October 27, 2008




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 4 years an increase in new media and the political candidates’ presence on the Web has really changed the way people get their political 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. 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.

The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press reported in January of 2008 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 own 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 of democratic participation.  These young people are ready to engage in the process in their school lives as well.  Yet, of all of these sites where the candidates are delivering new media content, very few 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: PoliticsCBS News: Campaign 2008MSNBC: PoliticsCNN ElectionCenter 2008PBS – NOW Election 2008 –all offer RSS feed and discussion forums within their pages and 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,  Vote2008 Powered by News Hour Extra, has some fantastic links, and lesson plan ideas to help teachers as they plan their election coverage.   I also recently discovered the New Election 2008 Resources that PBS Teachers which was developed in collaboration with the Media Education Lab at Temple University.There are 4 main Resources that I think all teachers need to check out: Curriculum Guide, Lesson Plans, Tools and Podcasts because they serve to help students “uncover” the content of the election in a whole new way.

The curriculum guide Access, Analyze, Act: A Blueprint for 21st Century Civic Engagement “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 are designed to help students explore ways in which they can take action on political and social issues using social media.  Most students have been asked through traditional methods to access information. However in a world where information and digital media is so readily available, it is critical that teachers begin to use different types of information to grab student’s 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 Joyce Valenza, Library Information Specialist at Springfield Township (PA) High School, and author of NeverEndingSearch Blog (School Library Journal), the high entertainment and high emotion of sites such as ballotvox  and The Public Radio Exchange is what “hooks” 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 the students, so it is critical for young people to develop skills that help them to analyze and critique media messages, a skill 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 message which they engage in as they act for student empowerment.

In the third module, students begin to ask effective questions, compose speeches and express opinions using tools such as Get My Vote , and connect election issues from today with those of the past using The American Experience.  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.

The elementary and secondary resource links include standards-based lesson plans designed to address American History and Civics standards as well as interactives to help students become a part of the election.

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 such a 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, 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 student’s 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, 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 already 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 creating 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 any other way?

Resources for this entry on PBS

PBS Vote 2008

Vote2008 Powered by News Hour Extra

The Electoral College

American Experience Prudent Decision Making

Other Resources

Rock The Vote

YouTube: You Choose

Facebook Politics

MySpace Decision 08

Joyce Valenza’s Election Pathfinder


Fantasy Congress

Open Congress

Free Documentaries

Additional Reading

Digital Natives as Self Actualizing Citizens

Not Your Father’s Internet: The Generation Gap in Online Politics

Pew Report: The Internet and Campaign 2004

The Good Citizen:  How a Younger Generation is Reshaping American Politics