My students are researching the Republican candidates for president as part of our Government unit. They began by listening on YouTube to President Obama’s speech on the American Jobs Act. They made lists of what the president identified as challenges that the country is facing and what his solutions were. They were then randomly handed cards with the name of one of the declared candidates written on it. Their task was to research the positions that the candidate had on the economy and one other topic of their choice.
I have done this project twice before, 4 and 8 years ago, and the difference this time was plain and simply the access to information. Everyone, from the candidates and their supporters to my students was aware of the power of the internet, and they were all using it learn and to present their thinking. For the political process, this means that students do not have to wait for the newspaper or the evening news to find out ideas. Eight years ago, candidates had websites, but they were bare and basic in comparison to today. Today, the sites are layered with engaging photos and snappy text to keep a viewer there for more than a second and a quick click to something else.
I talked with my students about how to go about learning about their candidate. Their first stop is Wikipedia. There is current and studied articles that will give a solid overview for understanding the background and current role of that person in American politics. In the past, I had more hesitation about using Wikipedia as a resource, afraid that what was written there would not stand up to in-depth scrutiny, but over time, I have changed my views. For middle school students, on topics of general interest that many people read, it is a great place to start. The reading level is usually manageable. I have taught them that it is never the final source, just as an encyclopedia isn’t, but it can give them enough context to build their own questions.
Last year’s class researched important people of the 21st century. We went to the library to use the encyclopedias for an experience of non-laptop research. The only problem was that we ran into issues like the fact that there was no mention of Hillary Clinton, except in Bill Clinton’s biography. She was the Secretary of State and unlisted. So while, there may be errors in Wikipedia, as there are in all encyclopedias, it is a good start for an overview.
We talked then about how to find other information on their candidates, and the two sources that I pointed them to, which truly surprised all of them, were Twitter and Facebook. It took awhile to convince them that social media is a powerful tool that politicians want to harness. While they use these places simply for chatting with friends and looking at photos, I told them that many companies and individuals are using them to reach out to the public. They began to understand that those spaces might well be places where they would get the most recent ideas from their candidate.
They are used to instant communication with each other, but they hadn’t made the connection that social media allows them to learn at the same pace and with the same level of interaction that they have when sharing with each other. It is a new way of learning, when the information is not stagnant but constantly shifting and being enhanced.
Goals as teachers: 1. investigate the tools that will help them identify the best sources for information; 2. provide models for how to handle all of the information that they find. They, like we, are drowning in the information that surrounds us.
We need to curate for them and for each other, so that we spend time with the most important and significant and avoid the overwhelming amounts that we do not need.