Educating for Participatory Politics in the Digital Age

When I earned my teaching credential in the late 1990s, I had to take a class called “Technology for Teachers.” We mostly talked about using programs like Microsoft Office to prepare students for the workplace. Absent were conversations about the ways learning, communication, and engagement have changed in the digital age. Unfortunately, such supports are still rare in teacher education and schools. For example, a district-wide survey conducted in Oakland, California in 2013, found that 93% of teachers believe that technology is essential, but 63% reported not having had ANY technology-related professional development.

The innovative teachers I currently work with through the Educating for Participatory Politics (EPP) project are working to respond to the changing dynamics they see in the digital age. In particular, they are responding to the expanded civic and political opportunities for young people to be heard, to join together, and to work for change.

Supporting Educators

In March, EPP co-hosted a webinar series called Youth-Led Inquiry, Connection, and Action: Redesigning Civic Education for the Digital Age to share our experiences supporting educators to promote digital civic learning opportunities. EPP is an action project out of the MacArthur Research Network on Youth and Participatory Politics. Four teams based in three different cities have worked with educators to develop a framework of the core practices of participatory politics that articulate a new vision for civic education. The EPP teams also created and piloted educational resources that are curated alongside blog posts and much more in the “Educators” section of the YPP website.

For the first webinar, we brought together EPP staff from each team to talk about Supporting Educators to Educate for Participatory Politics. This included Young Whan Choi from Educating for Democracy in the Digital Age (EDDA), Adam Strom from Facing History and Ourselves (FHAO) in collaboration with the Good Participation Project, Sangita Shresthova from the Media, Activism, and Participatory Politics (MAPP) project, and Allen Linton II from the Black Youth Project (BYP).

Integrating Civics and Digital Lit

When asked how best to support teachers to promote digital civic learning opportunities, the EPP staff talked about the importance of giving teachers time and space to explore, collaborate, and build their own capacities. In particular, teachers wanted a safe space to experiment with a range of digital tools. But, it was also important to reframe expectations of expertise. In many cases, teachers reported that students knew more than they did and that they couldn’t keep up with the latest platform or program. Sangita shared how their project advised teachers to: “Focus more on the content and the substance, on the audience, and less on the platform. So, it doesn’t have to be Twitter; it doesn’t have to be Facebook; it doesn’t have to be Snapchat. It’s about how are you going to get to know your audience, how are you going to be able to get your message out.”

During our next webinar, Educators’ Experiences Educating for Participatory Politics, I had the honor of talking with teachers from Oakland, Chicago, and Los Angeles. Sonia Hansra teaches at MetWest High School in Oakland where her students gave feedback to city planners about improving downtown Oakland. Albert Vazquez-Mejia teaches at Locke High School in Watts,  and his students took a civic issue and satirized it to raise awareness and draw attention toward various action steps. Kate Rowley also teaches at Locke High School. Her students hosted community conversations for the 50th anniversary of the 1960s Watts uprising. Christine Laadimi, who teaches at Bogan High School in Chicago, worked with her students to develop a voter registration guide and persuade community members to vote.

It was a rare opportunity for teachers from such different cities and schools to talk about how to integrate civic engagement and digital literacy. The teachers asked each other questions ranging from how to encourage families to support students’ civic engagement projects, to cultivating student choice and interest in despite apathy, to recommendations of readings on teaching about civics and social change.

At the end of our conversation, I asked them to share some parting thoughts for other teachers interested in expanding their practice. Sonia shared: “My advice would be to take a risk. If you don’t feel comfortable doing something, your students won’t as well. It’s good to step out of your comfort zone.” Both Albert and Christine talked about the importance of utilizing students’ expertise when it comes to their knowledge of their communities as well as technology. And, finally, Kate said: “There is always going to be someone who has a reason not to engage students in the outside world, or not have students use tech, or not engage students in social justice. But, we know that … our society needs all of these things, and our students need all of these things to be the most successful adults possible.”

As Kate said so well, in order to navigate this world, and better yet shape this world, young people need opportunities to develop and exercise their civic and digital capacities. To make that possible in schools, teachers also need time and space to expand their practice, explore digital and civic inroads in their curriculum, and to talk with their colleagues about the important questions that arise in this work.

Guest blogger Erica Hodgin is associate director of the Civic Engagement Research Group at Mills College.