Early in our collaboration, the Good Participation team and colleagues from Facing History and Ourselves got together to generate ideas about how we could infuse Facing History’s educational resources with a digital dimension. A broad goal of the collaboration was to create curricular materials to support youth to develop the knowledge, skills, motivation, and reflective dispositions to participate positively in civic life in an era of social media and 24/7 connectivity. Not a straightforward task by any means.
For decades, Facing History has helped students learn about discrimination and prejudice so that they can prevent it from happening in the future. Through thorough investigation of historical and recent cases – such as the Holocaust or a new project exploring the impact of media covering events in Ferguson, Missouri – students not only learn the facts, but they explore how and why certain choices were made. Exploring the past gives youth opportunities to make connections with the challenges and choices they face in their own present-day lives. Students come to realize that their decisions and actions can make a difference. As Facing History puts it, “People Make Choices. Choices Make History.”
Today such choices are increasingly acted out and made online, creating histories previously unimagined. The opportunities for doing good, and bad, abound. There is an undeniable need to support youth to be reflective about their choices. But where should we start in creating such materials? Given the vast array of rich resources Facing History has accumulated over the years, there were many possible starting points. We quickly decided to work with just one resource from each element of the Scope and Sequence – and develop complementary content, questions, and activities relating to or incorporating new media. The new materials would engage students to reflect about their digital media use, practice using digital tools in everyday, low stakes ways, and leverage digital media to take action on an issue of concern to them.
To maximize use of the new materials we opted to work with resources that were used most often by Facing History network educators. It was through this process that we landed on the reading, No Time to Think, in which a German college professor recalls his experiences living in Germany at the time of World War II. In brainstorming ideas for new materials that would complement this resource, one of our group hit upon an ideal entry question that has guided our work ever since. Howard Gardner asked, “Would Hitler have succeeded in a digital age?” Having students puzzle over how the Nazis rise to power and the Holocaust might have been different if Facebook or Twitter had been available struck us as a very generative exercise. Would ordinary citizens have taken to Twitter as they did in the Arab Spring? Would they have posted photos, videos, or information and thus alerted the whole world to what was happening? Or would Hitler and his associates have shut down access to social media in an entire country or monitor certain users as some governments have done in recent times with individuals perceived as a threat? We knew to teach this material we would have to manage an important balance – teaching the history well so we would be able to have grounded discussions about the past to inform reflection on the present.
Connecting how new media is being used now – examining what works or doesn’t and why – and imagining how it could have been used in the past provides essential scaffolding to what Chris Evans, and Henry Jenkins and colleagues refer to as the digital civic imagination: how youth visualize the opportunities, challenges, and implications of digitally enabled participation in public life. Perhaps digital tools would have led to different choices in the past and a different world today. Perhaps not. But what we do know with certainty is that contemporary youth need support to make informed decisions, including online choices, about civic issues. Our hope is that our educational materials will allow youth to make choices that contribute to a more peaceful and equitable global society.