Teachers are using online games and tech tools to bridge the partisan divide.


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The 2016 election and the tumultuous start to Donald Trump’s presidency, which reached the 100-day mark on April 29, presented civics teachers in red, blue and purple states with a double-edged sword. Students are suddenly eager to talk about politics and government, but the hyperpartisan reality beyond school walls makes it difficult to hold these discussions in the classroom. In a deeply divided nation, even moldy topics like the filibuster can spark heated exchanges and annoy parents.

To harness students’ passion without getting bogged down in partisan mud, teachers wield a host of ed-tech tools – ranging from online role-playing games and quizzes to social media platforms where teachers share strategies to lead policy discussions and where students collaborate to try to influence public policy.

“It’s hard to teach students about government when the atmosphere is so toxic,” said Jo Boggess Phillips, a longtime AP government and civics professor in Ripley, West Virginia. “If the parents think you’re biased, and that’s not their kind of bias, then that becomes a problem.”

Phillips sought refuge from resentment in iCivics, an online platform for interactive games, such as Win the White House, Lawcraftand Do I have a right?— in which students play the roles of candidates vying for the presidency, lawmakers vying for votes for bills, constitutional lawyers arguing cases, and other actors in civic life. Founded in 2009 by retired Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor, iCivics also offers standards-compliant readings and lesson plans on the Constitution, the three branches of government, media and influence, and many other topics.

“The games were like a safe haven, where students could learn about the process without being bombarded with partisan rhetoric,” Phillips said. “I could say, ‘Wait a second, that’s how it’s supposed to work.’ ”

Last fall, the folks at iCivics were expecting a 20-30% increase in games, consistent with what happened in the 2012 election year. Instead, games surged by almost 100% in October and by 300% in November, when the games were played around 3 million times.

Tim Matthews, a middle school history teacher outside of Boston, uses iCivics games to teach the Constitution, which his class calls “the rule book.” While few teens are inherently interested in a topic like the Electoral College, Matthews admits, all of them want to win. “They go crazy,” he said. “They go home and keep playing and playing, and that makes everything stronger.”

iCivics’ virtual governments aren’t plagued by scandals, bribes, black money, or the kind of ad hominem attacks that characterized the 2016 campaign. Still, players encounter realities such as lobbyists and negative campaign ads. And according to Louise Dubé, Executive Director of iCivics, “At a certain point, the role of iCivics stops, and we are in the hands of teachers to continue with more current issues, and push children to find evidence to support their arguments.

Indeed, teachers often use iCivics games as a prelude to more thematic classroom conversations. “Take a game like Do I have a right?said Brian Furgione, a social studies professor at the college near Orlando, Florida. “In the game world, students discuss the constitutionality of cases, which gives them a great grounding in the Bill of Rights, so we can tackle the most complex real-world issues during class.”

For project-based civic learning, there is the Online Civic Action Project created by the Constitutional Rights Foundation. The site offers lessons for students on how to research the issues that matter to them — from cyberbullying to gang violence — and connect those issues to public policy. It also offers multimedia toolkits for next steps, like filming a public service announcement and starting petitions, and social media platforms where students post videos about their projects and get tips and feedback from students. a national network of CAP participants.

“We encourage students to put all of their project experience on video, [to document] every time they solicit a community or meet with a councillor,” said David De La Torre, CAP program manager. “Many of these problems have existed for decades. We want current students to hand over to next year’s students who can capitalize on their efforts.

Even if students do not directly engage in politics, simply engaging with each other on public issues requires solid preparation. According to Paula McAvoy, co-author of The Political Classroom and program director of the Center for Ethics and Education at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, “the main challenge facing teachers is finding current resources, presenting points of multiple and concurrent views, and are at the correct reading level.

One option is ProCon.org, an online compendium of capsule arguments for and against everything from school uniforms to minimum wage. Another online resource that has seen a spike in usage since the 2016 campaign is Newsela, which compiles both primary sources such as presidential speeches and news articles from publications such as Washington Post, American scientistand the Associated Press, then adjusts the reading level for grades 2 through 12.

Teachers also reinforce political and political discussions by directing students to the ISideWith.com online political quiz, where an algorithm analyzes their answers to questions on everything from legalizing marijuana to jury trials for terrorism suspects. , and spits out the percentage at which their views align with those of political candidates. (There are also surveys and candidate profiles on the site.)

While a slim majority of K-12 educators in February 2017 Education week said they had not avoided discussing controversial news in class this year, 42% said it was difficult to discuss national politics with students, and 28% said they specifically avoided the topic . Many teachers (44%, according to the survey) feel unprepared to lead discussions that can become emotional and heated, especially with an increase in reports of bullying and rude speech related to national politics and issues. emblematic of the campaign such as immigration. .

Hearing about these challenges prompted professors at the Harvard Graduate School of Education to launch a website called One and All, where scholars and teachers share strategies – via video, text and podcast – to foster empathy and respect among students and lead debates on controversial issues in the classroom. The site encourages teachers to contribute their own approaches via Facebook, Twitter and other social media networks.

Most K-12 students can’t vote, but talking about politics in the classroom is more than academic. While adults can and avoid discussing controversial topics with those who disagree (even online), kids at school are stuck with each other. And McAvoy thinks we need more political discussion in schools in a time of national division, not less.

“One thing that came out of our research is that students are fascinated that their peers have different opinions,” she said. “It opens them up to the idea that the world is complex, that not all people think like me, and that I still love those people.”

This story was produced by The Hechinger Reportan independent, non-profit news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education.

The future is a collaboration between Arizona State University, New Americaand Slate. Future Tense explores the ways emerging technologies affect society, politics and culture. To know more, Follow us on twitter and sign up for our weekly newsletter.


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