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Using Technology to Foster Civic Engagement

Note: This week, contributers to the Smarter Schools Project will be guest-blogging. Today, our guest-blogger is Erin Green, a fifth grade language arts and social studies teacher at the University of Texas Elementary School in Austin, Texas. 

In my first year teaching I have experienced more than a career's worth of inspiring moments. My fifth graders fill the classroom with boundless curiosity. That's why I am grateful to be starting my teaching career now, at a time when technology is bringing new opportunities to our students in ways not previously possible. Even in elementary school, students can now use technology to engage with the world around them.

Exposure to current events, politics, and breaking news are now just one click away.

My students are native to mobile devices and think Facebook is old news—to say they're sponges for everything new is an understatement. As they connect lessons in the classroom to the world around them, they're becoming lifelong learners who apply knowledge to make a positive impact.

I have the privilege of teaching these kids at a pivotal age when they're beginning to form their own opinions about the issues that affect them. Not surprisingly, they are hungry to engage with society. As the presidential election cycle continues and these important discussions unfold in national media, my students jump to participate and confront issues they care about. This is where technology platforms can help me harness their passion to drive their learning.

We often use inquiry-based learning to identify trending topics that spark debate and discourse. We dig past the surface by asking questions like "What do you think caused that?" and "How did we get here?" Based on our discussions, I use a program called Newsela to assign reading and follow-up quizzes that are tailored to their specific ability levels on the topics and questions they are most interested in. This approach has increased engagement levels and led to higher reading comprehension.

In addition to improving reading, this use of technology is helping cultivate the next generation of politically active adults. Today, ten-year-olds have unprecedented access to information and it's right at their fingertips. The "most informed generation" has powerful potential and are ready to take the world by storm, but we have to give them the platform to do it. My fifth graders are outraged that they can't vote yet—they've even expressed an interest in getting a fake ID so they can show up at the polls.

To help students explore their interest in elections (while avoiding voter fraud), we use Students Vote 2016, a project with Newsela and Rock the Vote to encourage students to get informed about and cast a ballot in the 2016 presidential election. They can also watch election results come in, track polling data, and stay as engaged as their parents throughout the entire political process. They can also log onto platforms like Twitter and Instagram to explore opinions and different points of view, a valuable learning experience that drives great conversations in the classroom.

Deeply engaged students grow into active citizens. Technology allows them to feel included in meaningful conversations. Whether it's understanding and discussing the election news or addressing persistent social issues, students need a platform to meaningfully share their voice. The more students feel enfranchised, the more we can look forward to an active voting population for the future.

--Erin Green

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