Learning Global Citizenship through UN Sustainable Development Goals

Jiwon Kim and Christine Grabowski
Monmouth University

We live in one world. What we do affects others, and what others do affects us, now more than ever. To recognize that we are all members of a world community and that we all have responsibilities to each other is not romantic rhetoric, but modern economic and social reality (McNulty, Davies, and Maddoux, 2010). If our neighborhoods and nations are both affecting and being affected by the world, then our political consciousness must be world-minded (Merryfield and Duty, 2008). A sense of global mindedness or global awareness must also be promoted in elementary school, but many educators still find it challenging. The purpose of this article is to explore how we engage elementary students in learning global issues and to examine how introducing United Nations Sustainable Development Goals to the elementary classroom helps young students develop their interest and understanding of current issues in the world and become active citizens.

Global Citizenship Education and the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals

Scholarship on globalization suggests that new forms of democratic citizenship and politics are emerging (Andreotti, 2011; Davies, 2006; Gaudelli, 2016; Myers, 2006; Oxley & Morris, 2010; Parker, 2011; Schattle, 2008), and this demands critical and active global citizenship education. As Myers (2006) indicates, however, “while a global perspective is often incorporated into the curriculum and courses, the concept of global citizenship, suggesting a commitment and responsibility to the global community based in human rights, is less coherent” (p. 389).  

Citizenship is a verb – learning about our nation and the world, thinking about dilemmas of equality and equity, and acting on issues of collective concern (Boyle-Base and Zevin, 2009). Therefore, Global citizenship relates to important concepts such as awareness, responsibility, participation, cross-cultural empathy, international mobility, and achievement (Schattle, 2008). From this perspective, global education should be global citizenship education. Understanding and concern for such issues should lead to action, and local, state, and global studies should be used as a “springboard for deliberation, problem-solving, and community action” (Boyle-Base, et al. 2011). Boyle-Base and Zevin (2009) propose a three-part framework of citizenship: Young citizens of the world (and their teachers) should be informed, reflective, and active. This model means (1) becoming informed (about ideas, events, and issues); (2) thinking it through (presenting fair and balanced views), and (3) taking action (teaching deliberation, decision-making, and civic action) (Boyle-Base, et al., 2011).

We adopted this model in order to engage elementary students in global issues, by introducing the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (UN SDGs) to an elementary classroom. The Model United Nations is well known with many students participating in this program, but few realize that the UN SDGs are designed to educate our society and transform the world.  The UN SDGs, officially known as ‘Transforming our World: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development’ is a set of 17 Global Goals around world issues. On September 2015, countries adopted the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development and its 17 Sustainable Development Goals. In 2016, the Paris Agreement on climate change entered into force, addressing the need to limit the rise of global temperatures. Governments, businesses, and civil society together with the United Nations, are mobilizing efforts to achieve the Sustainable Development Agenda by 2030. Universal, inclusive and indivisible, the agenda calls for action by all countries to improve the lives of people everywhere. Each goal has specific targets to be achieved. The 17 goals are as follows:

The UN and UNESCO explicitly support these goals and resources that are useful materials for global citizenship education. While global citizenship is geared towards older students, there are many ways that elementary school teachers can apply these goals and resources within their classroom. For example, the World’s Largest Lesson, which is a website created in partnership with UNICEF and UNESCO, introduces the Sustainable Development Goals to children and young people everywhere and unites them in action through various projects. If educators are planning an assembly or a lesson to introduce the Global Goals, there are a lot of resources listed on the website and educators can choose them based on the specific goal (http://worldslargestlesson.globalgoals.org/). These resources include training courses, activities, books, films, games, lesson plans for each grade level, decorations and posters, as well as support for students’ action and change project. Materials are available in English and nine other languages. Students can share their work online and help create a map of the world, for instance, that reflects why Goal 5, Gender Equality, is so relevant worldwide today.

Context

Mrs. G, an elementary school teacher leads a multi grade third and fourth grade class of sixteen students. This unique style of teaching embodies project-based learning with one to one Chromebooks for the students.  They are not seated at traditional desks; instead students are seated at whiteboard tables with rolling chairs for flexible collaboration and learning. Self-driven students who take initiative in their own learning, had become integral parts of how this exciting project about the UN SDGs had grown and developed. 

The UN SDGs lessons started out as requirement for the preservice teachers of Monmouth University that were presented in the third and fourth grade classroom. As the interest piqued in the classroom, Mrs. G decided to capitalize on students’ enthusiasm and design classroom activities to address the UN SDGs at their developmental level. The goal was for the students to become more globally aware about issues in the world, while honing their reading, writing, research, and presentation skills. This unit project addressed multiple NCSS standards and C3 Framework.

Table 1: Social Studies Standards Addressed in This Unit Project

Social Studies Standards
Addressed in This Unit Project
         NJCSS C3 Framework
1. CULTURE



2. PEOPLE, PLACES, AND
ENVIRONEMNTS




3. INDIVIDUAL DEVELOPMENT
AND IDENTITY



4. INDIVIDUALS, GROUPS, AND
INSTITUTIONS






5. POWER, AUTHORITY, AND
GOVERNANCE





6. PRODUCTION, DISTRIBUTION,
AND CONSUMPTION




7. GLOBAL CONNECTION





8. CIVIC IDEALS AND PRACTICES  
D1.2.3-5. Identify disciplinary
concepts and ideas associated with a compelling question that are
open to different interpretations.
D2.Civ.2.3-5. Explain how a
democracy relies on people’s
responsible participation, and
draw implications for how
individuals should participate.
D2.Civ.6.3-5. Describe ways in
which people benefit from and are challenged by working together,
including through government,
workplaces, voluntary
organizations, and families.
D2.Civ.7.3-5. Apply civic virtues and democratic principles in school
settings.
D2.Civ.10.3-5. Identify the beliefs, experiences, perspectives, and
values that underlie their own and others’ points of view about civic
issues.
D2.Soc.3.9-12. Identify how social context influences individuals.
D2.Soc.6.9-12. Identify the major components of culture.
D2.Soc.7.9-12. Cite examples of how culture influences the individuals
in it.
D2.Soc.13.9-12. Identify
characteristics of groups, as well as the effects groups have on
individuals and society, and the
effects of individuals and societies on groups.
D2.Soc.16.9-12. Interpret the effects of inequality on groups and
individuals.
D2.Soc.18.9-12. Propose and
evaluate alternative responses to
inequality.
D4.3.3-5. Present a summary of
arguments and explanations to
others outside the classroom using print and oral technologies
(e.g., posters, essays, letters,
debates, speeches, and reports) and digital technologies (e.g., Internet, social media, and digital documentary)
D4.6.3-5. Draw on disciplinary
concepts to explain the challenges people have faced and
opportunities they have created, in addressing local, regional, and
global problems at various times
and places.
D4.7.3-5.Explain different strategies and approaches students and others could take in working alone and
together to address local, regional, and global problems, and predict
possible results of their actions.
D4.8.3-5. Use a range of deliberative and democratic procedures to make decisions about and act on civic
problems in their classrooms and
schools.

This was accomplished through a multifaceted project that included learning about the UN Sustainable Development Goals through reading, research, presenting a goal, and sharing. Additionally, there was discussing information through a class blog, and leading and participating in service projects. This project continued in the successive school year due to the success and interest in the project.

Part I: Becoming Informed

Reading and Research

While introducing the UN Sustainable Development Goals, one challenge was to ensure that elementary students could understand these complex concepts. In the beginning, students were introduced to two brief videos that gave an overview of the UN Goals in terminology that was easier for them to understand. Next, each of the sixteen students was assigned one of the goals to research in depth. They were given a rubric with specific items that needed to be included in their presentation. The students were required to include: the name of the goal, the definition of the goal, why the goal is important, and three interesting facts.     

The next step was to research the goals to truly understand the meaning, decide why it would be an important goal for citizens to be aware of and potentially take action. The UN website offers articles, video clips, facts and a plethora of additional information about the goals, but can be difficult for elementary students at various reading levels. The paraprofessional and teacher engaged individual conferences for each student to ensure that there was an understanding of what the student was reading, as well as recommendations of particular parts of the site to focus on for their research. The seventeenth goal, which was not assigned to a student, was completed together as a group. Using the classroom SMART board, Mrs. G led the class in modeling how to find appropriate research, navigate the United Nations website, and make decisions about information that was pertinent to present on the visual document.  

To further develop their reading and research skills, Mrs. G used Newsela, a large database of current events articles that are written at specific Lexile levels. Articles that related to the UN Goals were assigned to the students. They decided which articles to read to assist in gaining more knowledge and understanding of their specific goal. This platform worked well, because it is tailored to the student’s independent reading level, which aids in comprehension of the material. Some students worked with partners to help mitigate difficulties in reading articles and participated in discussions together, in order to better understand the topic of study. Individual conferences with partners and the teacher or paraprofessional were essential in supporting the students in tackling very advanced concepts.  Goal 9- Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure was an especially challenging concept for a young elementary student and required a good deal of discussion with the teacher to ensure understanding of a complicated topic. 

Reading informational text in social studies is the perfect way to enhance learning. However, when the vocabulary and content was above level for many of the students involved in the project, the teacher and paraprofessional met individually to read with students to ensure comprehension of the literature regarding the goals on the UN website. This one on one time was helpful in making sure the elementary school students understood their goal, and were equipped with the knowledge to become experts and explain it to others.                      

Part II: Thinking It Through

Presenting, Sharing and Discussing Information about the Goals

Next the students created a visual product to communicate the required information about their goal using what they have learned through reading and researching their assigned goal. The students created posters in the first year when the project was implemented, and in the next year they used Google Slides to present information about the goal. The expectations on the rubric were the same for both the poster and the digital presentation.

Figure 2: Sample Article from Newsela Website- www.newsela.com 

Table 2: UN SDGs Google Slides Rubric

Please include the following on your slide:

  • Name of goal                                         
  • Definition of goal
  • Why important
  • 3 Interesting facts

UN SDGs Google Slides Rubric

  3 2 1
Name &
Definition
The correct
name and an
accurate
definition is
present
The name or
definition may
be correct
The name and
definition are
not correct
Why Important A clear and
accurate
explanation of why the goal is
important in the world
Attempts to
write an
explanation of why the goal is
important in the word.  May have some ideas that are correct
Does not include why it is
important or it
does not make
sense
3 Interesting
Facts
3 appropriate
facts about the
topic are
present
3 facts that are
not relevant or
just 2 facts are
present
Did not include three facts
Design of Slide The pictures
and design are
related to and
represent the
goal.  Is well
organized
The pictures
make an
attempt to
represent the
goal. Shows
some
organization
The design does not relate to the goal, is
disorganized

The students reflected upon their presentations and completed the rubric self-assessing their work. The expectation was to either draw or find photos that represented the theme of the goal. When making posters, the required information was verbally presented in a recording that eventually was combined with other students using the DoInk app. They used the green screen to record and uploaded the recordings to the app to create a video. The other option was to use a shared Google Slides presentation where each student created one slide to represent their goal and provided the required information. 

Figure 3: Examples of Posters


Figure 4: Examples of Google Slide Presentation

Each student took a turn presenting their visual poster or Google Slide to explain and teach the class about their specific goal. They utilized speaking and listening skills to effectively communicate the information that they researched and engaged in question and answers from their classmates. Mrs. G could also further assess their learning by observing how well they could answer questions about their assigned goal. 


Deliberation through Blog Session 

Next, the students participated in blog sessions to further discuss the goals, their thoughts and opinions.  The blog is an effective tool and another way of assessing the students’ critical thinking skills, knowledge of content, and how they communicate. Google Classroom has a feature to “Create a Question” that allows students to respond to each other. These questions were posed to the sessions:

  • List your goal and write an interesting fact that you learned about your goal.
  • Explain something that surprised you about the goals. Why did it surprise you?
  • What can you do to help achieve the UN goals? 

The explanation of something surprising from the students was enlightening in providing a student perspective at their developmental level. The following is a sample entry with responses:

Student “O”: 

1. My goal is Quality Education. One interesting fact about my goal is more than half of children that have not enrolled in school live in sub Saharan-Africa.

2. Something surprising I learned from this lesson is that, Goal 16 Peace, Justice, and Institutions is that people all over the world do not have the freedom of speech for their rights. I feel that is devastating to live under rules that are hardly even thought about just made a law. They live under circumstances that are very sad, and that is very careless of people.

3. To help these goals we need to supply things that are needed. Americans can provide books all over the world for Quality Education, We can provide vaccines to needed, we can give food and vitamins needed to people in need.

Student “C”:  Also, for every 100 boys enrolled in school in Sub-Saharan Africa, there’s only 74 girls!

Student “A”:  Where is Saharan-Africa? What is it?                       

Student “J”:  Who tells them that they can’t go to school and why don’t they?

Student “O”:  Saharan is basically all the countries of Africa except the three at the top.

Student “O”:  They can’t’ go to school because some people (dictators, presidents, kings or queens) think that school is a waste of time. They rather kids go and work the fields and harvest crops

Student “J”:  Thanks for the answer

Student “S”:  It is very sad that people don’t get to go to school, but at the same time it might be fun to not go to school for a couple of days but never going to school would be hard. But everybody needs education.

Student “C”:  It’s not fun. The reason they avoid school is to make the kids do work. And they have to work on the fields, harvesting, growing, and taking care of crops ALL DAY, until night!

Student “E”: How many school houses are in Africa?

Student “O”:  Would it really be fun not to be able to read, write, and say the right words in a sentence? What would you do if you couldn’t read or anything? Would you ask your mom to teach you? What if you don’t have a mom? Put yourself in other people’s shoes.

Student “C”:  It wouldn’t be fun at all not to be able to read or write. If we couldn’t read or write, we couldn’t blog now!

Reading the responses of the students allowed Mrs. G to capture a conversation that the students might have in a group discussion in the classroom. It was determined that Student “O” understood that students in Africa and other parts of the world do not have the same opportunity for education that children in the United States are afforded.  The student expressed empathy for children who cannot attend school, and Student “C” even responds stating that they would not be able to blog if they did not have an education.  When the students blogged, there was silence in the classroom because they were all actively engaged using the technology in a meaningful manner. Mrs. G expected the students to answer the three questions and then thoughtfully responded to at least five students in the class with comments and insight. She accessed all of this and could comment on Google Classroom to leave feedback for students.  The use of technology like Google Classroom allowed the class activity to become more student-focused. By assigning students different UN goals, the students were able to take ownership of their own topic and became the class expert who is accountable for discussion on the goal. This enabled the teachers to see the student’s ability to comprehend the UN goals as well as to apply that knowledge gained to form a discussion with their fellow peers. This deliberation process helped students think about higher-order thinking questions beyond immediately noticeable facts. Students sometimes left with some simplistic and self-oriented/US-centric views of the world. Therefore, it was important for Mrs. G. to capture a troubled conversation and follow up as a group discussion in the classroom.

Part III: Taking Action

Leading and Participating in Service Project

Each year of implementation of this project has led to the students taking action to address the UN SDGs. In the first year, the class was saddened and upset to see the prevalence of poverty and hunger in the world. Through a class discussion, they decided to take action and have a food drive to support a local food pantry. Mrs. G led a discussion on local organizations that helped the poor, and ultimately the students decided to support St. Vincent de Paul Pantry at a church that some students attend. They gathered information from the church bulletin, organized a collection based on the pantry’s needs, created flyers and made announcements daily to the school promoting the food drive and giving the school community facts about hunger and poverty. The students used Google Sheets to collect data and provided updates to the school community about the number of items collected. The young learners took ownership of the whole project and completed it to its final steps of packing the donations and sending thank you notes to the St. Vincent de Paul members for their service to the poor. The class felt proud of themselves for spearheading this project that would align with the UN SDGs.

In the following school year, the service project that the class decided to organize was related to recycling and saving the environment. The students collected plastic film to be sent to the Trex Company, which uses recycled materials to make composite lumber. Many schools compete against each other to recycle the most plastic film and Mrs. G’s multi grade class took a leadership role with this contest. The students created a Google Slides presentation, developed flyers to be sent home with students in the school, and visited all of the classes in the school to explain what can be recycled, where the collection bins were placed and all of the details about the project. They weighed and packaged the plastic, as well as recording the data for the competition. The students were proud of their contribution to the UN SDGs and helping the environment. 

Service projects such as these were a wonderful way for students to feel empowered as elementary students.  It started with one student stating in class, “People are hungry, we have to do something to help!” Through this experience, they realized that their small contribution to helping the poor and hungry, or recycling to help the environment were ways that they could join people all over the world to obtain the UN SDGs. They were able to recognize their power as citizens of a global community. It was important to reflect and determine if there was a lasting impression made by studying the UN Goals.

Results: Impact of the Project on the Students

Mrs. G polled her students with Google Forms at the end of the school year to assess the impact that this project had on the students. There were seven questions ranging from how important are the goals to written responses about how they can be global citizens. One student wrote, “The food drive helps the people that are starving and have no money so they get food that is donated from other people. Then they can have food to fill their stomachs.”  Another student commented, “Doing Trex made us global citizens because we helped by recycling. So the world won’t be filled with plastic. Also because we can reuse it.”  Some even commented about the Marker Recycling Program that was underway in the school, or about the garden at their school. They were applying the knowledge that they had gained from the project and analyzing how activities conducted by other organizations relate to the UN SDGs. 

By exposing the elementary students to the UN SDGs, they were given an awareness of the world around them, beyond their community, state, and country. While engaged in this project, most of the students were shocked to hear some of the statistics. Student “S” wrote in her blog post that some people in the world live on $1.25 a day and it elicited quite a discussion. One response from Student “G” was that “People in North Korea and most of Africa live a daily life of poverty.” The class discussion was facilitated by the teacher to assist in explaining different cultures, religions, governments and such in terms that were on the developmental level of the children, including censoring material that would not be appropriate for discussion at their age. Students were more interested and empathetic towards the issues that were associated with their age group children, such as not going to school, than other issues, like living with little money and resources. Also, their understanding of those problems and causes were sometimes limited. This confirms that the blog session is a good tool to promote students’ learning, to assess their understanding, and to inform teachers what they need for the next instruction.

These UN SDGs are global objectives that are being addressed by corporations, governments and even students.  By teaching the children as young as elementary school, they are being provided with information, facts and statistics that reach beyond “their world”.  One young lady wrote a very impactful statement, “We can make our world a better place to be by making these small donations and commitments, but in reality, that can make a lifetime difference.” Empowering young children to believe that they can have an impact will cultivate adults and forward thinking global citizens. 

Conclusion                                                       

The project can be easily adaptable for multiple grade levels to provide elementary school students a creative and interesting way to learn about global issues and give them a lens into other countries and ways of life. Any classroom with Internet access and devices to utilize Google Classroom or other online program such as Otus, Kiddom, or Edmoto can apply the principles of this multifaceted project.  

The three-part framework: (1) becoming informed (about ideas, events, issues); (2) thinking it through (presenting fair and balanced views); and (3) taking action (teaching deliberation, decision-making, and civic action) effectively engaged elementary students in learning global issues. The UN SDGs were a good source and tool in carrying out this model.

While there are few studies and practices of teaching the United Nations and global issues in elementary level, this classroom practice provides a good example of how it can be successfully done and build young learners’ global awareness and active citizenship. ELA, science, math, and the arts can be integrated in addition to Social Studies as well as the skills of reading, interpreting, and presenting can be taught in this unit project learning. Because it deals with subject matter that is of immediate interest and bridges school learning with life outside school, it is highly motivating to critically think and take action. It provides elementary school students with information that they have not been exposed to and helps them build a knowledge base for understanding current and future problems.

References 

Andreotti, V. O. (2011). (Towards) decoloniality and diversality in global citizenship education, Globalisation, Societies and Education, 9(3-4), 381-397.

Boyle-Base, M. & Zevin, J. (2009). Young citizens of the world: Teaching elementary social studies through civic engagement. New York, NY: Routledge.

Boyle-Base, M., Bernens-Kinkead, D., Coake, W., Loudermilk, L., Lukasik, D. & Podany, W. (2011). Citizenship as a verb teaching students to become informed, think it through, and take action, Social Studies and The Young Learner, 24(1), 5-9.

Davies, L. (2006). Global citizenship: Abstraction or framework for action?, Educational Review, 58(1), 5-25.

Gaudelli, W. (2016). Global citizenship education: Everyday transcendence, New York, NY: Routledge.

Mcnulty, C. P., Davies, M. & Maddoux, M. (2010). Living in the global village: Strategies for teaching mental flexibility, Social Studies and The Young Learner, 23(2), 21-24.

Merryfield, M. M. & Duty, L. (2008). Globalization. In J. Arthur, I. Davies, & C. Hahn (Eds.), The sage handbook of education for citizenship and democracy (pp. 80-91). Los Angeles, CA: Sage.

Myers, M. P. (2006). Rethinking the social studies curriculum in the context of globalization: Education for global citizenship in the U.S., Theory & Research in Social Education, 34(3), 370-394.

Oxley, L. & Morris, P. (2013). Global citizenship: A typology for distinguishing its multiple conceptions, British Journal of Educational Studies, 61(3), 301-325.

Parker, W.C. (2011). ‘International education’ in US public schools, Globalisation, Societies and Education, 9(3-4), 487-501.

Schattle, H.  (2008). The practices of global citizenship, Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers

Teaching and Learning Medievalism in Popular Culture as History Education

Mark Helmsing and Andrew Vardas-Doane
George Mason University, Fairfax VA

Although the period in human history we call the medieval period ended around the year 1500 CE, we are surrounded by medievalism in our lives today. For most history and social studies educators, a claim such as this does not make sense. We accept the end of the medieval period with the Renaissance, ushering in what we teach our students as the early modern period in our human history. Historians and educators position the medieval period, as a “middle” period used to demarcate Western history, occurs after the end of ancient history and before the period in which we currently live (Arnold, 2008). And yet, as we explain in this paper, medievalism—the icons, images, tropes, and representations of how humans think of that time period—permeates our lives today. Learning to understand medievalism in relation to the broadly defined medieval period and from the specific construct of the European Middle Ages enables our students to develop a sharper sense of periodization and significance within their broader historical thinking.

Because of the elision between fact and fiction, reality and fantasy, history and social studies educators should take seriously the need to point out medievalism with their students and strive to make more visible and explicit the historical inspiration for such representations. In the first half of this article we provide some ways of thinking about medievalism. In the second half of this article we take these aspects of historical thinking related to medievalism and examine how they work in a popular video game and film franchise, Assassin’s Creed, a form of medieval world building that is popular amongst adolescents and young adults (Gilbert, 2017; Hammar, 2017). Our aim with this article to encourage educators to consider some implications for history and social studies educators related to the intersections of popular culture and medievalism as history education.

Approaching Medievalism for Historical Thinking

To assume that the medieval is irrelevant or antiquated, or to discount how medievalism effects our contemporary thought and shapes so many images and ideas in popular culture, is to neglect the significance of properly understanding and accounting for historical periodization (Cole & Smith, 2010). One may think that historical periodization is cut-and-dry as a commonplace of historical thinking. Say “medieval” and we think of courtly love, knights in shining armor, kings and queens residing in large castles (often with moats and drawbridges). My (Author 1) thinking about medievalism as an issue worthy of considering in relation to historical thinking occurred in early 2017 when I spent a semester away from my university duties teaching 7th graders. The topic of the HBO television series Game of Thrones came up in conversation one day and a student remarked that he thought “it must have been awful living back then.” It took me a few seconds to realize that he was engaging in two aspects of historical thinking. First, he assumed that the time period in which the Game of Thrones world is set was a long time ago, ostensibly linking it to the history of the Middle Ages. Secondly, and more importantly (or pressingly, depending on how you look at it), the student was conflating the imaginary fantasy world of Game of Thrones—and entirely fictional world and text—with ‘actually existing’ medieval history from real life. When I pressed him on the matter he said that of course he knew the dragons and White Walkers were not real, but that he assumed what he saw on the television series was what life was like “back then, with all of the kings and stuff.” This conversation set me about to think about what it is we may need to be more explicit about in our curriculum and pedagogy to help students not only to separate fact from fiction, works of fantasy from works of history, but also to help our students be more perspicacious and attentive to when, how, and why aspects of medievalism appear to us throughout art, literature, music, film, theater, and popular culture at large. In this section we offer some reasons for why history and social studies educators should investigate (both professionally for their own historical thinking and with their students) aspects of medievalism and the medieval world.

Examples of Encountering Medievalism in Popular Culture

            First, we need to help our students see that we engage with medievalism when we consume media about actually existing persons and events from the medieval period, as in Kingdom of Heaven (2005), a feature film about the Crusades in the 12th century, or in Pippin (1972/2013), a Broadway musical about the eldest son of Charlemagne in the 8th and 9th centuries. Yet we also engage with medievalism when we consume media that is speculative fiction and fantasies using icons, images, tropes, and representations of the medieval world, as in Game of Thrones, a massively popular book and television series about feudal royal houses warring with each other, or in King Arthur: Legend of the Sword (2017), only the latest of several feature films inspired by the Arthurian legends of Camelot, the Round Table, and the Lady in the Lake.

            Secondly, we and our students engage with medievalism when we encounter phrases, concepts, and iconographies that remain embedded in Western thought long after the end of the medieval period. For example, when teaching about torture that occurred in the Abu Ghraib prison in Iraq or the Guantánamo Bay detention camp in Cuba, we may describe documented examples of torture as “medieval” in their barbarity, despite the fact that much of what we think of as medieval torture did not actually exist until the Tudor period that began with the end of medievalism in the 1500s (Matthews, 2015). To use another example, our notions of chivalry, courtship, and courtly love are concepts that took on distinctive forms as part of a complex code of rules and conduct in the medieval period (Emery & Utz, 2017). These concepts remain in our thought today, as evidenced by news headlines such as “Chivalry isn’t dead” (Fuller-Hall, 2018) and “Stanford professor puts desire in a medieval context” (Marian, 2013). Educators can select some medieval phrases, concepts, and iconographies for students to identify in our current social and political discourse, helping students map these concepts back to the actually existing historical medieval world. For example, in their edited volume Medievalism: Key Critical Terms, Emery and Utz (2017) survey the significance of terms such as feast, gothic, heresy, humor, love, purity, and troubadour, connecting how these concepts existed within the medieval world and how they have maintained their medieval legacy in our contemporary cultures. In investigating these and other concepts of the medieval, students are able to examine the continuity and change of the history of medieval thought in our world. In some cases, regrettably, medieval concepts, ideas, and iconography are taken up to promote repellant nationalist, racist, and supremacist beliefs, such as the adoption of the Templar Knights and runes with Norse warrior mythology and other medieval marks used to signify racial purity by white supremacists (Devega, 2017; Livingstone, 2017; Weill, 2018). Such uses and abuses should also be interrogated and critiqued in history and social studies education, ranging from how we describe something as violent or regressive as being “medieval” to invoking language and associations to the Crusades as Holy Wars with jihads and ISIS/ISIL.

            Thirdly, educators and students should realize we place ourselves within contemporary medieval worlds that we often visit in the present, such as medieval fairs and Renaissance fairs or “Ren Fests,” which are anachronistic for many reasons, least of which is that they visually blur and blend the High Middle Ages with Elizabethan England and the European Renaissance. I (Author 1) studied the history of the Middle Ages as a sixth-grade student in a project-based social studies unit where I and my fellow classmates created and hosted a “medieval faire” for the entire school (my contribution was learning to walk on stilts and recite ballads and folk poems). A popular choice for some high school history and/or British literature classes, Renaissance fairs allow visitors to dress in robes, boots, and bodices and converse with strolling troubadours and jolly court jesters. When I (Author 1) taught high school social studies and English courses, I chaperoned a number of field trips to such fairs, often cringing at what I perceived as historically inaccurate cross-periodizations of Elizabethan England, medieval France, and 17th century swashbuckling seafarers and pirates. Nonetheless, watching students marvel at medieval blacksmiths and singing troubadours may make up for the lack of precise periodization.

We also consume medievalism when we cheer on jousting knights while feasting on drumsticks and drinking frothy ales at one of the Medieval Times Dinner and TournamentÒ locations throughout Canada and the United States, notable for their scripted performance’s references to the medieval worlds of the Iberian Peninsula in the characters of King Don Carlos, Princes Catalina, and Lord Ulrich. These and other examples of medieval worldbuilding at public events and themed amusement parks offer ample opportunities for educators to have their students challenge the accuracy, veracity, and legibility of medieval representations in these spaces, calling upon students to think critically (and historically) about how such places and spaces evoke and ‘use’ medievalism.

             Finally, medievalism and fantasy as a genre for fiction and popular culture is fully entangled. The many dragons, elves, and giants in the fantasy franchise Dungeons & DragonsÒ have no existing evidence in historical fact, but the bards, monks, and paladins of the fantasy role-playing game are based on actually existing classes of people in the medieval period. Indeed, paladins, (with a name that derives from Palantine, a Latin word for servant) were high-ranking warriors in Charlemagne’s court (Freeman, 2017). The paladins did not, however, roll multi-sided dice when engaged in battle to the best of historians’ knowledge. Because representations of fire-breathing dragons often appear in literature and other mass media in landscapes occupied with castles, villages, dense forests, and feudal farms and fields. In the following section, we investigate the play of the medieval in one example: Assassin’s Creed.

Overview of Assassin’s Creed

With a global gaming market of $70.6 billion in 2012 to a soaring $121.7 in 2017, the market for games and gamers is climbing at an exponential rate. Projections for 2021 peak at over $180 billion dollars spent worldwide. Of the games produced and developed, many carry a medieval theme that draws millions of players each year. One game, Assassin’s Creed serves as an example of how our students may confront medievalism in their everyday lives. Operating as a medieval historical and science fiction twist on real-world events, Assassin’s Creed has sparked a franchise that as of September 2016 has sold over 100 million copies (Makuch, 2016). The latest of ten installments, Assassin’s Creed: Origins ranked as the eighth bestselling game of 2017. Therefore, based upon these numbers and our anecdotal experience of having middle and high school students express their fandom for the video games series and its film adaptation, we use it as an example of popular culture primed for some historical thinking about medievalism.

Plot Structure of Assassin’s Creed

            Released in 2007, the first Assassin’s Creed game features a character, Desmond Miles, who is kidnapped by Absergo Industries. This multinational corporate conglomerate forces Desmond to use a device called an animus to (re)live the memories of his ancestors through memories stored in his genes. He is thrown back in time to the twelfth century following the Third Crusade to Masyaf Castle (an actual medieval castle in present-day Syria) where he must live out the life of his ancestor who belongs to the Assassin Order. The plot revolves around a historical conflict between the Assassins and the Knights Templar, suggesting that students actively confront historical markers and significance about the Knights Templar, the Crusades, and Holy Wars in medieval Europe and what we now identify as the Middle East. In the video game, the goal of the Templars is to create world peace by subjugating the human race who they believe are incapable of ruling themselves without barbarism. The assassins fight against this stripping of free will and believe in the progression of new ideas and individuality. As a character in the game, the player progresses the storyline of his forefather, learning more about the history of the world and the conflict between the two factions (IGN, 2012).

As the player continues through the game, Desmond finds out Absergo Industries is the modern face of the Knights Templar who are attempting to have Desmond lead them to ancient objects of power called Pieces of Eden. These artifacts were created by a primeval race of Homo sapiens divinus, a highly advanced humanoid species. This race, termed the Isu, genetically modified the homo genus species in order to create a force of slave-labor. Using the Pieces of Eden, devices interacting with neurotransmitters in the minds of humans, they controlled humans until Adam and Eve escaped and began humanity as it is known today. The epic battle between the Templars and Assassin Order exists as a repercussion to the fall of the Isu and the eventual use of Pieces of Eden by humans against humans. The Templars, believing freedom leads to chaos, hope to use the artifacts to eliminate autonomy. The Assassins exist to prevent that dream from becoming a reality (Assassin’s Creed Wiki, 2018).

Problematizing the Knights Templar in Assassin’s Creed

Using the Assassin’s Creed plotline as a teaching tool for exploring medievalism encourages teachers and students to enact a critical media literacy with existing historical thinking skills and approaches. Throughout the gameplay, many deaths of actually existing historical figures are changed to assassinations to keep in with the themed narrative of the storyline. Acknowledging this plot device as an adaptation of history helps students identify historical errors, but also to be alert to when popular culture gets the history of the Middle Ages right and when it gets it wrong. Shifting students’ historical perspectives to view a real military order, the Knights Templar, portrayed as a power-hungry collection of world dominating fanatics can confuse and inspire conspiracy where no evidence is evident. The disbanding of the Knights Templars in 1312 at the behest of Pope Clement V marks the end of their historical timeline, despite, however, their continued presence in (questionable) usage amongst contemporary subgroups and populations as mentioned earlier in this article. This, unsurprisingly, takes on what we deem to be a concerningly problematic stance within the video game. The assassinations necessary to complete the game are made out to be necessary evils in order to protect the human race from the Templars. The historical record from the Middle Ages informs us that the real ‘assassins’ were a small Muslim Shiite sect, the Nizari Ismailis. Known as heretics by both Sunnis and Shiites, this group’s origin can be traced to immediately preceding the First Crusade during the crisis of the Fatamid Caliphate (Liebel, 2009).

Contextualizing History in Assassin’s Creed

Almost all the historical content in the movie is a complete fabrication. Claims that major players in history such as Alexander the Great, Napoleon Bonaparte, Mahatma Gandhi, and Genghis Khan used Pieces of Eden to further their agendas can leave players questioning their understanding of historical reality. There are, however, two accurate representations that can be used in the social studies classroom to help further students’ understanding of medieval times and see medievalism in action.

First, as mentioned previously, students can learn about the real Masyaf Castle. This castle exists in partial ruin and is in modern day Syria near the Mediterranean Sea. It served as a base of operations of sorts for a guild of assassins identified as the Nizari Ismailis during and following the Third Crusade (1189-1192 CE). The game’s developers worked tirelessly to make their depictions of main cities (Jerusalem, Acre, and Damascus) as accurate as possible. Ubisoft hired a team of historians to advise on their gameplay and narrativization to make sure the layout and worldbuilding appear historically suitable. Using the game as an exploration and inquiry tool would be an application of critical media literacy for exploring medievalism in popular culture.

Standing alone without an educator to intervene in offering some historical contextualization, Assassin’s Creed is, unsurprisingly, a weak classroom resource for history and social studies educators. As an example of medievalism for our students in the 21st century, it offers much to consider, deconstruct, and critique. We argue the game can be used as a springboard for students interested in history resulting from their engagement in the game’s fictitious portrayals of historical events through elements of historical fantasy and fiction. We urge educators to be cautious in discounting the game’s appeal to student, suggesting instead that educators become more alert to which aspects of medievalism appeal to our students and to find out how and why. Expanding upon this foundation and using the inaccurate storyline as a method for introducing historical accuracies could be exciting for students. With ten games set in time periods ranging from Ptolemaic Egypt to the American and French Revolutions to the Industrial Revolution and the Russian Revolution, a curriculum created around something akin to “The Truth Behind the Assassin’s Creed Histories” could be an engaging and productive avenue for educators. The curriculum would have the added benefit of exploring historically accurate renditions of cities such as London, Venice, Florence, Alexandria, Memphis, Jerusalem, Spain, Istanbul, and Paris.

In closing, we offer a final thought from medievalist Jeffrey Jerome Cohen. The idea of the medieval and its immortal memorialization and representation across our cultural, political, and experiential encounters in everyday life can cultivate in students the idea that the medieval is “alluringly strange” and also “discomfortingly familiar” (Cohen, 2000, p. 3). It is something we hope will keep our students’ interests in the past alive.

References

Arnold, J.H. (2008). What is medieval history? Cambridge, MA: Polity Press.

Assassin’s Creed Wiki. (2018). Retrieved from http://assassinscreed.wikia.com/wiki/Assassin%27s_Creed_Wiki

Cohen, J.J. (Ed.) (2000). The postcolonial Middle Ages. New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan.

Cole, A. & Smith, D.V. (Eds.) (2010). The legitimacy of the Middle Ages: On the unwritten history of theory. Durham, NC: Duke University Press.

Devega, C. (2017, December 1). Alt-right catches knight fever—but medieval scholars strike back. Salon. Online.

Emery, E. & Utz, R. (2017). Medievalism: Key critical terms. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer.

Freeman, E. (2017). Charles the Great, or just plain Charles: Was Charlemagne a great medieval leader? Agora, 52(1), 10-19.

Fuller-Hall, S. (2018, February 13). Chivalry isn’t dead. The Sundial. Online.

Gilbert, L. (2017). “The past is your playground”: The challenges and possibilities of Assassin’s Creed: Syndicate for social education. Theory & Research in Social Education, 45(1), 145-155.

Hammar, E.L. (2017).  Counter-hegemonic commemorative play: Marginalized pasts and the politics of memory in the digital game Assassin’s Creed: Freedom Cry. Rethinking History, 21(3), 372-395.

IGN. (2012, October 26). Assassin’s Creed in 5 minutes [Video file]. Retrieved from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Rnfg1rDmNIw

Kain, E. (2018, January 19). The best-selling video games of 2017. Retrieved from https://www.forbes.com/sites/erikkain/2018/01/19/the-best-selling-video-games-of-2017/#31d639366226

Kim, D. (2017, August 28). Teaching Medieval Studies in a time of white supremacy. In the Middle. Online.

Liebl, V. (2009). The caliphate. Middle Eastern Studies, 45(3), 373-391.

Livingstone, J. (2017, August 15). Racism, medievalism, and the white supremacists of Charlottesville. The New Republic. Online.

Makuch, E. (2016). Assassin’s Creed Franchise Reaches 100 Million Copies Sold. Retrieved from https://www.gamespot.com/articles/assassins-creed-franchise-reaches-100-million-copi/1100-6443544/

Marian, V. (2013, February 11). Stanford professor puts desire in a medieval context. The Stanford Report. Online.

Matthews, D. (2015). Medievalism: A critical history. Rochester, NY: D.S. Brewer.

Sapieha, C. (2015). How historians and artists crafted a ‘highly authentic impression’ of London for Assassin’s Creed Syndicate. Retrieved from https://business.financialpost.com/technology/gaming/how-historians-and-artists-crafted-a-highly-authentic-impression-of-london-for-assassins-creed-syndicate Weill, K. (2018, July 27). The alt-right is taking over Renaissance fairs. Daily Beast. Online.


Pushing the Boundaries of Elementary Social Studies Education: Teaching Young Children about Borders and Freedom

Greer Burroughs, Marissa Bellino, Morgan Johnston, Catarina Ribeira, Marci Chanin, Briana Cash, and Ellen Cahill 
The College of New Jersey, Ewing NJ
Bradford School, Montclair NJ
Edison Township School District, Edison NJ

The topic of immigration, who has a right to come to this country and who has a right to stay, has been at the heart of heated and emotional debates across the United States. In the summer of 2018 images and stories of children separated from their families at the southern border filled news and social media outlets. At the same time, the murder of a 20-year old woman in Iowa by an undocumented immigrant, led to calls for tighter border controls and for the governor of the state to proclaim that she was, “angry that a broken immigration system allowed a predator like this to live in our community,” (Klein & Smith, 2018). In recent years the nation has witnessed a series of executive orders to limit immigration from many majority Muslim nations, cuts to the numbers of refugees the U.S. will accept, a series of court challenges to these policies, increased arrests by ICE (Bialik, 2018) and outrage and protests from supporters on all sides of these issues. It is within this context that young children across the U.S. are developing a sense of what it means to be an “American”. A primary purpose of public education is to prepare individuals to be responsible citizens in this pluralistic, democratic nation, therefore schools should not shy away from addressing these issues.

Discussing controversial issues may seem daunting, or even out of place in elementary school. However, the National Council of Social Studies (NCSS) theme of Power, Authority and Governance, calls on educators to teach children about the functions of government, legitimate use of political power, how individual rights are protected and the conflicts that may arise when advancing fundamental principles and values in a constitutional democracy. The standards state that “through the study of the dynamic relationships between individual rights and responsibilities, the needs of social groups, and concepts of a just society, learners become more effective problem-solvers and decision-makers when addressing the persistent issues and social problems encountered in public life” (National Council for the Social Studies, 2010). Despite this charge, many elementary school educators avoid topics that can be deemed too political or upsetting to younger audiences (Zimmerman & Robertson, 2017). This stance turns a blind eye to the reality that these events touch the lives of children in many ways. Some children have experienced separation from family members or have fears members of their family or community will face deportation. Many children are exposed to unsettling images in the media or hear discussions among adults that may be laced with anger and fear. Avoiding controversial societal issues is, in part, to deny children’s awareness of their surroundings and can limit opportunities to help children make sense of difficult topics (Passe, 2008). Addressing these topics can be a vehicle to teach valuable concepts and skills of democratic citizenship (Harwood & Hahn, 1990; Parker, 2006).

In this article, we share lessons designed and implemented by a team of educators to address forced migration, asylum seeking, national borders and concepts of power and freedom with children in grades 2-4. Through the collaborative work, members of the team experienced shifts in their understandings of what should and ultimately could be taught to young learners. This evolutionary process, the lessons and what was learned from teaching the lessons to young learners, will be shared.

Where We Started

The team is comprised of three practicing teachers, two preservice teachers, and two education professors. The impetus for the project was a service learning trip most members of the team took to Lesvos, Greece in the summer of 2017. The island has been at the center of a migration crisis with millions of people fleeing war, human rights violations and economic hardships in their homelands. During the height of the crisis in November 2015, the United Nations Human Rights Commission reported that 379,000 individuals had already arrived on the island and an estimated 3,300 more were arriving each day, (UNHRC, November 2015). Along with the human toll of accommodating a massive influx of people, huge amounts of debris in the form of rubber dinghies, wrecked boats, personal items, plastic bottles and an estimated 600,000 life jackets washed-up or were left on the shores of the island. Organizations and individuals around the world responded by providing aid.

The goals of the trip were to study the interconnection between the ecological and social crises, while working with nonprofit organizations and people directly impacted. This involved learning with locals about environmentally sustainable practices, cleaning the beaches and providing aid for refugees. An additional goal was to advance education for sustainability by creating lessons for elementary children to teach about the impact of humans on the environment in the midst of a human and global crisis. Supporting the students in shifting their orientation towards a more social and eco justice orientation was an important objective of the entire experience.

Initially, the preservice teachers focused on the environmental side of the crisis and discussed possible lessons dealing with the negative impact of plastic on marine life, or the benefits of upcycling. One afternoon the group sorted clothing donations and prepared backpacks for children who had just arrived by boat on the island. That night one student noted in her journal that, “Getting adequate basics, clothes that fit, clean drinking water and food, was a reality for the refugees”. The team also interacted daily with volunteers who had been on the front lines of the crisis and heard first-hand accounts from people forced to flee their homelands. From these experiences, the human dimension became real. One journal entry captured this shift in perspective when the preservice teacher wrote “What makes a refugee? These people were just born in the wrong place, [it’s] all about the luck of where you are born…I am redefining human rights”. With this new perspective, what to teach about the crisis also began to shift away from just the environmental issues to the human story.

The Lessons

“Freedom is like a bird, a bird doesn’t get told what to do” 
- Second grader

In order to support the preservice teachers in the lesson plan part of the project, we invited in-service teachers as collaborators. In teams of two, lesson ideas were shared and refined. Drawing on their experience in Greece and the knowledge of the classroom teachers, the preservice teachers were able to work through some of their anxieties and conceptions of what young children could handle.  As one student expressed, “I don’t believe second graders can understand the concept of the refugee crisis.” The 2nd-grade teacher working with the student agreed and offered freedom as a concept that could be addressed and brought to the level of the children. From there the ideas came quickly and the two decided to begin the lesson with a children’s book. They choose the book Stepping Stones by Margriet Ruurs (2016). The book tells the story of a young girl and her family who are forced to leave their home due to civil war. The illustrations in the book show the family’s plight as they take only the belongings they can carry and flee on foot to find safety in Europe.

The second-grade team determined that once students understood the idea of being forced to leave one’s home, they wanted the children to relate borders and barriers to the concepts of freedom of movement.  They decided to use a simple simulation to help students connect to the idea. In both classes where this lesson was taught, the teachers divided the students into two groups and explained that the class was going to play a game. The in-service teacher brought her class outside and one group was told they could play on the playground for ten minutes, while the other would be required to stand in a small section of the blacktop. After ten minutes, the groups would switch. When the preservice teacher taught the lesson she began by asking the class to list classroom privileges they enjoyed and narrowed the list to two favorites; flexible seating choices and drawing on the whiteboard.  The preservice teacher then explained that one group could exercise these privileges for ten minutes while the other group needed to remain quietly in their seats.  In both classrooms, the idea that this was a game and that the groups would switch was repeatedly emphasized. After the lesson, the students were given opportunities to reflect on their experience and offer their own definitions of what freedom was.

During the activity, both teachers noted very strong reactions among the students. In a focus group, the second-grade teacher described her students as being, “distressed and outraged even though they knew they would get their turn [to play on the playground]”. In both classrooms students reflected on how they felt during the activity and the notion of fairness was applied to the experience by the students.  One child expressed dismay she had lost privileges even though she had been behaving well. This provided the teacher with the opportunity to explain that loss of freedom wasn’t related to one’s behavior and she reminded them how the family in the story didn’t do something bad to cause the loss of their home.

Another team designed a lesson involving a web-based, simulation activity in which students made choices for a woman escaping domestic violence in Nicaragua and seeking asylum in the United States. The simulation, The Walls We Don’t See (Public Radio International, 2017), follows multiple, true stories, of people leaving their homes as a result of violence, war, economic, or environmental degradation. Through the simulation, the students are asked to make decisions that impact the experience and ultimately granting or denial to the individual seeking asylum.

In preparation for the activity, students brainstormed a list of items they would take with them if they were forced to leave their homes. This prompted a discussion of how the children would feel if they were separated from their personal belongings, a favorite teddy bear or their favorite pair of shoes. In both a third and fourth grade class implementing this lesson, new vocabulary was introduced to students prior to the simulation. Students were encouraged to use the new vocabulary (ie. detention center, coyote, border control) in their discussions about the outcomes of the simulation. The students were highly engaged in the simulation activity and as a class, were very concerned with the outcomes of their choices for Maria (the woman in the simulation). After the simulation concluded, the children wrote letters to Maria sharing about a time when they also had to make a difficult decision.

What we learned

I think taking from the idea of freedom, that was so big and so complex, breaking it down and doing a simple activity where some kids were able to play and some didn’t,
Preservice teacher

Across all four classrooms, the children expressed common themes as a result of the lessons. Their ability to make connections between a global crisis and their lives was one big learning outcome. One child shared about his own family’s experience immigrating from Turkey and that he knew parts of his country were dangerous. Another boy shared about his father’s detainment when entering the U.S. from India. One fourth grader even informed the class that she knew many people were trying to gain entrance to the U.S. because she watched a TV show called, 90-Day Fiancé, where contestants seek to obtain visas by becoming engaged to a U.S. citizen.

In a fourth-grade classroom, the preservice teacher who went to Lesvos showed pictures of beach debris and refugee camps. When the image of a child’s shoe left behind on a beach came on the screen the students were stunned and asked, “This happened to children?” She described this as a moment when the student’s interest shifted and they could connect more to the stories. The in-service teachers were both able to make curricular connections to immigration, diversity, and culture and one had previously had a parent speak to the class about fleeing Cuba. This helped the children make connections between the woman’s story and the story of Maria from the simulation activity.

The students also made emotional connections with the refugees. One second grade student exclaimed “I felt like I was invisible, I kept thinking they couldn’t even see me!” Similarly, another child stated, “I felt like I wasn’t a part of the class anymore.” Making these connections helped the children develop empathy. One teacher asked the students based on what they experienced, would they do anything differently if the game was played again. Some of the students suggested they could help others who were denied freedom (i.e., couldn’t exercise class privileges), not feel so excluded by sitting next to them while drawing. In another instance, when a young boy learned that many of the refugees sought to build new lives in Germany, he explained that his mother often traveled there for work and asked if she could volunteer to help the refugees. Several third-grade students were so moved by the online simulation that during their recess they conceived of a plan for a hotel to house and aid refugees. After recess, they presented their teacher with a slide show outlining features the hotel would offer such as service in an individual’s home language to help them in their transition. These examples also demonstrate an emerging sense of civic responsibility, which is a primary goal of social studies education.

Teacher Reflections

I underestimated their intelligence and their ability to do something like this. I was nervous that they weren’t going to make connections to the story…. they took it much further than I anticipated. Preservice teacher

“If you’re telling the truth, not putting a spin on it, you’re okay. This is reality, I’m not telling them anything that isn’t true.” 2nd Grade Teacher

All of the teachers, both in-service and preservice, learned something from creating and teaching the lessons. One of the largest “ah-ha” moments for the preservice teachers was a better understanding of the capacity young learners have for engaging in a social justice-oriented dialogue. The preservice teachers struggled with trusting that young people would be able to actively participate and make connections to topics about freedom and immigration. By working alongside more veteran teachers, they recognized how significant these kinds of lessons are for children, and that to be a social justice educator, truth and discomfort may go hand in hand.

It also became clearer to all participants, how infrequently these kinds of dialogues occur in elementary classrooms. When discussing why this is the case, the reflections ranged from doubting the developmental capacity children have to engage in difficult discussions, to the time and curricular demands of teaching in the current high stakes, standardized testing school culture. Fear of reprisals by administrators and parents was also a common reason shared for why these topics aren’t taught more often. The veteran teachers were able to offer the preservice and novice teacher with models of teaching for social justice and inspiration. The idea that truth should always be taught became a significant theme for all of the teachers.

A final, more practical point was that opportunities to link global issues with an elementary school social studies curriculum do exist. Immigration is a common topic covered, as are colonization and civil rights. The veteran teachers described connections they helped the children make between the refugees fleeing the middle east and the Native Americans who were displaced by European colonists. By incorporating concepts of justice and human rights, the teachers are helping the children critically assess past and current policies and to begin to form their own beliefs on the kind of society they want to live in.

Conclusion

Teaching about issues of immigration and freedom are not topics that should remain invisible in our classrooms. The comments made by the children clearly illustrate that they have background knowledge of these issues, even negative aspects such as detainment and that not everyone who desires to come to the U.S. can. The children were also able to feel empathy for those who were denied freedom or faced difficult struggles. In the current political context, developing both the critical thinking skills to question the diverse contexts with which people migrate, as well as the empathy to connect to the experience of others, are valuable pursuits for teachers. Children can understand the ideas of justice and are capable of making personal connections to these topics. Concepts of freedom, security in one’s family, home and favorite belongings, are accessible to young audiences. The teachers experiences demonstrate there are opportunities in elementary social studies to push the boundaries of traditional topics and teach lessons that deal with important global and social issues.

References

Bialik, Kristen (2018) ICE arrests went up in 2017, with biggest increases in Florida, northern Texas, Oklahoma. FactTank. Retrieved from http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2018/02/08/ice-arrests-went-up-in-2017-with-biggest-increases-in-florida-northern-texas-oklahoma/

Harwood, A. M., & Hahn, C. L. (1990). Controversial Issues in the Classroom. ERIC Digest.

Klein, Ann & Smith, Mitch (Aug. 22, 2018) Killing of Mollie Tibbetts in Iowa Inflames Immigration Debate, The New York Times, retrieved from https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/22/us/mollie-tibbetts-cristhian-rivera.html

National Council for the Social Studies. (2010). National Curriculum Standards for Social Studies: A Framework For Teaching, Learning, and Assessment.

Parker, W. C. (2006). Talk Isn’t Cheap: Practicing Deliberation in School. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 19(1), 12-15.

Passe, J. (2008). A Counter-Intuitive Strategy: Reduce Student Stress by Teaching Current Events. Social Studies and the Young Learner, 20(3), 27-31.

Ruurs, M., Badr, N. A., Raheem, F. (2016). Stepping stones: a refugee family’s journey. Victoria, British Columbia: Orca Book Publishers.

Ser, K. K. K. (n.d.). The walls we don’t see. Retrieved October 31, 2018, from https://interactive.pri.org/2018/02/walls-we-dont-see/index.html

United Nations Human Rights Commission (November, 2015) Lesvos Island, Greece Factsheet,
retrieved from http://www.unhcr.org/en-us/protection/operations/5645ddbc6/greece-factsheet-lesvos-island.html

Zimmerman, J., & Robertson, E. (2017). The controversy over controversial issues. Phi Delta Kappan, 99(4), 8–14.

Learning in Three Dimensions: Avatars and Authentic Writing in the Social Studies

Julie A. Taylor, Danielle DeFauw, Glovetta Williams, and Matthew Hundley University of Michigan-Dearborn
Douglass Academy for Young Men, Detroit MI

Three-dimensional technologies are proliferating, yet their use in authentic writing and social studies education has not been explored fully.  The Smithsonian Digitization Office increasingly offers digital assets, including life masks and sculptures, to educators and students as downloads.  Visitors may view objects multi-dimensionally and in high resolution online.  In 2014, Barack Obama became the first United States president to sit for a 3D portrait.  He was scanned by imaging specialists from the Smithsonian and the University of Southern California (Fawcett, 2014).  Inspired by these developments, this action-research study examines the use of technologies to create realistic, 3D student avatars in writing projects.  Avatar is a Sanskrit word that means the physical embodiment of a deity (Ballin, Lawson, Lumkin, & Osborne, 2002; Graber & Graber, 2011).  In its most common usage today, the term refers to virtual representations of users of interfaces (Blais & Ippolito, 2006; Graber & Graber, 2011; Liao, 2008).  The graphical illustrations may be two- or three-dimensional (Berdic, Dragan, Mihic, & Anisic, 2017).

The theoretical framework of this study is rooted in deeper learning, a constructivist approach to teaching and learning in which the cultivation of transferable skills, critical thinking, and creativity are emphasized (Bellanca, 2015; Martinez & McGrath, 2014; Zhao, 2015).  Through deeper learning, students develop academic mindsets as they engage in relevant projects.  In this study, the authors’ research questions were a) would the creation of realistic avatars, based on 3D scans, increase levels of student interest?  If so, why?; b) How does three dimensionality enrich the learning experience?; c) Would students perceive the inclusion of personal avatars with writing assignments as enhancements to communication?  If so, why?; and d) What are students’ views of avatar technologies in the social studies?

 With its emphasis on the expression of students’ views of social and political issues and autobiographical writing, the project supported civics standards in the College, Career, and Civic (C3) Life Framework for Social Studies State Standards, namely on the application of civic virtues and democratic principles when working with others and the evaluation of social and political systems (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013).  Standards in history education were also addressed; students considered scanned, three-dimensional artifacts as historic evidence.  Additionally, the project addressed Common Core State Standards for English language arts (ELA).  Students were afforded opportunities to write, integrate visual literacy components, listen and speak collaboratively, and develop visual literacy skills using different media (National Governors Association Center for Best Practices & Council of Chief State School Officers, 2010).  Concerted efforts to connect social studies and ELA support secondary students’ instructional needs (Kern & Bean, 2018).

The School and the Students

            The students, who participated in this action-research project as part of an enrichment program, attended an all-male school in Detroit, Michigan.  With emphases on alternative and special education, the Title I, public school serves middle and high school students.  All 18 high school students, who participated in the IRB-approved study in 2018, were African American.  Each year since 2012, students have studied different social, historical, and cultural topics.  They have also explored emerging technologies. 

The Avatar Project

              Inspired by the creation of a 3D portrait of President Barack Obama by the Smithsonian’s Digitization Office, the authors acquired a 3D printer, and they invited the developer of a scanning app for the iPhone and the chief executive officer of TRNIO, Jan-Michael Tressler, to share his knowledge of 3D technologies at the school.  In preparation for a two-day workshop by Tressler, the students considered current applications of 3D technologies.  They also viewed and discussed the Smithsonian’s video, The President, in 3D, on the creation of Obama’s portrait.  

This project provided students an opportunity to develop digital literacies in an environment that fostered motivation (Kern & Bean, 2018).  Advancing students’ writing skills was a key objective; students created hybrid texts to narrate and inform through writing as well as 3D images (Bintz & Ciecierski, 2017).  Asked to imagine that their avatars would be displayed in a national museum, the students reflected on current social, political, and economic issues, and they considered what they wanted to tell the public.  On Google Slides or Google Sites, each student wrote an autobiographical statement to accompany his avatar in which he responded to the following questions: a) What is your first name?; b) How old are you?; c) In what grade are you?; d) What is your favorite subject in high school?; e) How do you spend your free time?; f) Of what are you the most proud?; g) Who has had the biggest influence on your life?  Why?; h) What current political, social, and/or economic issues concern you the most?  Explain; i) What issues in the local community concern you the most?; j) What does your future hold?; and k) What else would you like to tell people?

            During the workshop, Tressler engaged students in an exploration of 3D technologies in an interactive format.  He showed images of scanned objects and people as well as design features.  Tressler taught the students how to download and use the TRNIO scanning app.  With parental permission, they used iPhones to scan one another in order to generate avatars.  Each young student had the option of adding facial expressions.  To protect the students’ privacy, all files were deleted from the TRNIO server.  No avatars were published on the Internet. 

Tressler engaged in spontaneous discussions with students about the use of avatars in video games and films.  He spoke about developments in avatar technologies that are forthcoming.  In the near future, realistic avatars, generated rapidly with handheld devices, will speak and emote.  Users will choose appropriate environments for their avatars, including historic settings.  Students will engage in virtual travels in time and space.  

Figure 1:  Student (right) explored 3D technologies with Tressler (left).

The authors worked with student volunteers to demonstrate 3D printing by an Ultimaker II.  Because the digitization of the Lincoln Life Mask had inspired the staff at the Smithsonian to approach Obama about a 3D portrait, a STL file of the Lincoln Life Mask was downloaded and printed using PLA filament, which is nontoxic and biodegradable.  At the time of the project, the 3D file of Obama had not been released to the public. 

Research Methods

Action research is a participative, systematic approach to understanding the process of learning (Efron & Ravid, 2013; Mertler, 2014).  Because mixed-methods approaches to research offer insights into multi-faceted questions, they were adopted by the researchers (Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009).  Mixed methods strengthen inferences and cull diverse views (Creswell & Plano Clark, 2011; Teddlie & Tashakkori, 2009).  Jennifer Greene (2007) wrote, “…a mixed methods study seeks broader, deeper, and more comprehensive social understandings by using methods that tap into different facets or dimensions of the same complex phenomenon…results from the different methods serve to elaborate, enhance, deepen, and broaden the overall interpretations and inferences from the study” (p. 101).

            The researchers created an eight-item survey, with an embedded design, for distribution in hard copy upon completion of the project.  The survey included four Likert-scale items.  The students indicated the degree to which they agreed or disagreed with these statements: a) Creating a realistic avatar increased my interest; b) Including an avatar with my statement made the communication more powerful; c) I would like to use realistic avatars in my social studies classes; and d) Avatar technologies should be explored in schools.  After each item, the students were asked to explain their responses. 

The survey had two fixed-choice questions to assess students’ familiarity with video games and avatars: a) Do you play video games? and b) Before this project, had you ever seen avatars in video games or movies?  The students had the option of responding “yes” or “no.”  The final two items on the survey were open ended.  To gain understanding of the participants’ views of 3D-printed portraits and avatars, they were asked to write responses to these questions: What do you think about having 3D printed portraits of yourself and others in museums, homes, and other places? and What additional comments about avatars and/or 3D printing do you have?

Fifteen of the 18 (83.33%) students completed the optional and anonymous surveys.  For the calculation of percentages, the authors manually entered the data into the cloud-based site, Survey Monkey.  They prepared graphs with the graphing tool of the National Center for Education Statistics.  In addition to reading the students’ comments multiple times, the researchers repeatedly reviewed the students’ autobiographical statements. 

On avatar technologies, they conducted a semi-structured interview with Tressler.  This action-research project was noncommercial and autonomous; it was not sponsored by TRNIO. 

Findings

  The students recognized the impact of having strong likenesses with their written communication.  They had the option of adding some facial expressions to their avatars.  Over 86% of the students strongly agreed (60%) or agreed (26.67%) that including avatars with their statements had made the communication more powerful.  Two students (13.33%) disagreed.  The following comments were representative:

With 3D scanning, faithful and compelling portraits can be rendered.  The strongest finding in this study was that all students either strongly agreed (66.67%) or agreed (33.33%) that creating a realistic avatar had increased their interest.  As was the Smithsonian’s 3D Obama portrait, the students’ avatars were based on data.

  • I really think the avatar is cool because it’s a mixture of science and history.
  • Realistic avatars show how people feel.
  • The avatar increased my interest because my creative skills came out.
  • It made it more powerful because it was like I was actually there saying everything.
  •  (The avatar) added a lot of extra information.
  • People will think it’s true.
Figure 2.  Including an avatar with my statement made the communication more powerful.
Figure 3.  Avatar technologies should be explored in schools.

The majority of the students (73.33%) indicated that they would like to use realistic avatars in their social studies classes.  Sixty percent strongly agreed, 13.33% agreed, 20% were neutral, and 6.67% disagreed.  They commented on how avatars draw attention, bring things to life, and serve as strong visuals.  With the statement, “Avatar technologies should be explored in schools,” 93.33% strongly agreed (53.33%) or agreed (40%).  One student (6.67%) was neutral.  Students wrote the following comments:

  • It’s an interesting, fun way to learn.
  • It would make kids more involved and interested.
  • …kids would learn better.

 Media consumption by children and teens in the United States has been steadily increasing due to the ubiquity of mobile devices (Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, 2010; Katz, Felix, & Gubernick, 2014).  Over 93% of the students, who participated in this action-research study, indicated that they played video games.  Eighty percent had seen avatars in video games or movies before the project.  Self-reports by adolescents suggest that playing strategic video games may improve problem-solving skills (Adachi & Willoughby, 2013).  Virtual spaces are integral to the lives of teens and young adults today.  In the manifesto, We, the Web Kids, Polish writer, Piotr Czerski (2012), wrote, “The Internet to us is not something external to reality but a part of it: an invisible yet constantly present layer intertwined with the physical environment.  We do not use the Internet; we live on the Internet and along it” (para. 1).

The Smithsonian transferred Barack Obama’s portrait to the National Portrait Gallery, where it was placed on display.  On the survey, the students wrote about the prospect of having printed, 3D portraits of themselves and others in museums, homes, and other places.  They expressed an interest in viewing such portraits, and they commented on the value of having a legacy.  When asked to share comments about the avatar project, students used adjectives such as “fun,” “cool,” “great,” “interesting,” “fantastic,” and “rich.”  One young man stated that he would be interested in the development of 3D technologies as a career.  During the project, other students conveyed similar goals verbally to the authors.   

On Google Slides and Google Sites, the students wrote autobiographical statements to accompany avatars.  They communicated concerns about social, economic, and political issues.  Global warming, pollution, and racism were the dominant issues.  “We create factories, cars, and plastics that pollute the earth.  I think that if we keep doing what we’re currently doing, we might make the earth unsafe for future generations,” stated a student.

Writing around the time of President Trump’s summit with Kim Jong-Un of North Korea, the students also expressed worry about the potential outbreak of war.  “The current political issue that scares me the most is the issue with us and North Korea,” wrote one student.  Of local community issues, crime and littering were primary.  “The issue in the local community that concerns me the most is the crime rate because it moves people out of the neighborhood, which brings down the population,” wrote one young man.  “I want the crime to go down in my city so that we don’t have to be worried…when we are outside,” stated another.

When asked about the future, the students described aspirations such as attending college, becoming entrepreneurs, entering skilled trades, and starting families.  In response to the prompt, “What else would you like to tell people?”, the majority of students offered forward-looking and encouraging messages.  “I would like to tell people to spread positivity and help us create a better community,” wrote one young man.  “What I want to tell people is that you should take your education seriously because it is the best way to become successful later in your life,” stated another.  “I would like to tell people to keep strong,” wrote a third.

Discussion

In video games and films and as icons on social media sites and blogs, avatars are pervasive.  Because they exist in artificial space, they challenge notions of embodiment (Leaver, 2012).  Self-avatars increase users’ sense of presence in virtual environments (Wolfendale, 2007).  Although they may intentionally alter phenotypic characteristics (Graber & Graber, 2011; Villani, Gatti, Triberti, Confalonieri, & Riva, 2016) when designing avatars, people often integrate aspects of their identities (Carruth & Hill, 2015).  Businesses, libraries, and universities have piloted programs in virtual worlds, such as Second Life, though the platform does not lend itself for use by K-12 students presently (Mon, 2012; Schultz, 2010).  With templates, users of Second Life customize avatars, cultivate social relationships, own land, and engage in business transactions (Schechtman, 2012).  With over 600,000 regular users, Second Life offers avatar-mediated communication (Koda, Ishida, Rehm, & André, 2009).  Often imaginative, avatars in Second Life may be viewed as a form of new media art (Liao, 2008). 

With facial expressions and gestures, empathic avatars, referred to as animated pedagogical agents, have been used in computer-aided learning programs to motivate students to continue working (Chen, Lee, Wang, Chao, Li, & Lee, 2012).  In affective computing or artificial emotional intelligence, computer scientists and cognitive psychologists study the recognition and simulation of emotions by computers and devices.  Interpretations of the facial expressions of avatars vary by culture (Koda, Ishida, Rehm, & André, 2009).  Affective computing has implications for education, neuroscience, medicine, and other fields (Calvo, D’Mello, Gratch, & Kappas, 2015; Powell, Garner, Tonks, & Lee, 2017). 

Three-dimensional models of people and artifacts in the collections of the Smithsonian, the National Gallery of Art, and other institutions advance historical knowledge.  Internationally, 3D imaging is being used to capture threatened objects and sites; the Institute for Digital Archaeology is currently collaborating with UNESCO.  Evaluating sources and using evidence is the critical third dimension of the inquiry arc in the social studies (National Council for the Social Studies, 2013).  Lévesque (2008), wrote, “The intellectual ability to collect, process, analyze, and cross-reference evidence is crucial to an informed citizenry” (p. 115).

Figure 4: A student selected facial expressions for his avatar.

What is unique about the TRNIO app is its nearly instantaneous generation of three-dimensional, realistic likenesses with handheld devices.  In a photogrammetric process, between 10 and 70 pictures of each subject are taken.  The pictures are then digitally meshed together.  Blender and SketchUp Make software can be used to model 3D images; both are user-friendly and free.  It should be noted that the TRNIO app is still under development.  Several scans had to be redone during the project.  In his interview, Tressler stated that TRNIO is currently developing a web-based platform for classroom use.

Because 3D scanning renders images of high fidelity, a 3D video file offers a record of the subject at a particular point in time.  The use of realistic avatars is in alignment with goals for the study of history as students consider people in time and space (Drake & Nelson, 2005).  In creating realistic avatars, the students, who participated in the project, left “traces” of themselves (Seixas & Morton, 2013, pp. 50-51).  When they critiqued real, contemporary issues, they engaged in democratic education (Beyer, 1996).  In their statements, the students took identificatory and analytical stances as they weighed the history of the present (Barton & Levstik, 2004).  As embodiments of people within virtual environments, avatars enhance expression.  Lifelike representations may increase the persuasiveness and effectiveness of communication (Schultz, 2010).  With high degrees of representational fidelity, the avatars afford authenticity, increase ways of knowing, and amplify individuals’ voices.  The majority of the students in the study felt that the inclusion of the avatars had made their statements more powerful.  The likenesses offered vitality, realism, and agency.  They enhanced performative value. 

Projects that respect students’ voices increase their interest in exploring content (Hidi & Renninger, 2006).  Writers use voice to speak to and connect emotionally with audiences (Fletcher, 2006).  Writers are motivated to write to authentic audiences, which may be themselves (Murray, 1982) or authentic or fictionalized readers (Ede & Lunsford, 1984; Ong, 1975; Steinbeck, 1975).  Expanding the audience beyond the classroom increases the authenticity of a task (Duke, Purcell-Gates, Hall, & Tower, 2006) and creates more interest (Hidi & Harackiewicz, 2000).  In the avatar project, students created authentic, hybrid texts as they communicated through writing and three-dimensional representations (Bintz & Ciecierski, 2017).  

Implications

 Inquiry design and technological exploration are pedagogically synergistic (Magana, 2017).  Students are motivated to use technology and to create media (Unrath & Mudd, 2011).  To support learning, openness to new literacies (Kern & Bean, 2018; Kist, 2012), including screen-based texts, is vital.  Reflecting on today’s youth, Unrath and Mudd (2011) stated, “[They] are increasingly multi-modal, alternatively literate and technologically driven.  Their world demands the ability to think critically, create and re-create, and combine and recombine multiple sources to produce something new” (p. 10).

Figure 5: Inspired by the project, a student conducted research on 3D printing.

As 3D technologies develop, avatars and 3D prints will combine representational fidelity with customization.  TRNIO is currently working with artists on garments and hairstyles for avatars.  Other software developers are designing sketch interfaces to enable users to draw personalized garments on avatars (Yu, Qin, Sun, & Wright, 2012).  In the future, students will be able to place their avatars in diverse, including historic, digital settings.  Such visual landscapes will offer “imaginative entry” into the past (Levstik & Barton, 2001, p. 78).  Potentially, avatars could be used to increase students’ telepresence in virtual, educational contexts. 

Conclusion

            The exploration of 3D technologies engages students in deeper learning while advancing educational objectives in the social studies and English language arts.  Three-dimensional images are records of people and objects at specific points in time.  The realism of scanned portraits increases agency and credibility.  Students perceive the inclusion of personal avatars with written statements as enhancements to communication.  Though still in the early stages of development, technologies for the creation of realistic avatars in classroom settings are promising.  This study suggests that 3D technologies have the potential to build upon and generate students’ interests and skills.

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