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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