By Rob Thacher, Middle School Teacher
I teach grade 7 history, according to our school’s staffing documentation, but I prefer to consider myself a teacher of social studies to your middle school “tweeners” – caught in the difficult interstitial moment of growth between 6th grade freshness and 8th grade responsibilities. To me, “social studies” aptly conveys the multiple threads that the subject demands in its teaching. It is my job not only to provide historical data – events, outcomes, causes, dates – but also to add layers to students’ geographic understanding of the world; to cultivate their familiarity with our civic institutions and fundamental economic principles; and to empower thoughtful reflection on the nature and reliability of information itself.
This last topic has become more and more weighty in recent years, even leaving aside our tumultuous past year or so of politically-inspired navel-gazing. When I started teaching at DCD in the fall of 2005, I was committed to making media literacy a fundamental area of study in my middle school classes, weaving units on how to read newspapers and critically evaluate news broadcasts into the grade 7 curriculum, and incorporating lessons on advertising into the 8th grade fall term examination of “the power of language.” While some of those topics remain in the curriculum, in the ensuing years a more fundamental approach to information literacy has become a cornerstone of grade 7 social studies at DCD, largely spurred by society’s growing reliance on cloud-based information storage and sharing platforms.
Put succinctly, it is a well-understood trope of the moment that information is the world’s most powerful asset. The gathering and subsequent control of data and content has been a paramount aim of the world’s most powerful tech companies, and for the most part the end result has been a vast improvement in efficiencies throughout our world and our lives – in the educational environment, for example, the tools provided by Google have enabled collaborative and generative work that is leaps and bounds beyond what would have been imaginable a generation ago. As I have said to at least twenty different parent groups on DCD’s Back-to-School nights over the years, the baseline challenge of history below the graduate level is no longer finding information; it is evaluating the provenance, the relevance, and the merit of the vast pool of information already at our fingertips.
With these gains, however, has come a new challenge. Or, to be more precise, an ancient challenge has returned to our doorstep and demands that forward-thinking educators meet it thoughtfully and deliberately. Our students – your children – are being raised in an environment where information is stored and accessed via technology that is controlled by others. In grade 5, for example, students might use Google Docs to produce a report on some aspect of ancient Egypt – gaining familiarity and expertise with an important social/educational/professional platform in doing so. But are these students considering where their work actually resides, and how they are able to access the content that they have created? Very few eleven-year-olds would think to ask these questions, especially those brought up in our current technological environment. But as full of marvel as Google’s tools are for the educational environment, the fact remains that no longer is that work in the “hands” of your child, or your child’s teacher; that work now resides in the “cloud” – or, rather, on a server farm owned and maintained by an outside entity. Our ability to access and retrieve our own content rests with a corporation, and relies on a complex set of networks maintained by powerful outside interests – and the current political tempest over net neutrality, regardless of one’s personal viewpoint on that issue, should remind us all that access may appear “free,” but if we have little or no say as individuals in how that access is maintained, that it cannot accurately be described that way.
This is not a particularly diabolic state of affairs, but it is one that must be continually recognized and named by teachers, and parents, and youth peers. It’s worth asking even the youngest students using cloud-based applications if they can find their own work if, say, the wifi is turned off. If not….then why not? Children should be raised to understand that information is a product, an asset, and that anything created belongs, at first flowering, to its creator. It is within our rights to share our creations, to transfer ownership or access of those creations, but we should do so only with informed consent and with an educated awareness of where those creations reside.
As a teacher of social studies, I consider this topic an essential part of my job. I also happen to adore having conversations with grade 7 students not only about the relative benefits of primary vs. secondary sources, but also asking “where did that text message just go? I mean, really….where is it, and where has it been?” – and helping them understand how elegant is an equation that requires only the profound skill of literacy to produce and share information. We can write each other messages in the sand on the beach with only our minds and our fingers (or toes), and own them, share them, destroy them as we wish. We can also interpolate technology into the equation when it benefits us – but we should always be aware of what that means and that we are choosing to do so with a full understanding of where our content lives, and what is required for us to get to it.