Come on Baby Light My Fire -- Teachers Combine 'Voices' to Ignite Change

We wonder why interest in politics or issues of our times don't seem to register with young people. For high school students, just stop and put yourself in their shoes and now consider how to make sense of the prime-time speeches.
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I am a news and political junkie. Passionate about the political process, I read and watch a broad cross-section of media to get more than one side to critical issues. I have a bone to pick when it comes to arguing with "facts" that are anything but factual. This was apparent when I turned on the Republican National Convention and was dismayed to see that some media folks -- while doing their news analysis -- seem to have given up on thinking of their viewers and readers as intelligent people. Now lest you think this is about making the RNC out to be "bad" while lauding the behavior of the Democratic campaign, that's not what I'm saying. I expect that the upcoming DNC convention will employ much of the same strategies. Leads me to ask: Where are the fact checkers?

We wonder why interest in politics or issues of our times don't seem to register with young people. For high school students, just stop and put yourself in their shoes and now consider how to make sense of the prime-time speeches. So it was music to my ears when I got to hear Joe Urschl's Ignite talk and his call to action. Joe is a teacher at Eagle Tech Academy in Columbia City, Indiana, who is doing his best to get students engaged in the election process and have access to a "balanced diet of media." Joe wants his students to care about politics and the role of the media as much as I do. His vision is to "produce the most sophisticated media consumers in America."

"What we've noticed," said Joe, "is that it's hard to galvanize students and make them feel as if they're part of the election process -- especially once they learn about the Electoral College. All the rhetoric turns them off."

Joe said, "In this project, students form their own political parties (#myparty12) and find their own common sets of beliefs. They create a working, functional political platform and figure out ways to make substantial contributions to public policy. The platform includes policy, analysis and proposals.

"Students can focus on any number of timely topics including immigration reform, education reform, the Electoral College, the war on drugs, foreign policy, etc.," added Joe. "The minimum requirement is that they create one policy proposal -- they can take an existing policy and propose a change; eradicate a current policy and create a new one or create a policy from scratch. They need to explain how they will fund and implement their policy and prove that the policy has real-world applications."

Joe teaches a combined speech, debate and current events course called "Integrated Contemporary Topics in Society." According to Joe, this is one of the first courses students take as freshmen. "The course targets literacy," explained Joe. "But it's also one way to immerse the students in media literacy and help them learn to distinguish between fact and opinion."

"We can motivate students to take an interest in the presidential election by enabling them to see how politics can be a vehicle for social change," explained Joe. "We want to challenge our students to lead so they're not simply 'following the leader' or echoing the sentiments of their parents or peers."

Often that takes a special voice to "spark the fire" that affects change.

As Joe explained, the students' project also acts as a catalyst for like-minded teachers to create similar initiatives at their high school. I was thrilled to learn that more than 37 schools in the New Tech Network have indicated interest in joining Joe and his students. The unifying goal among all the participating teachers is to help students find relevancy in the electoral process.

I volunteered for my first presidential campaign before I could vote. It was a calling of sorts, based on my sense of responsibility to honor our democracy. Joe's presentation moved me to tears. It was Joe's vision turned into action. Joe's voice reached out and resonated with other teachers who in turn took action and found students willing to engage.

From our work around the country we know students develop critical thinking skills when they learn in real, relevant and engaging ways. All subjects. All classes. And teaching via Project Based Learning (PBL) -- such as this election campaign project -- motivates students to take an interest in what they are studying.

I am inspired by what combining teacher and student voices makes possible. Henry Ford said, "Coming together is a beginning, keeping together is progress, working together is success." Joe and the 37 other teachers HAVE come together as one, and are continuing to work tirelessly for the sake of our students' success. I can't wait to watch #myparty12 unfold!

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