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Interview with Ilene and Michael Berson of KidCitizen

1. What is KidCitizen, and why did you start it? 

KidCitizen is a freely accessible cross-platform app that provides engaging game-based learning activities with primary sources for children in grades K-5. KidCitizen was created by Bert Snow, Ilene Berson and Michael Berson with Muzzy Lane Software in the fall of 2015 as a Congress, Civic Participation and Primary Sources Project, supported by a grant from the Library of Congress. Other partners on the KidCitizen project have provided important leadership and expertise. Kei Kawashima-Ginsberg and Peter Levine from the Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Education (CIRCLE) have provided guidance on embedding research-informed strategies to promote the civic and political engagement of young students with primary sources. Noted Historians Edward Ayers, University of Richmond, and Spencer Crew, George Mason University, have advised the team on issues related to content selection, historical accuracy, and public representations of history. Barbara Kirby and Sue Wise, Teaching with Primary Sources Eastern Region, provided valuable insights on primary source selection and teacher professional development and dissemination. Daryl Saunders, Hillsborough County Public Schools Supervisor of Elementary Social Studies, served on the project advisory board to guide content selection, developmental appropriateness of the design, and alignment with educational standards for the elementary grades.

Despite the inherent value of primary sources as an instructional resource for young learners, many early childhood and elementary level teachers have not had preparation or professional development to guide implementation. Using primary sources in the classroom actively engages students in interpreting the mystery of the past and exploring multiple representations of events. KidCitizen was designed to provide scaffolded instruction for historical inquiry. The focus of the app is to facilitate a developmentally appropriate process of careful looking, historical thinking, and evidence-informed analysis that are at the center of disciplinary literacy. By slowing down the act of looking, children discover new information and construct viewpoints as primary sources are mined. The KidCitizen app provides authentic, age appropriate interaction with primary source materials, based on research-informed practices and evidence-based pedagogy, engaging children in exploring civics and government concepts through historical sources, and connecting what they find with their daily lives. KidCitizen also gives teachers the power to customize episodes or create new ones with user-friendly tools and templates in the Muzzy Lane Author cloud platform. Teachers may add their own primary-source photos, set up their own rich game-based activities, and easily share their episodes with students. The KidCitizen team is currently working on new episodes focusing on primary sources from the Library of Congress Rosa Parks and map collections, which will be available later this year. To explore KidCitizen with your students visit https://www.kidcitizen.net.

2. Why are primary sources so important to your work? 

The use of primary sources delineates social studies as an interpretive, evidence-based area of inquiry that requires multiliteracies to identify and interpret data from diverse sources. Using primary sources during inquiry-based learning empowers students to develop deep understanding of academic content and a portfolio of thinking strategies and skills that are essential for lifelong learning.

3. How do you envision primary sources and technology being used in the social studies classroom?

Digital archives have supported disciplined inquiry in the social studies by providing teachers and students with access to rich historical databases. Researchers have substantiated the benefits of leveraging these digitized primary sources to build historical thinking skills. With expanded access to valuable web-based collections like those available from the Library of Congress, primary sources may play an increasingly important role in inquiry in K-12 classrooms.

We envision that KidCitizen episodes will be introduced initially through whole class collaboration.  Following the inquiry children may engage with the app in small groups as part of a learning center. The episodes are designed as manageable, modular episodes that are playable in 10-20 minutes, a time that makes it easy for children to pick up and play frequently within the time limits of class instructional periods. Throughout the game, children receive explicit “hard” scaffolding to the basic steps for historical inquiry, allowing the player to quickly learn how to engage in the process of primary source analysis. The learning is incremental, and authentic interaction with a primary source is the center of the activity, drawing children into the images and other sources in fun, age appropriate ways.

With teacher modeling, the KidCitizen interactive episodes provide an instructional resource that fosters an especially important step in young children's discovery of information in primary sources. Making meaning from primary sources is a challenging task for young learners, and they often need help focusing on key details with a structured process of careful observation and inferencing. Digital archives allow teachers to create learning experiences that “zoom in” on key elements in an historical image. The interactive capabilities of the digital resources provide unique opportunities to facilitate students’ movement from the arbitrary "seeing" to the deliberate "looking." Students’ observations may lead to questions for further investigation and the use of strategies to seek answers.

4. Recently you were designated as an anchor partner of ISTE’S # DigCitCommit! What experience do you hope to deliver at that event?

In June 2019 ISTE asked KidCitizen to be anchor partner of ISTE’S #DigCitCommit – a new digital citizenship program preparing students to stay safe, solve problems, and become a force for good. KidCitizen was invited because of the way that our work helps young children develop foundational skills that are important to all kinds of digital citizenship. DigCitCommit will redefine digital citizenship by providing educators with a new set of competencies and updated resources, allowing for the sharing of research informed approaches, and by gaining commitments from educators to a deeper collective dedication to digital citizenship. Digital citizenship is a critical competency for the students of today and the leaders of tomorrow. The challenge for all educators is to develop instruction that is focused less on a list of don’ts and more on a proactive approach of do’s that challenge students to stay safe, solve problems, and become a force of positivity. Each day our lives become more intertwined with the digital devices, appliances, and tools around us, yet despite this dizzying pace of change, too often, educators are teaching an outdated form of digital citizenship that falls short of helping students gain the key competencies they need to discern fact from fiction, respectfully listen and debate, and use technology to champion the change they want to see in the world. We believe that this work needs to start with young children, developing the foundational skills that underlie becoming a positive contributing citizen of the world, as well as learning skills to be inclusive, informed, engaged, balanced, and safe digital citizens. KidCitizen will contribute through our work and research, enabling teachers to build young children’s skills in exploring and understanding primary sources (crucial skills for navigating their digital world), as well as their understanding of the broader elements of citizenship in their communities. Snap a Photo, Agent of Change is a KidCitizen episode you can use right now to explore sourcing with young learners: Who are the authors that created a primary source, their point of view, and intentions. Other anchor organizations in DigCitCommit include KQED, Common Sense Media, the Los Angeles Unified School District, Facebook Education, the National Writing Project, Team4Tech, Google, the Media Education Lab, Everfi, Newsela, the National Constitution Center, Wiki Education, Caroline County Schools (Maryland), and the National Institute for Civil Discourse. You can learn more about #DigCitCommit (and get involved!) at https://digcitcommit.org

5. What have you enjoyed most about being an NCSS member for almost 30 years?

The National Council for the Social Studies has been such an important part of our lives since we entered the teaching profession. Attending the annual conference and the CUFA meeting has been a great way for us to connect with colleagues and elevate our own teaching and learning. We especially value the collaborative and supportive community of educators who have provided innovative ideas and resources to enhance our practice as well as constructive feedback for reflection and growth.

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