A few months ago I floated the idea to my Year 7/8 class making a submission to the Inquiry into 21st century learning environments and digital literacy being run by the New Zealand parliament’s education and science select committee.*
The project seemed like a great way to give my students an insight into how laws and policies are developed in New Zealand with the added bonus that the children would be able to give the committee some expert advice on digital learning from a perspective often absent from educational policy-making; that of the student.
The class banded together to make a video submission on the topic which I posted to the class blog. As I was about to submit their project, I asked my class if they would be interested in making a verbal submission. They were excited about the idea so I let the committee know the students wanted to appear. The project then got put on the back burner for a few months while we waited to hear if and when the students would be able to speak to the committee.
At the start of this term I received an email inviting my class to speak at parliament in front of the committee. Like most submitters the class had 5 minutes in front of the committee to have their say and would be asked questions about their submission. Deep down mild panic set in. What on earth was I thinking to ask for a spot for my 11 and 12 year old students to present to Members of Parliament?
The simple answer is a deep belief in the power of participatory democracy. I didn’t want my students to just read about parliament and draw a flag of a fictional country, I wanted them to appreciate that each of us has not only a right but a duty to participate in our democracy. In short, I wanted them to learn how to make a difference.
In order to select their representatives, the students of my class drew up a series of selection criteria and invited interested candidates to give a speech on why they thought they would be a good representative. Nearly a third of the class made presentations. Their classmates gave grades on each candidate’s public speaking skills, the ability answer questions well, overall contribution to the video submission, manage their time effectively and cope under pressure.
As I watched the process unfold, I was amazed at how the students had decided to assess each other. While our education system frequently tests for content knowledge, my learners were more interested in the qualities of their representatives. Communicating, managing time, the students were assessing competencies rather than content. Yet why is it our educational system is more obsessed with content?
Once the class selected their representatives, work began in earnest. I began calling in people from my own learning network to help. Teachers at newly built schools generously gave up their time to talk learning spaces with the children while another classroom talked about their school’s 1:1 laptop programme. The student submitters were very fortunate to get a prominent Wellington lobbyist to sit with them for over half and hour giving them advice on appearing before a committee. The students then wrote their speeches, a media release and practised answering mock questions during our classroom literacy block.
A prominent Wellington blogger who connected the students and I with the lobbyist featured the project on his blog. What started as a small project in a suburban Wellington intermediate was starting to go mainstream. By Monday morning the project had been picked up by the Waikato Times and the students put together a media release to get broader coverage. The stakes were getting higher and the submitter’s first practice run of the presentation in front of the class did not go well.
Fortunately the group took on their classmates’ criticisms and by Wednesday morning were as ready as they were ever going to be. And so I took four 12 year old students and their camera person to parliament to make a submission in front of 10 members of the country’s elected representatives.
Talk about an authentic audience.
In a room of cameras, microphones and a large number of adults each child’s contribution was nothing short of spectacular. One of the family members who accompanied us to parliament remarked that the students were funny and articulate but they still acted like 12 year olds. Which is perhaps the best compliment they could give me as a teacher.
At times it is a fine line to be walked between authentic student inquiry and an adult taking over student learning. In short I wanted each student to bring their best selves to the committee and leave knowing that their perspectives were important. Because more than anything, the students’ submissions were quietly telling a story of how technology in education is changing our learners’ lives.
Whether it be managing a learning disability, coping with the tyranny of distance or even starting up business. The students wanted their representatives to know that schools should be fun places where kids want to go learn.
It is a testament to New Zealand democracy that a group of 12 year olds can rock up to their House of Representatives and be treated with respect and dignity. There are far too many places in the world where this isn’t the case. Our Members of Parliament sometimes get a bit of a bad reputation for mudslinging and bad behaviour but that day the committee members were attentive and asked perceptive questions of the students. The MPs showed my students democracy at its very best: inclusive, empathetic and empowering.
For me as an educator this experience has demonstrated the power of connections. It never ceases to amaze how generous New Zealanders both inside and outside the educational community are with their knowledge. A huge heartfelt thanks goes out to all the members of my Personal Learning Community who helped my class succeed in their project. It was fantastic to see family members at the committee supporting their children and the local Member of Parliament gave the students a tour of parliament to top off the day.
The project has been hard work yet the pay off in student learning have been immense.
What started out as a class project on cyber-citizenship has moved well beyond the confines of our classroom into other schools, national newspapers, radio and even onto national TV. The experience has made me wonder how can students use their education to benefit our society? Might there be other real-world problems that students can use their talents to help solve.
There are some downers from the experience.
Time limitations, both mine as a teacher and the committee’s, excluded the whole class from being involved in the final submission. As I mentioned week, last my class is waaaaaaaay behind on our must-dos. But that’s the thing with authentic learning, it’s messy, timelines often blur and I would be lying if I said it wasn’t unbelievably exhausting. However it was also one of the most of exciting experiences I’ve had in my life. I am sure the lessons from that day will leave an impact for many years to come and not just for the teacher.
As the students boarded the train out of the city one of them remarked, “That was fun. When can we make another submission?”
*For those readers overseas, a select committee is a committee made up of members of the New Zealand parliament who give advice on particular subjects of interest.